If you label somebody, will that label define who they are? There are two types of labels; the ones assigned to us, and the ones we give ourselves. Both can affect what we do, and how we think, and who we become.
What did you call me?
I have some patients who dread knowing they have a diagnosis, believing that the associated label will forever change how others think of them. Other times it’s the patient who upon hearing a label shifts their self-perception. I always try to reassure people; the labels we assign in therapy are meant to assist us in treat and supporting our patients. The determination that someone is mentally ill, is simply an acknowledgement that they are going through something so serious that it impairs their functioning. The label of “mental illness” is given as a way of legitimizing the pain and suffering these individuals go through. Whereas in the past they might have been written off as weak, crazy, or weird, the use of the term “illness” indicates that their conditions are to be treated with respect, care and the same attention any other illness would receive.
With regards to specific labels, diagnosing an individual with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety or ADHD is not about categorizing and marginalizing them. The labels themselves are associated with criteria (albeit sometimes flawed criteria) and are meant to provide some indication (but certainly not all) as to what the person is going through, what can be expected of their recovery and what issues may need attention. You can’t blame people for being worried, however, because despite our best efforts the truth is that labels can be harmful. Some people will use labels to judge, insult, or marginalize other. In many institutions, such as the military or aviation, having a diagnosis can mean losing your career. In those cases regardless of how you define yourself, a label given to you by someone else can directly influence how others regard and respond to you.
Labels aren’t just something others assign to us, sometimes, it is we who label ourselves. Imagine someone is diagnosed with having anxiety, and decides their diagnosis means they are damaged. That person has allowed an outside event to define an internal label. The fact that they suffer from anxiety is not the issue here, the problem is their own associations. By labeling themselves as damaged, they shift their perception, their actions and their reality. In effect, they have condemned themselves.
You might think that the solution is to forgo labels altogether. “Lets just stop judging one another,” you say. Good luck with that. Humans, by nature, want to make sense of the world around them, and we do so by ascribing qualities, values and labels to things. It helps us create order in what are complex systems, and allows our brains to conserve energy. It is a survival mechanism that is deeply rooted in our DNA and unlikely to change no matter how many of the P.C. movement people out there push for it.
[bctt tweet=”Humans, by nature, want to make sense of the world around them, and we do so by ascribing qualities, values & labels to things.” username=”lifenfocus”]
The more more useful solution is to manage your own labels. Ask yourself, what labels do you associate with yourself? I offer this exercise to you, the reader, take 10 minutes, grab a sheet a paper and answer this question: “Who am I?” You might start broadly: I am a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. I am a psychologist, a coach, a CrossFitter, a lover of nature, a sucker for feel good movies and songs…” If you take the time to go on with this exercise and you really listen to yourself things might get a bit more personal; relationships and roles will come out, but also qualities, and labels.
Do you see yourself as strong? Gullible? Damaged? Competent? Each one of these self-ascribed labels is not just descriptive, it carries with it implications about who you are, what you are capable of, and what you can expect from the world and your future. In order to be who you want to be you have to be able to perceive yourself as having those qualities. I’m not saying that just walking around calling yourself successful will make you the next J.K. Rowling, I am saying that if you don’t view yourself as successful you are much less likely to take actions that will lead to success.