Why Labeling is Harmful

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We all do it – reduce ourselves or another person down to a label. We learn at an early age how to call someone we disagree with a name – “jerk,” “idiot,” “monster.” Eventually, we learn to aim it at ourselves when we make a mistake, and by the time we’re teenagers or adults, it is such a habit that we often don’t even think about it. But it is harmful in so many ways for so many reasons.

  1. It shuts down an opportunity for understanding or forgiveness. Defining someone by their most recent mistake sends the message that we’ve already made our mind up about them – that we aren’t interested in spending any time or energy hearing them out or trying to see things from their perspective.
  2. It effectively ends the conversation. I don’t know about you, but one of two things happens when someone calls me a name: I get defensive and angry or I dismiss them entirely and walk away. Either way, I’ve gotten derailed by the label and am no longer interested in dialogue or connection.
  3. It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that has ripple effects. This is especially dangerous when we are directing the name-calling at ourselves. “I’m so stupid!” “I am a total klutz.” Here’s the thing – the human brain LOVES a story with a beginning, middle, and end that has all the loose ends tied up. It’s like a puzzle, and when that final piece is tapped into place, our brains release dopamine (the feel-good chemical) as a reward. The scary thing is that our brains release this hormone whether or not the puzzle actually makes sense. It is just happy that the puzzle is complete. So when we make declarative statements like “I am a ________” or “She is such a __________,” we are rewarded. We have made sense of the world. Our brains can now relax and no longer activate the portions that engage in creativity, curiosity, or interest. We have made a decision and we are done. So in the case where we’ve told ourselves that this other person is a waste of space for whatever reasons, we have effectively given ourselves permission to justify ignoring them or their point of view because the puzzle is complete. If I’ve told myself that I suck at math, I no longer have to try, and even if I did, it would be half-hearted and without the portion of my brain that utilizes innovative thinking, which means it’s harder to understand which means I struggle with math which …. You can see the circular reinforcement that happens.

So now what?

Label the feeling, not the person.

When we express ourselves to someone in a way that tells them how their behavior affected us (“I feel really awful that you didn’t tell me the truth”) versus calling them a name (“You are such a liar”), we invite dialogue and conversation. That person might still feel a little defensive, but they aren’t boxed in so tightly as they would be if they heard that we’ve already made up our minds about them.

We are also affirming the relationship when we express our feelings. We let the other person know that the connection is in tact, and we can ask questions to try and understand their choices better. We may even find ourselves pleasantly surprised by their explanation. Often, we learn that we were making assumptions or didn’t know the whole story.

To be sure, this requires a lot more courage than simply calling someone a name does, but the rewards are a lot bigger, too. Especially when we implement this strategy with ourselves. If we can screw up and say, “I am so frustrated that I am having trouble with this task,” instead of “Jeez, I’m dumb!” we can give ourselves more space and creative energy to focus on it in a different way, and it sounds a lot nicer. And if there’s anyone we ought to practice being nicer to, it’s generally ourselves.

When Our Compassion Fails

I’m working with a group of high school students on compassion. Last week, I asked them all to think about a time when they struggled to feel compassion for someone else. Three students shared their stories with the group and right away, I noticed a pattern.

Each of them was talking about someone they were in relationship with – a close friend or family member.

Each of them highlighted a situation where this person they thought they could trust seemingly betrayed that trust.

When I pointed this out, there were a lot of nodding heads in the circle. We have all experienced a time like that – an instance where someone who loves us and who we think we can rely on does or says something that makes it hard for us to do anything but react in anger or despair.

So do we have to have compassion for that person? There was a robust discussion about whether we are obligated in some way to see their side, to understand where they are coming from.

The short answer is, yes, if you want to remain in relationship with that person. It is absolutely necessary to try to move past our anger or disappointment and express ourselves with compassion in order to maintain a connection.

The rest of the hour was spent trying to figure out how we do that, and we quickly realized that one of the most powerful tools we have is mindfulness. Because practicing self-awareness and naming our emotions helps us to create a space between anger and action, it offers us a way to step back and begin to explore whether we can have compassion instead.

We ran out of time before we could begin to explore whether there are situations that come up where having compassion for others could put us in a more vulnerable position, where we can be betrayed over and over again. The only way these excited students would agree to stop debating that point was when I promised that this week, we will spend our time talking about compassion and personal boundaries, and whether the two are incompatible. (spoiler alert: I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that in order to have any self-compassion, we need to have strong personal boundaries.)

To be sure, there are endless more conversations we can have about compassion, and I intend to have them. For now, I’m thrilled that the students are leading the way with their concerns and ideas and that they are feeling engaged and excited about the work we’re doing.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have ideas to share!

Got Well-Being?

We all want to be happy. But we can’t be happy all the time – no matter how much we wish we could. So what is the next best thing? Well-being. A state where, even if things are going wrong, we feel safe and secure and optimistic that life will improve and we’ll return to a better place.

Well-being means that we can accept our current circumstances with calm and grace, that we don’t freak out and convince ourselves that this will end in the worst possible way, that life will never be good again, that we are doomed.

So how do we achieve that? It varies from person to person, but there is some evidence that well-being is a neurological state, and since our brains are continually growing and changing, that means that we can influence our own well-being. So even if you haven’t been a particularly optimistic person in the past, you can affect your future ability to be well. The four neural circuits that have been shown to promote well-being are:

  1. Attention – People who have honed their skills at being present and paying attention to what they are doing in any given moment are primed for well-being. The skill associated with focus and intent (as opposed to multitasking or mindless, habit-driven acts) is key to developing a sense of contentment. [basic mindfulness meditation strengthens this neural circuit, as does simply paying close attention when you are doing every day things like eating or driving or walking]
  2. Outlook – Do you have the ability to see the things in your life that are positive right now? Do you spend time savoring the things that put a smile on your face or the times when things went right? [a gratitude practice can really build this ‘muscle’ in the brain because it helps you focus on the things we often take for granted]
  3. Generosity – Individuals who routinely think of and help others have a strong sense of well-being. Not only because doing good makes us feel good, but because it strengthens our sense of connection and community which is vitally important for a sense of happiness and contentment. [lovingkindness and compassion meditation have a significant impact on the brain centers associated with well-being]
  4. Resilience – There’s a real chicken-and-egg feel to this last one because the faster we recover from adversity, the more calm and relaxed we are, and the more content we are with our lives, the faster we recover from unexpected events. But we can only really develop resilience if we are truly paying attention to how we feel and we work through (as opposed to denying) our struggles. [mindfulness meditation can teach us how to handle challenging times by allowing us to sit with unpleasantness and discomfort without trying to change it or fight it]

If you need help with any of these areas, check out the links to specific meditations on our website.

Compassion Starts With You

You’re going to mess up.

You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again.

I promise.

And when you do, it’s entirely possible that you will have some choice phrases for yourself, you’ll maybe be angry that you didn’t see this coming, that you didn’t plan enough or anticipate the potholes in the road or think that there is some fundamental part of you that is simply wrong.

Look, making mistakes feels pretty awful sometimes. Especially if you do it in front of people or it happens after you’ve convinced everyone that this is the thing you’re good at. But beating yourself up mentally feels worse, and it shuts down the part of your brain that is responsible for learning from mistakes.

It’s true. In times of high emotion (especially shame and anger and frustration), the reptilian part of your brain takes over, the part whose job it is to protect you from harm. When that happens, the part of your brain that is more evolved takes a break. It literally just stops working and hangs out for a while, believing that your reptile brain has got this.

And that means the lesson you learn is that you’re not good enough.

Wouldn’t you rather move through that disappointment and get to the part where you switch the learning brain back on and get smarter?

I would. And here’s how I do it. When I screw up, I pull out this handy list of reminders to help me tread that painful path with self-compassion.

  1. Hey, some things are more complicated than they look! (Even, some days, walking. Yup)
  2. Seriously, was anyone born just knowing how to do this stuff? I mean, we all have to learn, right?
  3. The truth is, everyone fails more often than they succeed when they’re doing something important and worthwhile. We just don’t share those things on Facebook or talk about them at the holiday table with our extended family or put them on our resumes.
  4. My worth does not depend on my achievements. If it did, nobody would love puppies because literally all they’ve ever done is be born. But everyone loves puppies.
  5. I get to feel disappointed. I really wanted to do well at this and it sucks that I messed up.
  6. Just because I messed up this time, doesn’t mean I can’t do better next time. I mean, those baseball players who strike out often come back up to the plate to get on base or hit a home run.
  7. I’m gonna screw up again. If I can be nice to myself when I do, life is going to be a lot more pleasant.

Here’s the thing: even if you aren’t really feeling it when you start saying these things to yourself, chances are, with enough repetition, you’ll get to the point where you believe them. And, as an added bonus, when we are kind to ourselves, we generally end up being kinder to other people. Honestly, there’s research that shows it. So give yourself a break. Be nice. Spread the nice around and make sure to start with you.

Three Questions to Ask About Compassion

This is a follow up post to last week’s thoughts on selfishness and compassion.

Helping others makes us feel good, right? There is all sorts of research that shows that when we are compassionate and altruistic, we are happier. But can you remember a time when you reached out and helped someone else and resented it or felt worse afterward? It turns out that why we choose to be compassionate has a lot of impact on how compassion affects us.

We know that external motivation isn’t as effective at building long-term behavior patterns as internal motivation is. That is, if we help others because we think we should, we won’t feel as good as if we had done it because we truly wanted to.

Sometimes, we help others because we feel sorry for them, but it turns out that this doesn’t generally make us feel good, either. It makes us feel superior, but it doesn’t make us feel good.  Consider this quote from Pema Chodron:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals.

It is also common for individuals to self-identify as “helpers,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prove to be difficult over time. If we derive our self-worth from helping others, we can find it harder to accept help from others when we need it.

Engaging adolescents in conversations about compassion, rather than simply imploring them to act in ways we define as compassionate, can be an incredibly powerful tool as they begin to build habits of thought and action. The following three questions can spur some impactful discussions.

  1. Why do I choose to act compassionately? Does it depend on the circumstance and the people involved?
  2. What, if anything, do I get or hope to get out of acting compassionately? Does that depend on the situation?
  3. How do I feel when others act compassionately toward me?

The more mindful we all are about when and how and why we choose to be compassionate, the more we can begin to understand how to make our actions count in big ways. And if adolescents are taught that having personal boundaries is not incongruent with compassion, they can begin to develop a better sense of self-compassion as well.

Compassion and Selfishness

It is a common misperception that selfishness is the opposite of compassion; that if I am not actively helping someone in need, I ought to feel bad about it. And while it is certainly true that sometimes we fail to act compassionately because we are being selfish, that isn’t always the case.

Especially for people who tend to be very empathetic and rush to help others, and for those who are expected to offer assistance to most everyone all the time (in American culture, that is something often assigned to girls and women), we need to have a conversation about personal boundaries.

Many of us have found ourselves agreeing to something because we think we ought to, even when we know we don’t have the time, energy, or interest. Some of us repeat that pattern over and over again, pleasing others at the expense of ourselves, and one big problem with that is that if and when we decide to stop, people around us have gotten so used to our compliance that they get upset.

When we talk to our children about what it means to be compassionate, we have to include the idea of self-compassion and remind them that they have the right to make choices based on their own level of comfort (or discomfort) and their values, no matter what anyone else thinks. Often, we judge others for not being as kind as we think they should be, but without knowing why someone else is choosing to act in a certain way, we need to be careful to not brand them as selfish.

Encouraging students to define their own personal boundaries, especially when it comes to relationships with family and close friends, is a great way to empower them to be mindful about the way they treat themselves and others and a strong reminder that they are worthy of consideration, too.

Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries

  • acting against your values to please someone else
  • letting yourself be defined by others
  • sacrificing something for someone else and later resenting it
  • helping someone because you think you “should”
  • over-identifying with someone else’s struggle
  • feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings

Next Time: Three Questions to Ask Yourself if You’re Unsure Whether to Help Someone