Why Labeling is Harmful


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.