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How Labels Both Help And Hurt Us.

Naming things is important as it’s what allows us to utilize a common language. When we name something others know what that thing is called. One of the first things new parents do when their precious little one arrives into the world is to give the baby a name. It announces to the world, this is our child and this is what he or she will be called.

However, when it comes to things like character traits or descriptions of another human being, we also have names, or labels for that. Sometimes we hear people label things or people, such as when a person proclaims “my neighbor is lazy - that’s why there’s junk in their yard.” Or we affix a label to our child: He is “unruly” or “horrible”- that is why he misbehaves.

I have had many clients in my practice who have been called lazy, unfocused, or told they can’t do anything right. The labels of “you’re a bad kid,” “stupid” or “incapable” may seem innocuous enough in the moment to those who speak these words, however to the receiver these labels have an accumulative affect and create a lifetime of cruel messaging and woundedness. The wounds that come from these labels often dictate the thinking, feeling, and actions of the child, who then grows into adulthood carrying the burden and shame of these messages with them.

Labels can help and labels can hurt.

How does hatred of certain people groups perpetuate? In part, labels. We ascribe certain qualities or characteristics in a global manner of entire people groups based on anything and everything from looks, physical traits, gender, skin color,and speech, rather than looking at each individual person for who THEY are and which names or labels actually fit for THAT SPECIFIC PERSON, once we get to know them.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream… That people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

We are a nation fixated on labels. And yes, names and labels can give us meaning and help us make sense of the world … until they don’t.

When labels are used carelessly, thoughtlessly, cruelly and inaccurately; both individuals and people groups get hurt.

I have someone close to me who recently was diagnosed with brain /mental health issues. Lots of labels. We had a good chat about getting caught up in the labels, or, choosing to use them in a beneficial way. Labels can help us understand more about how our brain works. Then we can seek out options for treatment. This is an example where with the right outlook, labels can be very useful.

It is easy however, to get caught up in the labels. What is more beneficial however is to help ourselves and our loved ones have a better functioning healthier brain. Then they can think, feel, act and cope in ways that serve to improve the quality of their life, health and relationships.

In this case, labels help identify important information, which then allows for seeking options to help ourselves be better.

However, in other instances, being careless with our words- quick to judge and quick to label- can cause much distress and chaos on a more broad societal level as well as in our own homes and workplaces.

When you attach judgement and labels as to why people do or do not do something you would like them to, you are telling yourself a story that may or may not be true. And, since our behavior towards people is reflective of our thoughts, you may be treating people in ways that are unkind.

And we all add to the muck of bias, racism, sexism and other forms of cruelty when we assign labels of groups to people we don’t even know based on things that are simply different from us that we aren’t familiar with, or untruths and biases that have been passed down generationally that we continue without thought.

The antidote to all this? Here’s a way to begin to shift yourself into being the person who can use names and labels wisely and apply them appropriately.

1. Stop and Pause before you think and speak. Is what you are about to say kind, accurate, necessary and truthful? Are you about to speak words that uplift, or words that teardown and destroy?

2. Focus on actual observable behavior – especially at home and work. If you have an issue with someone, discuss the specific behavior, why it was problematic, and what you would like that person to specifically do different. That way you can leave out the character assassination.

3. Listen more than you speak. What are people saying? What are your children saying? Think about your response first, rather than reacting with judgement or shaming comments. Listen to really take in the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others.

4. Ask more questions. This is true both at home, work, and in our community and beyond. When we ask more questions, we can garner more information leaving us less prone to assumptions. Rather than reacting with our usual way of thinking, speaking, and labeling others, we may now see a person, group or situation differently.

5. Be and stay curious. When we lose curiosity, we lose the ability to stay open minded. If we are not open minded we are more likely to judge and affix labels that may or may not be accurate.

6. If you blow it, course correct. If you start to pay attention and notice how often you actually ascribe labels and judgments upon others, then stop yourself. If the thought made its way out your mouth and into the ears of someone you love, then stop, apologize, and try to communicate your message again focusing on the specific issue so that you can be talking about what really matters without doing damage to the relationship.

Our words, and labels in particular matter because cruel words are like weapons to the receivers.

The scars they leave may not be directly visible to you, however they are there, and often drive behavior and choices that would otherwise not occur.

If you are someone who has been wounded by someone else’s judgment, cruel labels or unkind words, please seek professional help. Learning to heal and set boundaries is imperative to living a full healthy and satisfying life.

If you are in a relationship where someone is consistently “verbally vomiting” unkind or cruel words to you, this is abusive. The effects on your mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health are profound. Please seek help from a competent and caring mental health professional. At Live Well Kitsap we care about your wellbeing.

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