Labeling is a form of negative over-generalization used for people. We take a single event, behavior, or characteristic and use a label to generalize it to the whole person. We can label ourselves, or others. This is also called global labeling or mislabeling. The problem with this kind of labeling is that the generalization, or exaggeration, makes the statement untrue. Because it doesn’t require any more evaluation on our part, though, it’s quick and easy to do. We then just believe the label and dismiss whatever other actions or events might not quite fit, leaving out a lot of positives in the process.
A stereotype is one form of global labeling typically used for groups of people. However, labeling even one person—either myself or someone else—can have harmful consequences. Labeling reinforces negativity and adds to any feeling of hopelessness or helplessness that we might have. For example, if I recognize that I failed at one thing, I can use that constructively to consider what I might do differently next time. But if I label myself “a complete failure”, it’s much harder to think of what I should do differently. A “complete failure” is talking about me as a person, not about an isolated event. How can I do myself over again?
Likewise, if my spouse seems dismissive when I describe a problem I’m having, is he or she “uncaring?” Wait a minute! Am I married to someone who doesn’t care about me? Or was my spouse distracted, tired, or not listening well for some other reason? Is the neighbor who said or did something that I found annoying “a jerk?” Or was I, more accurately, annoyed at something the neighbor said? If can limit my description to the event, there is probably still hope of having a positive, constructive relationship with the neighbor (not to mention my spouse).
Part of the problem with labeling is that we usually use emotionally loaded language. This often adds to our negative emotions and makes it more difficult to look at the situation objectively.
Children, especially in phases of black-and-white thinking, are good at applying labels. We term it name-calling. “You’re stupid!” The child may not have access to many intermediate labels between “smart” and “stupid”, nor the ability to separate a single action from the whole person. The parent may ask “what happened?” “What did Sam do?” to get a more detailed picture of the incident. The parent doesn’t usually conclude that Sam is “stupid” because their child used that label for Sam. Likewise, we can take ourselves with a grain of salt when we practice name-calling, and ask ourselves questions to get a more accurate perspective on a particular incident.
Limiting our descriptions to the specifics of events or behaviors and “leaving out labels” gives us more manageable options for ourselves and in our relationships with others.