Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which we generalize by taking one characteristic of a person, and applying it to the whole person. Because I failed a test, I am a failure. Because she is frequently late to work, she is irresponsible. If someone responded in a brusque way, he is a jerk. Rather than more objectively thinking about the behavior, when we engage in labeling, we globally describe the whole person. As a result, we view the entire person through the label, such as jerk, and filter out any information that doesn’t fit under the umbrella of the label. This results in the label feeling more apt a descriptor of the person, and we believe it more.
So what’s wrong with labeling? Well, as it is a cognitive distortion, it is necessarily distorted way of thinking about things. The person who spoke to us curtly, may not be “a jerk,” but instead could be in a hurry. Or they may be a very kind and generous person, who speaks directly and to the point. Making one broad assumption about someone based on one isolated data point, or just a few data points, is almost always inaccurate.
Labeling as a cognitive distortion, in addition causing inaccurate thinking, can fuel and maintain painful emotions. If you fail a test and come to the conclusion that this means you’re a failure, it will likely trigger feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, etc. Whereas recognizing that you merely failed a test would most probably result in more mild disappointment. Furthermore, if you believe the label, identifying as a failure, you won’t know what to do to solve the problem. Failing a test means you need to study more. Problem solved. Failing in life however… What do you do to solve that?
Labeling also causes problems when we apply it to others. If you label your husband as uncaring because he appears not to listen to you when you talk about your day, it can feel miserable. You’re married to an uncaring person. But if you consider the behavior as the problem rather than the person, it becomes easier to discuss with him and potentially solve. For instance, it may be that he needs time to unwind at the end of the day, or has difficulty concentrating in general.
When we notice ourselves engaging in the cognitive distortion of labeling, there is one simple solution: objectively describe the behavior we notice. That person is late to work. I failed the test. She spoke to me brusquely. You may find that fewer negative feelings are stirred by this more objective, more accurate language. Even better, problems that have felt unsolvable, or people who seem impossible, may become much more manageable.
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