A client of mine, let’s call him Gary, once said something that struck me as startlingly insightful. Gary had had a recurrence of his soon-to-be-fatal cancer. Yet he was informing almost none of his friends of his regrettable medical reality.
“As soon as I tell anyone that I have cancer, all they see when they are with me is CANCER. They no longer see me, Gary, with all my foibles and virtues. All they see is CANCER.”
Gary understood that words have the power to define what we see, potentially blocking us from seeing aspects that differ from the label.
Calling yourself an anxious person, for instance, can put you at risk for ignoring the many times that you feel relaxed, playful, and loving. Label your friend a narcissist and you risk losing sight of the generosity, creativity, and insightfulness that used to draw you toward him.
In addition to screening non-confirmatory data from our view, using a label heightens our awareness of confirmatory data. Label yourself an anxious person and you will be more likely to notice the many times that you feel a flutter of nervousness that in the past you might have ignored.
Here’s another subtle yet potent labeling danger. Calling yourself by a diagnostic label can increase the likelihood that you will continue to act in that manner. Saying that you are depressed increases the likelihood that you will stay home instead of socializing. The label depressed may be a way too that you give yourself permission to stay home and nibble, putting on pounds instead of pushing yourself to go out for your usual exercise regime.
Labeling yourself or others with the potent labels of psychological diagnostic categories also can convey a blanket negative feeling. Old-fashioned character slurs like selfish or lazy had that impact. Similarly, psychological character diagnostic labels like narcissistic convey distinctly pejorative connotations. To most people, narcissistic is a fancy word for selfish.
Once you’ve begun thinking of a friend with the negative label likenarcissistic, for instance, you become at risk for interpreting everything he or she does in a negative light. If a friend you have labeled narcissisticbrings you chicken soup when you’re ill, instead of appreciating the generous gesture you may think to yourself, “She’s just trying to make herself look good.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with labels occurs when pathologizing emotional reactions leads to pills.
Depression, for instance, is a negative emotional state that merits attention. Tallk therapies of various types including insight-oriented, cognitive-behavioral, energy psychology (EFT, TFT, Emotion Code),conflict-resolution visualizations and couple therapy all have strong track records of helping people alleviate depression’s dark cloud. They help by addressing the life problems provoking the negative emotional state.
Unfortunately though most people who are troubled by a depressed emotional state ask their physician rather than a psychotherapy professional what to do. To a man with a hammer, as the saying goes, the world’s a nail. Doctors give pills.
The downside of pills for emotions is their potentially detrimental side effects. Anti-anxietiy drugs can be addictive. Anti-depressants can cause mental cloudiness, dampen feelings of joy, increase appetite which leads to weight gain, decrease sexual interest which can cause marital difficulties, and lead to drug dependence.
Drug dependence means that if people try to stop taking the medicaiton, especially if they wean themselves too abrubtly, removal of the medication triggers a serious depressive episode. Not realizing that the culprit was the drug, not a lurking depression that the drug had been preventing, people then feel locked into to continuing to take the medicaiton forever. The drug companies benefit, but someone who now is mislabeled as having a lifelong underlying depression certainly does not.
The benefits of psychological diagnoses.
Diagnostic labels are helpful though when they lead to more empathic understanding and more effective responses.
Labeling a child ADHD, for instance, may give you more patience with his high energy. It also can enable you to give him a medication that may be life-changing. Now that he can focus and settle down to learn in school, he will be learning successfully, which is likely to enable him to build the foundations in knowledge and self-esteem on which he will be more likely to enjoy successes throughout his adult life. [note: One reader wrote to remind me that Ritalin can also be dangerous: see
Receiving an accurate diagnostic label for a spouse’s difficult behavior can prove similarly life-changing. In one of my current couples, for instance, the wife became increasingly verbally abusive to her husband, emotionally erratic, and certain that everyone and everything was out to get her. Her husband kept trying to keep his head above water and their children safe from his wife’s anger outbursts. Finally he gave up on trying to handle the situation himself and brought his wife for professional help.
The wife’s emergency room diagnosis was amphetamine addiction and drug-induced paranoid psychosis. A month of hospital care plus extensive therapy that included both spouses resulted from this accurate diagnosis, and proved life-saving for them all.
Accurately labeling yourself diagnostically can be helpful as well.
Labeling a jittery feeling state anxious can propel you to pause, identify the dilemma that is triggering the anxious feelings, and focus in on figuring out what to do about the problem.
One morning for instance my client Jan felt anxious. Jan used to get mad at herself for her nervousness. By clinically labeling her feeling anxiety, she was able to use her new knowledge of what to do in the face of specific emotions.
“The best antidote for anxiety,” Jan reminded herself, “is information.” She paused to track down the cause of the anxious feeling and realized that too many projects at work were competing simultaneously for her attention. Thinking further, Jan scheduled specific times for addressing some of the projects, removed others from her current day’s To Do list, and picked one as a primary foreground to get started on right away. Now Jan could move forward with a clear, relaxed and productive focus.
What can enable you to keep your uses of psychological terminology beneficial?
Here’s three principles that can help.
1.Use labels for emotional states as signs that point what road to take to alleviate the problem.
Anger signals that there’s something you want and are not getting or a harm that needs rectification. If you feel angry, find ways to be more effective, preferably by acting in a way that’s collaborative or clever rather than coercive.
Anxiety signifies that there’s a problem ahead that you need to address. Look at it squarely, gather information, and map a plan of action. The anxiety is likely to diminish.
Sadness means there’s been a loss. Acknowledge the loss, allow the sadness to well up like a wave and it’s likely afterwards to abate.
Depression means you experienced a loss of power. Identify the triggering moment. Visualize yourself as big. Then, from a subjective state of feeling bigger, figure out new options. If for instance you feel depressed over the way a friend has treated you, figure out a strategy that will enable you to handle that situation in a new way in the future.