Labeling

by Monica Ross

When I got up this morning, I was thinking do I have it in me to write?  Sometimes, it's just about laying a few words down and it all seems to fall into place. Let's just keep going with the 10 unhelpful thinking styles that are the core of CBT. The next unhelpful thinking style is labeling. What I sometimes find in going through these unhelpful tendencies with people is that a person’s initial response is, “Oh well I don’t do that. “ Or sometimes I’ll get “I don’t do that one, but boy my sister she fits that one to a ‘T.’ ”

I think it’s true that some of us struggle with some of these thinking styles more than others, but it’s important to resist the defensive move of automatically denying that we ever engage in certain types of problematic thinking.

Labeling is one of the ones on the list where I feel like people, especially people who have experienced being labeled themselves, would initially resist the idea that they ever do such a thing to others. But one would be surprised.

For my liberal friends I sometimes hear labeling of others  that takes the tone of “oh my grandfather he’s a racist” or “my boss is a misogynist” or “my landlord is a xenophobe.”  In regards to our current president, I hear Trump is “mentally ill.” That folks is a form of labeling.

This isn’t a post about defending Trump or racists or misogynists or xenophobes by any means, but this is a post about putting people into categories that often have a negative bent.

With Trump it feels like the argument goes--no rational person would do or say some of things he does, all people who do or say irrational things are mentally ill, therefore Trump must be mentally ill.

The argument might be valid if I could accept the premise that all people who do or say irrational things are mentally ill, but that actually is not a true statement. Quite honestly that's offensive to the people I know with mental illness who are capable of making better choices than Trump. I’ll just leave that there for now, but okay, so we’ve all seen labeling and we can all recognize the practice of it.

Remember the post on overgeneralizing that I wrote and how I talked about the inclination we sometimes have to use words that are global and all encompassing? Labeling is a bit a like that only instead of describing situations we’re describing people.

It’s about taking someone’s behavior--poor political decisions being made in the Trump example above, or a lifestyle choice, or a choice in career, or any number of behavior choices and assigning a descriptor to it.

For the person who gets arrested--they’re obviously a criminal. For the person with multiple tats and piercings, they must be drug dealers. For the guy who wears pink he's probably gay.

With these words we define a clear line—we are in the “ingroup” and the other person is in the “outgroup.” What do we know about ingroups versus outgroups? We tend to favor our ingroup, as mentioned.

Outgroups often appear threatening. We tend to view our ingroups as diverse and if there is any homogeneity it has a positive tone.  With outgroups we perceive them to be homogenous on the whole, lacking in diversity, and the homogeneity we perceive takes on a negative tone.

But I digress, let's go back to labeling.  We also label when it comes to ourselves. “I’m such an idiot.” Or “Why couldn’t I have seen that that was going to happen, I’m so naive.” Or “If I wasn’t so incompetent I would never have made that mistake.”

Just like in labeling others when we label ourselves we’re calling attention to that part of ourselves that we find negative in some way. But these statements that we make about ourselves are really negative opinions and not facts.

They become negative core beliefs. Negative core beliefs is a term used all the time in CBT. A person might identify with the negative core belief for example that “I’m worthless” or “I’m weak” or “I can’t trust anyone.” These negative core beliefs that all of us at some point or another pick up often form in childhood.

But they influence our movement in the world and our interactions with others.  They are often statements that we were told about ourselves by others—labels that others placed on us that we then internalized.

Before the age of 7 the information that we process comes into our brains without much filtering or questioning of it. Instead of asking ourselves at that young age “What’s dad’s problem with telling me that I’m stupid all of the time? That’s obviously untrue” we sometimes instead incorporate the label, internalize it, and repeat it to ourselves in a reinforcing way.

The bottom line and crux of CBT is that how we think and what we believe affects how we feel and how we behave. As I said, these beliefs can become self-reinforcing. For example, let’s say that at a young age I’m repeatedly told by a caregiver that I’m worthless.

I absorb the statement. I come to believe it to be true about myself. I go out into the world and I make choices that fall in line with that belief. I invite people into my life who confirm the belief that I have about myself--that I am worthless. Maybe I marry someone who is emotionally abusive.

Thought/Belief: “I am worthless.”

Feeling: Intensely sad virtually all of the time

Behavior: Stay in the abusive relationship for as long as I hold onto the belief, the abuse I'm receiving affirms it

Let’s go back to the quote from Eckhart Tolle “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” See how that comes in to play in this example?

The source of the depression here is not the abusive relationship itself per se, though it certainly perpetuates it. The source of the unhappiness can be traced to the thoughts that lead up to putting oneself in an abusive situation in the first place.

Change a person’s thinking and you also change their way of feeling and behaving. Once the person shifts from “I am worthless” to “I have value” they are able to set better boundaries and they instead invite people into their lives that affirm the new belief and not the old.