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Labeling- Deficit or Asset?

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September 02, 2013 by Treina Aronson

Is the act of labeling a person beneficial or detrimental? In this post I explore how the answer depends upon whose doing the labeling.

Deficit: Labeling as a limited and totalized view of self when looking from the outside

Emerging in the 1990’s was the popularized phrase “think outside of the box”. While people were trying to find their way outside of the box, no one was jumping to get inside of the box. In personal terms, the “box” is a label. Labels were seen as a non-creative, self-limiting and damaging concept to a person’s uniqueness and individuality. Labels are the gateway to stereotyping, discrimination and stigma.

In psychology labeling takes several forms, most notably the label of a diagnosis and its associated symptoms.  A person may be given the diagnosis of “major depressive disorder” and is labeled “depressed”. The accompanying symptoms may be “withdrawn”, “isolative”, and/or “angry”.  The associated labels therefore become “anti-social”, “introverted”, and/or “short-tempered”.  Being seen within the confines of the label “depressed” offers only a narrow slice of the person, it ignores the particular context of a person’s life and the meaning the experience of depression holds for them. Yet because the label “depression” has been defined, looking through this particular lens of pathology can give us the false assumption of total knowledge about this person, ignoring the inherent complexity of human existence.  The person is nothing more and nothing less than “depressed”. Labels serve to ‘fill in the blanks’ and the accuracy is often questionable at best. As a therapist trained in phenomenology which attempts to look at the world and others without theoretical presuppositions (“to the things themselves”) labels such as ‘depressed’ which serve to generalize rather than explore nuances can impede more than aid attempts at understanding an individual’s unique experience.

Asset: Labeling as a self-awareness tool promoting individualized meaning when looking from the inside

Back in the 1990’s you couldn’t have convinced me there was any benefit in labeling a person. Labeling was the noose around the neck of individual expression and freedom. Fast forward to today and while the negatives of labeling still exist and can cause profound harm when contributing to such things as stigma, I now see how labeling can become a beneficial asset in building awareness and overcoming negative emotions.

When we feel negative emotions such as ‘apathy’ it can feel as if all of our being is apathetic, every cell contains this emotion and there is nothing much else. This naturally leads to the “why” questions or said another way –the sticky web of self-analysis, “Why does my life suck and how can I change it?” The thought process can resemble an unending circle of questions with few answers, answers that seem only to beg new questions, or lead us to false assumptions. Our analysis can go something like this: “I used to feel passionate about the world around me. Now I don’t. I guess it’s because I used to feel I could impact my world and now with the state of our polarized political system my voice no longer matters. I can’t live in the world like this so the only thing left to do is to give up.” Rather than lift, the emotion intensifies. This line of questioning concludes the only way to diminish feelings of apathy is through the inconceivable act of single-handedly overturning the entire political system which then leads us to the impasse of generalized hopelessness. In not labeling our apathy as a symptom of our depression we cannot see the forest for the trees which can lead us to self-limiting beliefs about ourselves and our world. 

Now if we accept the label of “depression” our thoughts may go in a different direction. It can go like this:  “A part of me is feeling apathy which is a symptom of my depression. I haven’t always felt this way and I don’t always feel this way. Today I do. What in my life is making me vulnerable to these feelings/experiences? Maybe it’s because I haven’t eaten today and I fought with my partner last night and I am feeling powerless because our issue was left unresolved.”

In this example our acceptance and view of our experience under the label of ‘depression’ gives us an objective and individualized stance which promotes enough distance from our feelings to allow us to 1.) See we are not our feelings. Rather, our feelings indicate a particular felt experience in the present and 2.) Allow for a productive line of questioning which includes pathological and non-pathological experience (I need to eat a healthy breakfast and re-engage with unresolved conflict) which can diminish our sense of experiencing the negative mood of apathy.

Labeling is paradoxical. It can be both positive and negative. It can serve as a barrier to our understanding when we use it as a lens to look from the outside in at a person due to the ease of its limited view being misconstrued as a complete one. Labels when looking inside ourselves can serve to increase our understanding by lending enough distance from our thoughts and feelings we can begin to process, understand and ultimately move past them.

Tags: apathy, depression, diagnosis, empowerment, labeling, labels, phenomenology, self-limiting beliefs, symptoms,