Thursday, July 29, 2010


I am not much for labels.

Some of you may know that I am now working two days a week as a psychotherapist, to finish my graduate work, and I hear all sorts of labels there. Sometimes clients borrow them from our profession: My roommate is bipolar. My son has borderline personality disorder. She's a narcissist. He's a nut.

Other times these labels spring from the client's life. My son's girlfriend is a tramp. My daughter is married to an ex-convict. My boss is a control freak. My long-suffering husband is a saint to put up with these rotten kids. Or perhaps worst of all, I am a loser.

If we are honest with ourselves, we see labels as things that helps guide us away from the rocks on the shore of life. Like a speed limit sign or a construction roadblock, they are supposed to lead us away from bad things and toward good things. So we use them as a shorthand to put all of the other people in our lives into neat, little boxes, in hopes of making us safer and happier.

Now, here is why I want you to stop using them:

First, labels aren't what we call "actionable." They do not tell us anything or help us change anything. There is no therapeutic intervention for being married to a "bum" or being a "nut," for example.

Second, they are often wrong. One of the great things about therapy is that we are trained to hear all sides of a story, from all of the players involved. So more often than you might think, the "tramp" daughter is settling down with someone she loves after a couple of conflicted relationships, the "saint" father constantly criticizes his children, and the "rotten" kid is intelligent, sensitive, articulate, and acts very nicely around people who do not constantly put her down.

Third, they do not tell the whole story. Does calling someone "bipolar" also let you know that they are creative, caring, and a faithful partner? Does "ex-convict" accurately reflect the reality of someone who works hard every day and loves his children? Do "saints" ever make their families completely miserable every day by creating an atmosphere of disrespect?

I see just one good use for labels: when they help people understand something that they can fix. So if we diagnose someone's child as having ADHD, for example, they may move from being "bad children" to someone with a treatable medical disorder. Pointing out that a couple is in what we call a "pursuer-distancer" relationship may help them learn to communicate better. And someone who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder may find it liberating to learn their problem has a name, and a way out of it.

So what can we do without our comfortable, familiar labels about people? Talk about specific behaviors and specific reactions. Learn to articulate how you feel and what your boundaries are. And above all, try to understand and respect everyone you cross paths with, including yourself. If you can succeed in doing that, I have a label for it: wonderful.

*P.S. Important disclaimer: the examples in this article are generic and do not reflect my actual clinical cases.

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