Less Labeling, More Understanding

Who's helped and who's harmed by our quickness to label and diagnose?

Posted Aug 07, 2017

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

It always amazes me when I see our culture pick up on a psychological term or psychiatric diagnosis, turn it into some kind of buzzword, and talk about it in a way that makes it seem like just about anyone could meet the criteria.

I cringe whenever I hear someone who struggles to concentrate at work—while his cell phone sits face-up on his desk, and people come in and out of his office all day—conclude, “I’ve got ADD,” or when a person who maintains a tidy home assumes, “I’m OCD.” These days, the diagnostic discourse has taken on a new flavor. There’s been a recent surge of articles about how to spot a narcissist, or how to know when you’re being gaslighted; I can’t help but get a little uncomfortable when I come across them. No doubt, articles of this nature can be helpful to some people—especially if they’ve had a traumatic and puzzling experience that they’re able to make sense of as a consequence of reading them. But there’s another side that I find troubling.   

I take a non-pathologizing approach as a therapist, which means I don’t see my clients’ experiences, even the most disquieting ones, as reflective of something intrinsically wrong with them. But I certainly recognize the importance of diagnostic labels. I’ve worked with many clients who experienced tremendous relief when they learned that what they were experiencing had a formal name and could be treated. The problem is, I’ve encountered just as many clients who’ve been harmfully affected by the labels placed upon them. When people make diagnostic terms mean something about themselves—namely that they’re broken, dysfunctional, damaged, or deficient—their capacity to heal and create change is diminished. This is what I fear can happen when articles featuring personality traits reflected in a narrow subset of the general population become so widespread.

The truth is that human behavior exists on a continuum, and whether or not something is considered pathological is really a matter of degree and intensity. At any moment, any one of us could meet some of the criteria for a psychiatric disorder. In certain relationships, at certain points in our lives, under certain circumstances, most of us have acted narcissistically or manipulated someone else to get what we want. I’m not suggesting that truly narcissistic people don’t exist, or that gaslighting isn’t a problem; certainly, it’s important to recognize when people act in characteristic, patterned ways to exploit or do harm to others. Giving a name to the behavior can help people understand it more clearly and respond accordingly. But when we learn that there are official terms for certain kinds of behavior, it’s tempting to apply them liberally and classify others in ways that could be damaging.  

My purpose is to invite you into an alternative perspective—one that looks beyond labels to see the bigger picture of human functioning and relationships. When we get caught up in terminology and ascribe names to certain facets of the human experience, we limit our ability to understand and address the corresponding behavior on its own terms. We erroneously try to fit the complexity of the human experience into an unreasonably small container. We risk minimizing or overlooking our role in the interactions we have with others—because we can easily chalk everything up to their presumed "disease" or "dysfunction"—thus missing valuable opportunities for growth and development. And when we apply the labels to ourselves, we risk creating the kind of suffering that inhibits our willingness to do things differently and create change.

Labels serve a purpose, but when we become attached to them, we get caught up in concepts and abstractions that keep us from making contact with life and with each other. Instead of spending our time coming up with ways to put ourselves and others into categories, what if we instead focused on connecting, learning how to relate, demonstrating compassion in spite of our differences, setting clear and firm boundaries when it’s appropriate, and doing our best to get through our challenging and complicated lives?

In the end, whether we’re talking about narcissism, gaslighting, or any other psychological term or category, we should remember to proceed with caution. We should remember that no matter what labels we come up with, we know when something doesn’t feel right. We know when our functioning is disrupted. We know when someone is doing harm to us. And when we let ourselves focus on that—instead of getting caught up in the terminology—we can respond with more clarity and much less judgment.

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