Caution! Using Self-Labels Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Are you treating yourself fairly?

Posted Apr 28, 2016

maradon 333/Shutterstock
Source: maradon 333/Shutterstock

A reader wrote in recently and I noticed that she tended to use negative labels to describe herself. She is not alone: Many of us, particularly those who suffer with major depression, bipolar depression, or other mental illness, are prone to this. We often see the world through dark-gray lenses that color our life experience and twist or distort everything to the negative. It's one of the main symptoms of depression, but labeling yourself in this way is also a common among anyone who experienced harmful, stressful, or negative life experiences as a young person and may have come to believe the critical statements as true facts. 

What do I mean by a self-label? It's a description you place on yourself, or a way you regard yourself, that is narrowly focused and pigeon-holes you in a certain way—in this case, in a negative light. Such labels are usually not correct but are a distortion of the real facts. For example, it might be that you tell yourself, “I’m no good,” “I’m the plain one, not the pretty one,” or “I’ll never amount to anything.” Or you may hear in your head statements like “You’re lazy” or “He’s the good one, you’re the bad one” and believe that this status is a permanent condition and not “fixable.”

You must ask yourself where these negative statements came from. Who is "saying" them to you, if only in your head, and why? Do they come from a parent or other authority figure who had an impact on your early life? Just because an influential or controlling parent says something about you does not mean that it is a true. Parents or grandparents, teachers, clergy and other authority figures are human, have flaws, and make mistakes. But as a child we do not know or understand this and cannot challenge them. We believe their words to be true and take them inside of us, through the process known as internalizing. Ask yourself now: Do these statements have any foundation or basis for the truth? The answer is almost certainly No.

There is a danger in believing these negative statements and declaring yourself permanently “no good” or “unfixable.” Believing something that is not a true reflection of you can cause emotional pain and suffering. It can have a major impact on the way you see yourself and think about yourself—and how you present yourself to the world. In thinking this way your mind is closed to the possibilities of what you might accomplish, or who you might become in the future. Experiences and opportunities that might have been available to you no longer are. Since you don’t give yourself a chance, you set yourself up for failure, disappointment, and unhappiness.  

So how do you avoid using labels and keep them from overtaking your thinking? It takes a lot of concentrated effort—a good thing to work on with a therapist—but you can also address it on your own. Here’s one way to begin: First, be aware and try to identify when it is happening. Next, challenge your negative thoughts one at a time. When you recognize a negative label that you have just applied to yourself, stop and ask yourself if it is really true. Try to think of where in your past it came from, and who it is who might have said it to you. And then ask yourself if that thought really applies now. 

It can be helpful to search out evidence for and against the negative thought as you try to challenge it. Try this exercise: Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. On the top of one column write Evidence For and atop the other, Evidence Against. Start to fill in the two columns with concrete examples from your life that speak for or against the negative thought or label. You should soon see that the negative label has little to support it. Then, think of an alternative label to replace the one you just identified: If you notice that you automatically call yourself “lazy,” think of times when you were especially productive and accomplished things on time. Your alternative thought could be: “I’m pretty good at getting things done most of the time.”

The important point is to treat yourself in a fair manner, and not to sabotage yourself by believing unfair negative labels applied to you by someone else a long time ago. They will continue to haunt you if you don’t view them realistically and take some control over them.

Stay well!