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6 Hurtful Labels to Stop Using on Ourselves and Others

It's often too easy to avoid emotional work by labeling. Can we quit doing it?

Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock

"This is my favorite thing about being raised in Africa: We don't do labels very well; we don't do this, 'Oh, you're a Democrat; oh, you're a Republican.' Because we live in the real world." —Dambisa Moyo

Unfortunately, many of us have developed corrosive habits in how we relate to ourselves and others. It's critically important that we approach this conversation with curiosity, rather than criticism, to avoid perpetuating a vicious cycle, though it is often hard to avoid pangs of regret when trying to figure out how to do a better job. It's challenging, especially early on, to tolerate the shameful and painful emotions which can come up when we really start to work on issues, and even more challenging early on to be grateful for the opportunities we give ourselves.

The road to hell is paved with overly simplistic labels

Counterproductive habits show up in many ways, typically unconsciously shaping our choices so that we repetitively feel bad and get into negative situations without quite knowing why. In the absence of self-awareness, when we feel incapable of doing anything well, it’s much harder to see the possibilities for realistic, positive change. It's pretty much also impossible to stay with the details of what is going on so we can sort things out. One way we can begin to pay attention is by catching the words we use during self-talk, the labels we use with ourselves and others when we are coming from more toxic places. When I hear people use these words, I take it as a clue there is more to the story than there appears to be.

These words are easy to use, coming to mind in a jiffy, and often are what we heard growing up. They are words which offer quick fixes for complex problems, and are accompanied by feelings of moral judgment, hatred, and utter rejection. Rather than understanding the nuance and creating bridges for understanding and communication, such labeling reflects underlying either-or thinking, generally fragmenting us apart from ourselves and each other in an act of linguistic violence. These are dividing words, misunderstanding concepts, rather than language which joins and deepens mutuality and self-relationship. You can recognize these labels by the mental state you are in when you use them, and how they roll off the tongue with terrifying fluid ease, and by the damage we often immediately realize has been done. Editing out words isn't enough and can backfire in censorship and political correctness, but holding back from doing violence in relationships with oneself and others is a good place to start healing.

Labels which lead us astray

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but let’s look at some of the common terms we use when we give ourselves and others a hard time, what they seem to mean, what they “really” mean, and alternative approaches:

1. Lazy: We use this word a lot when we haven’t done something we think we should have done, or we use this word on someone else — “You’re just being lazy.” It seems to mean there is something wrong with someone, because they are incapable of hard work, or don’t desire to do hard work, or both. It suggests the person is deficient in some fundamental and unfixable way, an object of scorn and disgust. It lets everyone off the hook for looking into what is really going on, often serving to cover up embarrassing issues, such as learning differences, personal stress, or even more profound problems. When the label “lazy” comes to mind, hit pause, and ask what else may be going on. Focus on working on what is possible, and on specific feedback and goals which can actually be accomplished, building empowerment and self-efficacy rather than undermining them.

2. Bored: When we succumb to boredom, we are seriously selling ourselves short. “I’m bored!” is a familiar complaint of over-stimulated children and, increasingly, adults. When we find ourselves bored, it usually means there are underlying emotions we are not in touch with, oftentimes deep anxiety about how we are using our time. Rather than engaging with the anxiety, it’s easy enough to jump to boredom as a facile explanation for why we feel stuck and a way to avoid engaging with the more thorny issue of how we spend our time, and why we may be having difficulty identifying and pursuing activities about which we are curious and perhaps even passionate.

Many times, this sort of problem identifying and engaging with what is important goes back to issues with self-worth and a habit of sacrificing one’s own needs in deference to others. Using boredom this way is usually associated with having one’s mind go blank. We become unable to think about anything other than being bored, effectively preventing us from getting out of the boredom and paralysis.

3. Hypocrite: This one is important, because condemning oneself or others as hypocritical is a way to deal with difficult or seemingly impossible-to-reconcile conflicts. When we assume that we must have only one point of view, that we cannot be “of two minds” about something, undecided, or otherwise not at a point of clarity, it’s easy to get rid of the tension required to hold contrasting perspectives with an accusation of duplicity and moral breakdown. While hypocrisy surely is real, we call things hypocritical more often than they actually are because of how easy it makes it to deal with issues in the short run.

When this word springs to mind, adopt an attitude of patient examination. Look at multiple sides of the issues, and remember that there is a context. Moral values and ethical decisions change a lot from situation to situation. Identify the different sides of the apparent hypocrisy, and consider in what contexts those different perspectives would apply. A lot of the time, simply doing this is enough to put the conflict on the path to resolution. True hypocrisy is much rarer, and we often have multiple perspectives we don't want to deal with, preferring to see ourselves as single-minded as a way to feel integrity.

4. Spoiled: When we accuse ourselves and others of being spoiled, it is almost always out of anger and frustration, over-simplifying the underlying issues with a criticizing label. Now, there are surely times when someone has become “spoiled,” in the sense that they have become accustomed to having things too easily available, in the absence of linking reward with appropriate effort. Many times, part of the frustration is our own guilt projected onto the person we have allowed to become spoiled. Rather than taking responsibility without blame, because we have difficulty sitting with painful feelings, for example of regret and frustration with ourselves, it is easier to jump to the idea of being spoiled as a catch-all explanation for more complex behaviors.

It is easier to ascribe spoiledness as a fatal individual flaw, rather than to understand how being spoiled is actually the result of a complex relationship process, whether that dynamic plays out internally in self-labeling or externally with close others. One helpful step to get out of this particular trap is to consider what is the heartfelt, authentic desire or need hidden within the spoiled behavior. Often it simply comes down to needing recognition or love from oneself and others, but the spoiled and demanding behavior from ourselves and others sadly and paradoxically gets in the way of getting what we really need.

5. Stupid: "God, I'm such an idiot!" I actually forgot to put "stupid" on this list, but fortunately, I can edit it post hoc. In some ways, this is the most interesting one, because most of the time when someone says they are being stupid, they are more often than not highly intelligent. Probably an indication that they get too much of their sense of self-esteem from seeing themselves as smart, and moreover feel vulnerable when witnessed making a mistake, regardless of whether they are catching it themselves when alone or in front of actual other people. Either way, it's never really about intelligence.

It's about the inability to be kind to oneself when in error, and rather than being gently corrective (let alone forgiving), cracking oneself across the head with a bamboo shaft for making a mistake. Now, I have no issue with recognizing missteps and course-correcting, but generally I don't think self-directed aggression is the best way to change. When this happens, humor can be helpful, gentle humor about one's humanity perhaps, as laughter can greatly diminish shame. It's also important to use that intelligence, because when we do, we quickly realize that "stupid" is usually more about being impulsive, inattentive, understandably inexperienced, or something along these lines that we can more rationally reflect upon and learn from.

6. Selfish: The ultimate self- and other-effacing label is, in many regards, labeling legitimate needs as selfish. This typically has childhood roots, often religious or moral overtones as well, which valorize self-sacrifice past the point of masochism. Perhaps parents told us we were selfish when our needs were generally the normal needs that children have, because dealing with the child’s needs was inconvenient or otherwise difficult for under-resourced parents. Perhaps they neglected themselves and took it out on the kids. Maybe their parents struggled to provide, and out of necessity developed puritanical philosophies of life. No one is to blame, really, where intergenerational transmission is concerned . . . but once wise to it, we want to turn the tide, because we are accountable for complicity.

Rather than taking the time and reflecting together on difficult issues, “You’re being selfish” is deployed to skirt mutual recognition of difficulty balancing the needs of multiple parties. When we do this with ourselves, labeling ourselves as selfish when we have legitimate needs, we do violence against ourselves and undermine both healthy self-care behaviors, as well as reinforcing a sense of being a bad person — and perpetuating a vicious cycle.

When opportunity knocks

These are the main labels that I find people use, and I’ve noticed I have used, when I am short-changing myself and others. They are different from one another, but they have a few things in common: They are all ways to avoid dealing with a more complicated issue, both in relationships with other people and in how we relate to ourselves. They signify an underlying dysfunctional pattern in relationships, particularly when they are used more routinely (rather than rarely and superficially). They all do violence to relationships, driving us apart from one another and creating harmful gaps in our self-relationship.

Most importantly, they are opportunities for positive change. When we notice we are using these labels or hearing them used, it’s a good time to slow down, hit the emotional pause button, and get real, real curious. It is a chance to make better choices about how to move forward, allowing for more mutual communication internally and with others, greater compassion and forgiveness with oneself and others, and the possibility of choosing a different path forward.