Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Stop Bullying Yourself: Get Rid of Labels

Stand up to self-criticism.

Source: Prochurchmedia/Unsplash
Source: Prochurchmedia/Unsplash

Earlier this week, Monica Lewinski made the headlines for spearheading a new anti-bullying campaign. The former White House intern knows how it feels being called names—she was referred to as ‘that woman’ prior to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Lewinski has turned into a brave activist—the labels and bullying couldn’t stop her. The #DefyTheName campaign wants to disarm name-calling. It’s a great reminder not to let words define us—we must defy labels.

So, this brings me to today's post. What happens when we are the ones bullying ourselves?

Self-bullying is more harmful than being bullied by others—it’s impossible to stand up to external attacks if you can’t stop your own.

We Contain Multitudes

Our brain is wired to take shortcuts—that’s why we love labels.

Early survival depended on the ability to see patterns in randomness. Our ancestors needed to discriminate friends from foes—they had to decide to either fight or fly.

However, rapid reasoning is prone to error. The use of labels is an irrational form of thinking, according to David Burnes, a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) psychologist.

Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “My last project failed,” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a failure.” You might also call yourself ‘a jerk,’ ‘a stupid,’ or ‘an incompetent.’

Labels make people invisible: We reduce them to a single adjective.

When you make a biased judgment about yourself—you let one behavior define you.

We apply that same mechanism to judge others. If someone takes time to explain something, we call that person ‘slow’ or ‘insecure.’ Before we realize, those labels become everything we see about that person.

Labels oversimplify reality: We confuse a part with the whole.

Labels don’t see people—they describe an oversimplified version of who they are.

When you label yourself, you are following the same pattern. Instead of accepting one flaw, you become that flaw. You can’t see beyond it—you let one defect define you.

Not All Labels Are the Same

Self-bullying is harmful behavior.

Would you allow anyone to label you the way you label yourself?

I’m not saying that external attacks don’t hurt—but neutralizing being labeled starts with you. Labeling hinders your potential in various ways.

Labels are static—they get you stuck in one moment or experience.

Labels divide us by grouping us into categories—you are either a friend or a foe.

Labels highlight one single aspect—descriptive labels hide your distinct and true identity.

Labels force you to play to your strengths—prescriptive labels stereotype the roles you perform at work or in your family.

Labels turn one part into the whole—we let one flaw define who we are.

How to Defeat Self-Bullying

Use the following steps to become more aware of self-labeling. And, most importantly, to stop being your worst bully.

1. Notice labeling. Pay attention to the words you use to describe yourself. Ask someone else to call you out when you are label yourself.

Focus on understanding why and when you tend to label yourself. Do you use them to punish or reward yourself? Which emotions spark labeling?

2. List your labels. Track and capture all the labels. Do you tend to call yourself the same names over and over? Or it depends on the circumstances. Compare the labels you use and the ones others use to describe you. What are the commonalities and contradictions? Any surprise?

3. Categorize your labels. Grab a piece of paper and divide it into six equal rectangles. Name them:

  • What I hide from others
  • What I show others
  • What I’m proud of
  • What I’m embarrassed by
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

Grab the list you built and assign the labels into each category (it’s okay if one falls into more than one). Use two different colors to discriminate self-labels from the names people call you.

Try to make sense of this analysis. Is there any category that feels more cluttered? Any surprises or contradictions? What this analysis tell you about how you see (and call) yourself?

4. Don’t become an adjective. As you become more aware of how you label yourself, avoid turning events into an adjective—don’t let something define you.

For example, if you lose a match, instead of calling yourself a loser, reframe how you talk to yourself. Use this structure: “I’m not a loser, I just lost a match.”

5. Defy the name. Going back to the anti-bullying campaign: don’t let labels define you. Challenge the words you (and others) use to describe yourself. You are not a label—you can make mistakes, but you are not a flaw. Use humor. Monica Lewinski replaced her Twitter bio with all the names people called her.

When we laugh at our labels, they can’t cause any more harm. Bullies enjoy seeing their victims suffer. When you stop reacting, they will feel ignored and look for someone else to bother. That applies to you too.

Stand up to self-bullying. Stop labeling yourself.

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter: Sign up here.