We Are Mislabeling Labels

We Are Mislabeling Labels

Label as defined by the Cambridge dictionary is a word or a phrase that is used to describe the characteristics or qualities of peopleactivities, or things, often in a way that is unfair.

Labels do have an impact on our lives. Being called a bully or whiny or a chatterbox in school does affect how we think, feel and behave. A label such as a chronic mental health disorder affects how an individual views themselves and how others view them. The labeling theory from sociology focuses on the impact of social labeling in the development of crime. The theory states that although a person may commit a  felony because of various factors once the person has been labeled as a criminal they often face problems from the stigma attached to their labels both from self as well as others (Becker, 1963). These problems might increase the probability of the criminal behaviour becoming reinforced and chronic (Lemert,1967). It is incredibly difficult when labels are viewed as being set in stone and people have to live with those labels for the rest of their lives. When viewed as unchangeable both labeling and mislabeling are dangerous.  

Labels regarding one’s gender identity or sexuality might be viewed as limiting and hindering equality. Labels attached to relationships for some people may feel bound with expectations and hence feared.

Labels do come with a history of expectations and experiences that might hold us back that can often feel incredibly constricting and can be tremendously bias laden. Nevertheless despite the negative connotations attached to them they do have the advantages.  

Labeling is a form of categorisation and our brains crave categorisations and making items and experience into categories is fundamental to thought (Seger, et al 2010). Hence essential to our languages and lives in a way. Think about it, our names are also labels for ourselves. 

Labels can be empowering too since they can create visibility for example people with similar histories of marginalisation coming together and labeling themselves with a single word creating visibility for themselves as a group. Thus they can be valuable in discussions about power, privilege and oppression too. 
Labeling is a communication skill that permits us to attach an identity to dynamics, emotions or experiences. For example if you have ever felt a high strung emotion or felt like you’re in a chaotic spiral, labeling the emotion you are feeling can give you a sense of control which may be helpful. Also it hinders our communication capabilities when we don’t know the most commonly agreed on label for things. For example it’s important to teach young children the correct names of their private parts such as penis or vagina because they can communicate if they are hurt in any way.  

For labels to aid us and not be restrictive it is important to remember that most labels are descriptive and not prescriptive. Also, most of them aren’t ironclad. 

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Zahra Diwan

Zahra has over 4 years of experience working with clients within the therapeutic framework. She works extensively with young adults, and maintains a diary on Things That Help Us which is collation of insights she gains in therapy.

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