Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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Cognitive Distortion #8: Labeling
When we label an individual or group, we reduce them to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor based on a single event or behavior. As a result, we view them (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that contradicts the stereotype. Labeling others leads to false assumptions, prejudice, and ostracizing. “Because he talked about his neighbor, he is a gossip.”
Our SAD symptoms compel us to label others to support our preconceived notions about how others perceive us. Our conversational inadequacy might make us label the group as rude and dismissive. If we expect rejection, they are cold and untrustworthy. Because we feel like we are the center of attention, our social failure could lead us to label the entire room as mean or arrogant.
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Labeling is common to SAD persons because we resent our symptomatic fears and anxieties, causing us to project our frustrations on those close to us. Labeling a friend or significant other can destroy relationships, especially when the label is for unintentional behavior. If we feel unsupported at a social event, we might label our companion cold or indifferent. In a similar vein, if a parent criticizes us at the dinner table, identifying them as cruel or hateful would not be inconceivable. Polarized Thinking, Filtering, Emotional Reasoning, Jumping to Conclusions, and Overgeneralization lend themselves to Labeling.
We know how distressing it can be when someone labels us. When we-self label, we sustain our negative self-beliefs. “I didn’t meet anyone at the party; I am unlikeable.” Negatively labeling ourselves invariably results in thoughts that support our self-image. “I gave the wrong answer in class; I am stupid.” Self-labeling like inadequate and incompetent supports our sense of hopelessness and undesirability, and we often find our subsequent behaviors support those labels.
Labels are irrational and myopic because they emerge from a single characteristic, behavior, or event and ignore the whole person or situation. Arbitrarily evaluating someone based on one isolated incident or behavior is almost always inaccurate. One negative behavior or incident does not define someone’s entire character. Rather than focusing on the specific element that generated the label, it is important to value the positive contributions of the person or group. We can observe ourselves and others with compassionate insight, recognizing the diversity of human thought and experience.
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