Don’t Call Yourself That: The Harmful Effects of Negative Self-labeling

When we were young, most of us devoted a good deal of time and energy to squabbling with other children.  To the dismay of our parents, we because adept in the use of impolite language, and kept our stock of insulting words and phrases up-to-date.  As adults we are more socially sophisticated.  We no longer call one another rude names – at least not openly.  Tragically, however, many people go through their entire adult lives calling themselves names, which although not as vulgar as the insults of childhood, are considerably more destructive.

Tammy (not her real name) was a young woman who had recently extricated herself from an abusive marriage.  She was having difficulty detaching herself emotionally from her former partner and had been coming to me for weekly therapy sessions to help get her life back on track.  During one of these sessions she described herself as the sort of person who never finishes anything.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“That’s just the way I am,” she replied.  Her tone was one of resignation and defeat.

“Give me an example of something you’ve left unfinished.”

“I’ve got six unfinished baby blankets in my closet.  My baby is now four years old, and I haven’t finished one.”

We discussed the matter for a while, and I asked her if she would agree to finish one of the blankets and bring it to our next session.  She was very hesitant:  she didn’t have time; didn’t know if she had enough yarn; wasn’t sure if she could find her crochet hooks, etc… I pushed a little, and finally she agreed.

“You will finish one of the blankets this week and bring it to your next session,” I confirmed.

“Yes.”

“That’s a definite commitment.”

She was apprehensive, but she agreed.  “Yes.  I’ll definitely do it.”

We talked some more about the significance of the blankets, and I felt that she might be able to push herself further.

“Would you get rid of the other five unfinished blankets?” I asked.

“Get rid of them?”

“Right.”

“You mean just throw them away?”

“Or give them away; or use them for cat pillows; or whatever.”

“But why would I get rid of them?  They’re good kits – they cost money, and they’ll make good afghans.”

“Yes, but all they’ve done for the past four years is sit in your closet leering at you, telling you that you’re the sort of person who never finishes anything.”

She thought about this for a while.  Then she said:  “I hate to throw anything away.  I’m a real pack rat.”

“Will you get rid of them?”

“OK,” she nodded.  “I’ll try.”

“I’m not asking you to try.  Will you make a positive commitment right now to get rid of them?”

Tammy thought for a moment, then nodded.  “OK.  I’ll get rid of them.”

She came to her next session a week later with a completed blanket.  It was very colorful and well made.  Tammy was proud and delighted with herself.  I admired the blanket and then asked:  “Are you the sort of person who never finishes anything?”

“Oh, no,” she laughed.  “Not any more.  And I’m not a pack rat, either.  I got rid of the others – and five boxes of junk besides.”

“How did you get rid of them?” I asked.

“Two of them I hemmed off and gave to my daughter as doll blankets.  The rest I gave to a church sale.”

“How do you feel?”

“Much better.”

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Negative self-labeling stems for the fact that we all experience failure from time to time.  Our failures may be minor matters like not finishing a blanket; or major, like getting fired from a job.  We fail in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons.

Sometimes we fail because we have bitten off more than we can chew; other times because we lack the necessary skills.  But whatever the reason, everybody has had some experience of failure, and everybody has to find a way of coping with these unpleasant experiences.

Obviously the most appropriate response is to acknowledge the shortcoming, take the necessary remedial action, and try again.  For instance, if I’ve spent two days trying to fix my dishwasher and it still doesn’t work, I should either call the repair service or brush up on my appliance repair skills.  Unfortunately this kind of honest, logical approach is not always adopted.  It’s easier to change our thoughts than change our skills, and many of us, when confronted with failure, expend more energy explaining and justifying than fixing. This is not really a matter of conscious deception.  It’s simply an easier way to deal with the problem.  If I’ve lost my job because of incompetence, it’s a lot easier to convince myself that I was fired because the boss wanted to hire his nephew than to accept the reality.  If I accept the reality, then I have to do something about my performance, and that’s not easy.  Most of us have practiced this kind of self-deception at least occasionally, though we can usually identify it far more readily in others than in ourselves.

Negative self-labeling is a particularly destructive way of avoiding the reality of failure.  Tammy, the young woman mentioned earlier, had in the past failed to complete various projects.  The healthy response would have been to take appropriate corrective action.  For instance, she could have forced herself to stick to one project even though she began to find it boring.  Instead, she continued with the dysfunctional practices and gave herself the label:  the-sort-of-person-who-never-finishes-anything.  This solved her immediate problem.  As long as she identified with this label, she was excused from the tedious business of finishing a blanket whose pattern and stitches had lost their novelty.  After all, she was the-sort-of-person-who-never-finishes-anything, and what more could one expect from a person like that.  This happens to be a fairly popular negative self-label, and people who have adopted it tend to reinforce the role in one another by swapping stories and by laughing together at one another’s excesses.  However, the matter is not really funny. The negative self-label becomes a kind of self-imposed disability, which relieves the individual of certain responsibilities, and eventually becomes so deeply ingrained that it is very difficult to shed.

Other negative self-labels that are frequently heard are:  I’m a workaholic; I’m a very angry person; I have a short fuse; I’m a couch-potato; I’m no good at making decisions; I’m a procrastinator; I’m a worrier; I’m a difficult person to live with; I’m a people-pleaser; I have no willpower; I’m not a morning person; and so on.  Each of these labels serves a purpose:  they excuse dysfunctional behavior and remove the incentive to improve one’s performance.

Negative self-labeling is sometimes defended on the grounds that a person has to accept the reality before he/she can change.  In other words, the individual is simply being honest.  In the example given earlier, for instance, it might be argued that Tammy has to accept the fact that she is the sort of person who never finishes anything.  Only if she accepts this reality will she be motivated to take corrective action.  The reality, however, is not that Tammy is the-sort-of-person-who-never-finishes-anything.  The reality is that in the past she left certain projects unfinished.  These are very different statements.  The latter is simply a descriptive statement about the past.  The former goes way beyond description.  It purports to explain and legitimize the past and, tragically, becomes a predictor and a determinant of the future.  The problem ceases to be a problem and becomes instead the expectation – the norm.  In the short term the negative self-label is an easy way out, but in the long term it becomes a self-destructive trap.

The trap, however, can be opened.  Recognizing the label for what it is – an excuse for avoiding a difficult task – is the first step.  The second step is to stop using the label, and the third is to tackle the difficulty.  This, of course, is easier said than done.  Change is not easy, and many people need help correcting these kinds of problems.  The help can come from family, friends, or, in extreme cases, from professional therapists (provided they are not wedded to bio-psychiatry).  But nobody has to accept a negative label.  Regardless of what a person may have done or neglected to do in the past, the future is filled with opportunities for change and growth.  Negative self-labeling severely limits this potential. People who identify with, and accept, negative self-labels, including psychiatric diagnoses, will never adequately explore their full range of possibilities, and will never tackle the challenges that life presents.  They insulate themselves from the risk and the pain of failure, but by the same action they cut themselves off from the joy and fulfillment of success.