Imagine what the world would look like without labels. Would we better off, or worse off, without labels? In many ways, labels make life a lot easier. Labeling one glass container “salt” and the other “sugar” comes in quite handy when baking.

On the other hand, labels can create significant problems as well. Tagging a child as a “difficult student” can follow the child throughout the school career and adversely affect how new teachers perceive him or her. Even positive labels, such as “the most generous person ever” can have its complications, for example, by creating unrealistic expectations which may feel like a burden to the person.

Labels kill curiosity

For better or for worse, labels give us permission to stop trying to understand that which is labeled. Seeing or creating a label is often associated with a certain release of tension. Before the label, we may be confused, curious, uncertain or frustrated because we don’t know for sure what it is we have in front of us. If we find the label, or create one, we can sigh in relief, “Okay, now I know what this. I don’t need to search any further to figure it out.”

Labeling can work well if the label meets two criteria: the label needs to be both accurate and sufficient. Once you do the taste test, you can accurately determine which jar contains the salt and which has the sugar. And these two labels are sufficient because they tell you all you really need to know about these two jars. There’s no added value in exploring further.

If it’s a tail, it must be . . . an elephant?

Sometimes a label may be accurate, but not necessarily sufficient. When looking for a doctor, you may find someone who is a physician, but you may need to know more. You may need a physician with a certain specialty or expertise before you stop exploring.

With regard to mental health, the real risks come into play when we label people, and what they feel, think and do. We do use diagnoses as labels to describe a condition or syndrome that a person appears to be experiencing. But the diagnosis is a label for the condition, not for the person. The person is not “a schizophrenic” or “a manic-depressive” or “an anxiety case,” but a human being who appears to have these conditions. Even when these labels are accurate, they are never sufficient to explain the totality of the individual. There is more to the person that we need to understand.

Insight into human behavior is achieved when we examine our experiences deeply. Sometimes we have a feeling, thought or pattern of behavior we just don’t understand. “Why do I feel this way?” “Why do I keep doing this?” We may take the easy way out and chalk it up to a judgmental, derogatory label—“It’s just ridiculous, that’s all there is to it!” And the moment we do this, the exploring and learning comes to a screeching halt. But if we continue to explore, we might have that satisfying experience of hitting the nail on the head by naming a feeling correctly or finally understanding a pattern of thought or behavior.

The process of discovery will yield greater insight into ourselves and others if we manage to avoid using inaccurate labels and remember to be curious about the whole person when we come upon a label that may only describe a small part of that person.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Iamnee/


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.