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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » What is Labelling?

What is Labelling?

Our judgement of ourselves and others is often coloured by imperfect mental shortcuts and, sometimes, unfair stereotypes. A classic example of this is how we label ourselves and others. Just think about how many times we label things every day. For example, the person who has just cut us up in traffic is a road hog; we don’t know that person or any of their characteristics, but we have attached that label to them. If we were to see that person later, we would probably think to ourselves “there’s that road hog”. This may appear to be harmless; after all, we have had no other personal contact with that person, we have judged them on that one incident.

However, imagine if that person were to then arrive for interview with us and they perform well, displaying many positive attributes. But we still have in our mind that they are a road hog, so don’t offer the position to them based on this fleeting character assessment and the label that we have attached to them. There may have been any number of reasons why that person overtook us in traffic, they may have been in a hurry and in normal circumstances would be a very careful and courteous driver. Making one broad assumption about someone based on one isolated incident is almost always inaccurate, and may have repercussions.

These labels reflect how people think about others and themselves. Most of the time they are harmless, but they can be damaging. Attaching a label to ourselves can negatively affect our self-esteem and hold us back, and attaching a label to other people can cause the persistence of negative stereotypes.

What is labelling?

When we generalise about ourselves or other people by taking one characteristic of a person and applying it to the whole person, it is known as labelling. Labelling involves assigning either harsh and negative or generous and positive labels to ourselves or others based on a single characteristic or behaviour. Labelling is a type of cognitive distortion, which is a term used in psychology to describe a distorted way of thinking about things, when a person’s mind convinces them of something that is untrue.

Anyone can experience cognitive distortions. For some of us, distorted thinking is a fleeting glitch; for others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives. For many of these people, cognitive distortions occur as automatic thoughts, they are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realise that they have the ability to change them, and they grow to believe that’s just the way things are. When these inaccurate beliefs influence a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions, they can feel anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about themselves, or about the world around them.

Cognitive distortions aren’t considered a mental illness on their own; however, research suggests that cognitive distortions such as labelling may occur in numerous mental health conditions such as, but not limited to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
  • Eating disorders (ED)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Labelling or categorising is human nature, it is how we identify things. We use these labels descriptively and to group like items. For example, we may label and view nurses as good people, and traffic wardens as bad people. This is an oversimplification and a distorted thinking pattern, as no one is entirely good or bad, everyone has both positive and negative traits, and also someone’s job does not define them as a person.

We frequently define ourselves and others by our labels, and this can lead to self-limiting beliefs and negative opinions of others. For example, when you or another person is struggling to master a new skill, you label yourself or the other person as stupid. This is an extreme label that is not accurate, as no one is inherently stupid; both you and other people have positive and negative qualities, and it is important to recognise that, for example, a lack of skill in one area does not define you or others as a person, nor does it describe someone’s entire character. Labelling is harmful because it leads to negative self-talk and can cause us to view ourselves or others in a negative light that is not accurate or fair.

Labelling is a form of cognitive bias known as the halo/horns effect. This is where a person allows a single trait, action, event or behaviour, halo (good) or horns (bad), to overshadow all others that follow. The halo effect pre-disposes them to think favourably of a person or situation, whilst the horns effect pre-disposes them to think negatively of them.

Another form of labelling is stereotyping. This is when a widely held but fixed oversimplified and overgeneralised image or idea of a particular type of person or thing is applied indiscriminately to anyone or anything in a particular category. Stereotypes lead to social categorisation, which is one of the reasons for prejudiced attitudes.

The use of stereotypes is a major way in which people simplify the social world; they reduce the amount of processing/thinking people have to do when they meet a new person. Negative stereotypes seem far more common than positive ones; however, neither is advantageous, as they cause us to ignore the differences between individuals. Stereotypes can impact how people interpret information, and how they interact with others.

Applying stereotypes can influence our behaviour and decision-making. When we hold stereotypes about certain groups of people, these beliefs can unconsciously shape our perceptions, attitudes and actions towards individuals belonging to those groups. They can lead to unfair treatment, prejudice and discrimination, particularly if applied to any of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010, that is:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Reassignment
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and Maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

Signs of labelling

Signs that you are using labels to describe yourself or others might be apparent in the words that you use to describe yourself or another person. We usually label ourselves and other people according to a behaviour, appearance or one characteristic or perceived characteristic. Words that are used to describe people when labelling can be either positive or negative, but more often than not are negative.

These may include, for example, but are not limited to:

  • Stupid
  • Lazy
  • Weak
  • Absent-minded
  • Scatty
  • Out-spoken
  • Mouthy
  • Careless
  • Unfocused
  • Daydreamer
  • Bully
  • Difficult
  • Forgetful
  • Scary
  • Pathetic
  • Nasty
  • Crafty
  • Shallow
  • Wonderful
  • Impressive
  • Cool
  • Talented
  • Clever
  • Brainy
  • Smart
  • Genius

Doing this for a one-off incident, for example if you think to yourself “I’m scatter-brained” when you have forgotten to make your dental appointment, is not really a problem, as we all do this from time to time. However, applying that label of “I’m scatter-brained” to yourself on a consistent and habitual basis, for example by saying, “Don’t trust me to make appointments, I’m scatter-brained”, is a sign that you are labelling yourself.

A sign that you are labelling others may be making one broad assumption about someone based on one incident; for example, if that person is late for an appointment, you may label them as being irresponsible and then apply that to everything that that person does in future, such as, “You can’t rely on them, they are irresponsible”. Even if the person arrives on time for all future appointments, you have them labelled as the irresponsible one. Conversely, labelling someone as trustworthy because they arrived for the appointment on time and prepared, may or may not be an accurate description, as this depiction is only based upon that one incident.

Factors that influence labelling

As discussed earlier in this article, labelling happens when people use imperfect mental shortcuts. Our brains use these mental shortcuts to save time and energy. Often the use of labels begins in childhood. Parents may say, “You are such a clever child” or “You are such a naughty child”, so we learn to think, “I am clever” or “I am naughty”, placing that label on ourselves and often performing according to the label that we have been assigned.

At school we are also labelled by other children and even our teachers, and this is often when we begin labelling ourselves and others – “I’m not playing with them, they are horrible”. Sometimes nicknames originate from labelling, as nicknames seek to exaggerate and label an individual’s character.

People who are experiencing a number of mental health conditions may, as part of their condition, apply labels to themselves and to others. A person with depression may have lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness and may label themselves as worthless, useless or pathetic, for example. Believing these labels, they may then perpetuate the depressive cycle by avoiding social contact and activities because they accept these labels as true – “Nobody will want to see me, I am worthless”. Labelling is also common among people who have been given a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.

People who are experiencing eating disorders may also attach labels to themselves following actions that they believe to be negative; for example, a person binge eats ice cream, and after thinks, “I’m such a pig”. They then purge, but continue to think, “I am a pig anyway, so having that other tub of ice cream won’t make any difference”, and the cycle continues.

A person who may have been in an abusive relationship might carry forward the names/labels that they were called and believe that they are unworthy or damaged and label themselves accordingly.

Someone impacted by labelling

Examples of labelling

Labelling is characterised by assigning fixed, judgemental, single-word traits to either yourself or to others, and consistently applying this trait thought in the future, making them a permanent descriptor. You or the other person become that trait.

Some examples of this include:

  • When you fail after trying something new, and come to the conclusion that you will never be successful, thinking, “I am useless”
  • When you succeed at something new and believe that you are now an expert, thinking, “I am a genius”
  • I forgot to wash up last night – “I am such a slob”
  • A friend fails their driving test – “They are a loser”
  • A partner eats the last bag of crisps – “They are greedy or uncaring”
  • A manager gives you a bad review – “They are hypercritical” or “I am inept”
  • You don’t “get” a joke – “I am humourless”
  • A child plays up at school – “They are difficult” or “The parents are bad parents”
  • You stand your ground in an argument – “You are arrogant or pushy”

Labelling can also occur in physical and mental health diagnoses where the person is labelled with the condition and “becomes the condition” rather than being affected by it, for example:

  • Someone with Diabetes becomes known as a Diabetic
  • Someone with Anorexia becomes known as an Anorexic
  • Someone with Schizophrenia becomes known as a Schizophrenic
  • Someone with Alcohol issues becomes known as an Alcoholic

This form of labelling can be harmful as the person is always more than their condition; their condition does not define them as a person. When labelled, a person may often not be able to see themselves beyond the label, impeding any recovery.

The differences between overgeneralisation and labelling

Personal labelling means creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors – it is an extreme form of overgeneralisation. Overgeneralising is a distorted way of thinking that results in wrong or misconstrued assumptions. It occurs when a person comes to a conclusion based on one or two single events, and makes assumptions that the outcomes will always be the same. The key element in this unhelpful thinking style is that a person takes one instance in the here and now, and then imposes this on all future similar circumstances.

In overgeneralising, for example, a person may make a mistake and think, “Everything is going wrong” rather than that one thing has gone wrong. However, in labelling, the person making the mistake either turns the blame for the thing going wrong on themselves or onto another person, for example they will think, “I made a mistake, I am so stupid” or “You made a mistake, you are so stupid”. They will then take those labels forward, “I am a stupid person” or “You are a stupid person”.

When a person overgeneralises, they can become their own worst critic, and this can often lead to labelling, “I always fail, I will never be able to do that, I am a bad person”. This type of negative affirmation will take its toll on a person’s self-esteem and confidence and ultimately on their mental and physical wellbeing.

The impact of labelling

We define ourselves by our labels, and this can lead to self-limiting beliefs. Labels from childhood might affect future potential and how we see ourselves. If you use terms to describe yourself or others, these terms may be “convincing” your brain that you or others are incapable of change. Every time you or someone does something that supports the label, your brain interprets this as proof that the label is true instead of looking at yourself or others as inherently good but sometimes doing bad things.

Labelling has a negative impact on your self-worth and how you see the world. People who habitually engage in labelling may have ‘blind spots’ when it comes to:

  • Identifying specific behaviours that can be addressed
  • Distinguishing people from their actions
  • Noticing variations in behaviour
  • Viewing people as capable of change and growth
  • Adopting a non-judgemental perspective on events
  • Appreciating complexity in themselves, others and the world

Labelling also tends to fire up strong negative emotions, such as severe depression and intense rage.

Labelling can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice; for example, a teenager who is labelled as difficult or challenging actually becomes rebellious as a response to being so-labelled. Even a good label could have negative effects. For example, if someone is labelled as a “master chef” because they cooked a fabulous meal, they then have to live up to that label. If they do not, even failing only once, they may then see and label themselves as a failure for failing to live up to the high expectations. So even good labels can put stress and pressure on people, sometimes leading to anxiety or depression.

Overcoming labelling

Ways to manage and overcome labelling

When we notice ourselves engaging in the cognitive distortion of labelling, there is a simple solution that we can apply – that is to objectively describe the behaviour that we notice. For example:

  • When you fail after trying something new – instead of coming to the conclusion that you will never be successful, and thinking, “I am useless”, try saying, “I messed up this time, I have learned from it and will try again”
  • When you succeed at something new – instead of believing that you are now an expert, and thinking, “I am a genius”, try saying, “I did a good job there”
  • I forgot to wash up last night – instead of thinking, “I am such a slob”, try thinking, “That was a mistake”
  • A friend fails their driving test – instead of thinking, “They are a loser”, try thinking, “It’s not easy for everyone to pass”
  • A manager gives you a bad review – instead of thinking, “They are hypercritical” or “I am inept”, try thinking, “What can I learn from the feedback?”

You can begin to challenge labels and test them against reality. For example, when a friend fails their driving test, are they really a loser? They have achieved all kinds of other things in their life, so is this label fair? When you forget the washing up, are you really a slob? Other aspects of your life are organised, so is it reasonable to label yourself like this?

If you have allowed labels to become ingrained, they may not be easy to shake, but trying to do so can be quite satisfying. Notice the labels you have assigned to yourself – are they really true? Do they apply in all circumstances or just on one occasion? You may be thinking that you are foolish for forgetting someone’s birthday, for example, but it is more appropriate to think that it was a foolish thing to do. Ask yourself, would someone else see that as you being foolish, or rather would they think of it as a foolish act?

Once you focus on your thoughts and recognise a pattern, replace the “I am” and “you are” statements with objective statements such as “it was”. By continually challenging those negative labelling statements over and over again, any habitual tendency towards labelling will begin to diminish.

Try mindfulness, that is breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future.

If you are struggling with labelling, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Final thoughts

We all make judgements, labelling people and ourselves. What we need to remember is that these labels do not define ourselves or others. We are far more than an arbitrary label – let them go and don’t let them impact your life.

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About the author

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Lily O'Brien

Lily has worked with CPD Online College since November 2023. She helps out with content production as well as working closely with freelance writers and voice artists. Lily is currently studying towards gaining her business administration level 3 qualification. Outside of work Lily loves going out and spending quality time with friends, family and her dog Mabel.

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