Label Jars, Not People

labelsWhat’s in a label?: Labels are everywhere. We label people by gender, race, sexual orientation, body size, personality, politics, and so on. With every label comes an image, and with this image comes a prescribed set of behaviors. Girls should be polite and follow the rules; boys have lots of energy and sometimes can’t help their unruliness. People with bodies like runway models are beautiful; people with curves need to lose weight. If you cry a lot, you’re a wimp or overly emotional; if you hold back your feelings, you’re in control and rational.

Diagnostic Labels: In the mental health field, as everywhere, labels, or diagnoses, can be useful generalizations, but they can also be harmful stereotypes. Unlike medical diagnoses, psychiatric diagnoses are not as exact or objective, nor are they based on x-ray results or laboratory findings. Psychiatric diagnoses depend instead on clinicians’ interpretations of behaviors and feelings and quite often involve value judgments about what is “normal” and what is not.

Diagnoses may be helpful when they facilitate communication among clinicians and researchers or when they offer some guidelines about how to proceed with treatment. They can be harmful when they are stigmatizing or when they pathologize behaviors or temperaments that simply don’t fit into a culture’s definition of acceptable roles or behaviors, but are not necessarily mental disorders. Because insurance companies require diagnoses in order to cover therapy, our work as psychotherapists often means we are required to diagnose. Our focus in therapy, however, focuses not upon these diagnoses or labels, but on understanding clients’ issues and the possible impact of ineffective or oppressive societal, cultural, familial, or political systems on clients.

  1. Julie -oo- June 22, 2006

    Yes, labels can hurt more than help…usually. And there is a very fine line between helpful and hurtful labeling of any kind.

    Granted Miss Keller is a product of her time and yet I think Helen is right on the mark even for today when she says: “A person who is severely impaired never knows his hidden sources of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape his own life.”

    Her label, “severely impaired”, is not meant to be read as an expression of denail of her sense of self and identity. Rather, Helen’s use of the label “severely impaired” is perhaps an equivalent to today’s preferred “Deaf-Blind” or “Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing” labels. All three terms are meant to be expressions of and support for self-empowerment of Deaf-Blind and Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals. In this sense labeling is not only healthy, it’s also a symbol of personal power because the individual has mentally accepted a label that may or may not have caused some anguish in the process.

    At least that’s my “interpretation” of Miss Keller’s quote. Smiles.


  2. Tom June 24, 2006

    Your recent post re. various forces (political, cultural etc) reminds me of a book I read that documented the different understanding of various medical conditions (heart disease etc.) in different countries attributed to differences in culture. Also, in the U.S. the legal definition of death has undergone several transformations even to the point that some argue the transplant doctors were a major force in adopting the cessation of brain wave definition because it allowed the harvesting of organs even when the heart was still pumping but no brain activity.
    This yielded much higher quality organs than was the case when death was defined as the cessation of heart activity.

  3. Julie Rems-Smario March 1, 2007

    I found this via Jay’s vlog about labeling. So true! I always believe in avoiding labels and meeting where the person is. Just meet her where she is in her world and understand where she is coming from. I am using the word “her” because majority of people using our services are women. (Here I go with gender labels )

    I dont know if you have the same observation, but I noticed the misuse, abuse or overuse of the diagnosis, Borderline personality, on many Deaf individuals getting counseling sessions. Its a serious “label” creating undue burden on many of the Deaf women I worked with.

  4. Rachel April 18, 2018

    Ive seen a therapist one time. I had hope for her to change my life but she took one symptom i gave her and on the spot labled me with ocd. She didnt havr time to see me -whyd she take me inthe first place??? But worse off she told me she thinks one symptom is ocd forgetting I’m a human with evrything else i came. Def no diagnoses involved. I just wanted a future support. Anyway she turned her back labled me and gabe me a fat book of ocd to read. I didn’t have ocd. But i was soo confused!! Helpess she left me stranded on my own. I couldnt argue with a therapist doagnosing bit it hurt me. I shut down froze and couldn’t smile or talk and still am struggling. Its grey line. It killed me. Why? Its hard to see what so bad but she made me crazy. Do i have ocd? So whats the symptom all about? Shes a “good” therapist? Why in the world would this strange symptom randomly come up (right after a previous therapist dropped me) but she wouldve said if she thought it was something else. She boxed it into ocd and nothing else was in the picture. Why would this hurt me so badly. Im looking for answers. Lables and and especially mislabeling ( 2 therapists told me i dont have ocd!) Hurts!!! She saw me as ocd saw a need to lable me right at the fisrt session and never seeing me again.. there must be something abusive there i wont figure it out until i continue to do research. And stay in good therapy. Shes helping me though i have room to explore. Thanks for reading.


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