Negative Thought Patterns: Labeling

how labeling and overgeneralizing can lead to detrimental thoughts about ourselves and others.
Photo by Do Nhu on Unsplash

Labeling is a type of cognitive distortion, or an unhealthy and irrational way of viewing the world. It occurs when we assign labels to ourselves or to other people based on a single instance or experience. That is, we make sweeping negative judgments by taking only one characteristic or instance and applying it to the entire person.

Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization because no one is the same all the time in every situation.

Examples of Labeling:

For example, let’s say that we declare someone as “irresponsible” or “unreliable” because he tends to be late to work, or declare someone as a “jerk” because he responded abruptly during one conversation. In these examples, we are generalizing because we take one characteristic or aspect of a person in a specific situation and apply it to the whole person. When we engage in labeling, we view the entire person through that one label such as “he is a jerk” and filter out any information that doesn’t fit under the umbrella of the label.

The problem with labeling is that it is an inaccurate and distorted way of thinking. That person who spoke to us abruptly may not be a “jerk” but he could have been simply in a hurry. Or he may be a very kind and caring person who happens to speak directly and to the point.

We can also apply labeling to ourselves to detrimental effect. Let’s say we get laid off from a job unexpectedly. We engage in labeling if we say to ourselves, “I am a failure” or “I am a loser.” You take one situation, one moment in your life, and you use it to label your entire persona as a whole. Never mind the fact that the company might not have been doing so well, or there has been some reorganization in the company.

How labeling can lead to self-sabotaging behavior:

Labeling can fuel negative emotions and painful emotions. Going back to our earlier example of being laid off from a job, if someone says to themselves “I am a loser” or “I am a failure” these negative thoughts will likely lead to negative emotions about oneself and one’s self-worth.

In addition to being a breeding ground for negative emotions, it is not constructive to help solve the problem. If you really believe yourself to be a “failure in life” how do you even go about solving this problem of being a “failure in life?” Instead, you have to recognize that you merely got laid off from one job, and there are many other companies out there, that would probably result in a more modest disappointment rather than despair.

More importantly, it will allow you to consider solutions to the problem like reaching out to a recruiter, updating your LinkedIn profile, or reaching out to friends and professional contacts to speak about new opportunities.

How labeling others can lead to painful emotions:

An example of how labeling others leading to painful emotions might be if I were to label my husband as “uncaring” because he doesn’t seem to be listening to me when I tell him about my day. I am inclined to feel miserable if I believe I am married to an uncaring person. On the other hand, if I consider the behavior as the problem rather than the person, it becomes easier to discuss it with him and potentially solve it.

For instance, it may be that he needs time to wind down at the end of his day or it could be that he was having a hard time concentrating in general because of something that happened at work that day.

How to break free from labeling:

When we notice ourselves engaging in the cognitive distortion of labeling, there is a simple solution: we must objectively describe the behavior that we notice.

For example, instead of saying someone is “irresponsible and unreliable” for being late to work we should just reframe it as “he is late to work frequently.” When we use more objective, and more accurate language, we’re likely to have fewer negative feelings stirred up. More importantly, the problems that seem unsolvable or the people who seem impossible may become much more manageable.

Instead of saying to yourself “I am a failure” for being laid off from your job, simply state the fact to yourself: “I was laid off from my job.” You are not a failure, you simply lost your job. It happens to many people and surely not every single one of them can be a certified failure!

How the Gospel can help us be more compassionate:

Labeling (or mislabeling) is basically an extreme form of overgeneralization in which we assign value either to ourselves to others based on one instance or experience. Typically we use highly emotional, loaded, inaccurate, and unreasonable language when we engage in labeling. The Bible provides us vast resources on how to correct this thing we call labeling.

We can address the following three questions:
1. How to understand cognitive distortions through the truth of the bible
2. What are passages in the Bible that can help you renew your mind to correct the incorrect thinking
3. How knowing Jesus will help propel the healing process regarding these cognitive distortions

Let’s start this with a couple passages from the Bible:
Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”

Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

As Romans 3:23 says, all have sinned – all of us have made mistakes. When we label others around us with hurtful names that insult their very being, it is a cognitive distortion. We have to remember we have all made mistakes. You and I may have various standards but by God’s standards, all of us have sinned. Not one of us is above the fray, not one of us is better than the other. Because of this, we need to have compassion for others before we haphazardly slap a negative label on them.

1 Peter says: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” If we have compassion for those around us, then we may be more hesitant to put disparaging and harmful labels on people like “loser” or “failure.” The Bible says love covers a multitude of sins, which means if we were to follow God’s message to love one another, we will not be on the lookout and focus on the flaws and imperfections of others. We would not be calling our fellow brothers and sisters “jerks” and “losers.”

Instead, if we were to follow God’s command to love one another, it should in fact make us more considerate about how we react to others. Instead of labeling someone, we could think more objectively about what is bothering us. We should pinpoint that one behavior troubling us and find a solution for it collaboratively. If it is experienced with a complete stranger where you do not have the time to find a solution, don’t let the negative experience bring you into sin. Remember, as someone who has been shown love from God, we can then turn around and cover over someone else’s sins. This is all made possible because we are receiving His love.

Why we should practice self-compassion:

The Gospel clearly shows us that we are beloved children of God. He loved us so much that e sent his only son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. If God loves us so much, why do we feel compelled to put harmful labels on ourselves? If we fuel thoughts about ourselves that are negative and contribute to self-hatred, we are dishonoring what God created and intended us to be.

How do we implement compassion for ourselves? It is anything from basic self- care such as eating nutritious food, taking care of the body that God gave you, getting enough rest, AND endeavoring to know Jesus and knowing he is close to me. Nurturing compassion for others and ourselves will help us let God’s love flow outwards.


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