Thinking Traps Part III: Labelling

Apprentice carpenter, Steve, loves loud music, drinking beer and violent sports. He was seriously injured in a fight he started while out on the weekend. Label: Jerk

Pasqual has never had a girlfriend. He is currently unemployed. He spends most of time gaming or trawling YouTube and Reddit. Label: Loser

Krystal fired three staff members. She has been rude and abrasive most days recently. Label: B****h

Our brain is a truly amazing thing. Running countless processes simultaneously. Helping us breathe, balance, move, listen, talk, read body language, scan for danger, plan and predict – all simultaneously. We are constantly bombarded with information and we can’t analyse all of it in detail with our conscious mind. What we do instead, we use mental short cuts.

Regular readers of this blog will know that many of the best things about the human mind can also be harmful. Mental shortcuts are no different. One of the most common mental shortcuts is Labelling. Labelling means describing or defining oneself or another person with a simple word or phrase: Stupid, Jerk, Loser. Labelling is an effective time-saving process that the brain uses to get to the point, rather than getting bogged down in considering every little messy detail. This cheap, easy categorisation helps us make sense of our complex lives.

There is a dark side to labelling. Labelling is a distortion; other people are always more complex than the labels we put on them. When we label others, we hurt ourselves. Labelling friends can make it less bearable to be around them. It is harder to remain friends with a Jerk than someone who can sometimes act like a jerk. It is harder to work under a boss who is a B****h than a boss who can be grumpy. Labelling stops us from seeing the trees for the forest. We form stereotypes, judge people as not worth knowing or trusting. Labelling leads to ungracious assumptions – we assume that people’s bad behaviour is indicative of a character flaw rather than current circumstances.

Even worse, in my opinion, is when we label ourselves. “I’m a loser”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m pathetic”. When we do this, we trap ourselves in our own words. If I’m a loser, then I must avoid people getting to know the real me, at all costs. If I’m stupid, then why even try at work or school. Even positive labels can become a straitjacket. If I’ve labelled myself “Smart” I might not be able to handle the thought of failing a test – “who am I if not the smart one?”

But its not just the self and others that suffer from labelling. Labelling can impede you understanding about almost anything. “This house is a dump” – not it’s not, it’s a building. “This job is toxic” no its not – it is not causing cell necrosis and organ failure.

What to do about labelling. Firstly, focus on behaviour rather than labels. “My Dad is mean” becomes, “my Dad acts mean sometimes”. “My friend is a liar” becomes “my friend lied about her plans last weekend”. Secondly, acknowledge the complexity of reality. Most things worth caring about are complex. People certainly are. Recognise nuance. “When he feels threatened, my dad acts mean”. “My friend often lies rather than give disappointing news to others”.

Steve was bullied mercilessly as a child. He now finds it difficult not to stand up for the underdog, even when that means fighting on behalf of (and with) strangers.

Pasqual is intelligent and thoughtful. He excels in practical science. His friends respect his honesty and integrity. He has severe social anxiety which developed during high school.

Krystal cares passionately about her work and her workers. If she doesn’t lose some staff the whole company might be in risk. She is devastated about her difficult position but is trying not to let her staff know how bad things are.

Remember: your brain loves shortcuts but sometimes these do you harm. By being more precise we can take the sting out of labels. We can learn and grow. What exactly don’t we like about those around us? When exactly do people around us act in a way we don’t enjoy? This deeper understanding takes time. A forest is dark and foreboding. A bunch of trees is much easier to deal with!

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