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Caution! Using self-labels can be hazardous to your health

A viewer wrote in recently and I noticed that she tended to use negative labels to describe herself.  She is not alone in this!  Many of us, particularly those who suffer with major depression, bipolar depression or other mental illness, are prone to this.  We often see the world through dark gray lenses that color our life experiences and twist or distort everything to the negative.  That is one of the main symptoms of depression.  Labeling yourself in this way is also a common feature of those who have experienced harmful, stressful or negative life experiences as a young person and have come to believe the negative statements as true facts.

What do I mean by self-labels?   A self-label is a description you place on yourself or a way you regard yourself that is narrowly focused and pigeon-holes you in a certain way.  In this case I am talking about labels that are negative.  These labels are usually not correct and are a distortion of the real facts.  For example, it might be things like telling yourself “I’m no good”, “I’m the plain one, not the pretty one”, or “I’ll never amount to anything.”  Or hearing in your head statements like “You’re lazy” or “He’s the good one, you’re the bad one” and believing this is a permanent condition and not “fixable.”

You have to ask yourself where these negative statements come from?  Who is saying these things to you, and why?  Do they come from a parent or other authority figure who had an impact on your early life?  Just because an influential or controlling parent says something does not mean that it is a true statement.  Parents or grandparents, teachers, clergy and other authority figures are human, have flaws and make mistakes.  But as a child we do not know or understand this and cannot challenge them.  We believe their words to be true and bring them inside of us, something called internalizing.  Ask yourself now: do these statements have any foundation or basis for the truth? (the answer is no)

There is a danger in believing these negative statements and permanently declaring yourself “no good” or “unfixable.”   First, believing something that is not a true reflection of you can cause emotional pain and suffering.  It can have a major impact on the way you see yourself, think about yourself, and present yourself to the world.  In thinking this way your mind is closed off to the possibilities of what you might do, be or become in the future.  Experiences and opportunities that might have been available to you no longer are.  Since you don’t give yourself a chance you then set yourself up for failure, disappointment and unhappiness in life.

So how do you avoid using labels and prevent them from overtaking your thinking?  That takes a lot of concentrated effort and is a good thing to work on with your therapist, but also on your own in between times.  Here’s one way to begin.  The first step is to be aware and try to identify when it is happening.  Next is to challenge these negative thoughts one at a time.  When you recognize a negative label that you have just applied to yourself, stop and ask yourself if it is really true.  Try to think of where in your past it came from, who it is who might have said it to you.  Ask yourself if that thought applies now.

It can be very helpful to search out evidence for and against the negative thought as you try to challenge it.  Try this exercise: take a piece of paper and draw a line down the center.  On the top of one column write “Evidence For” and the other column write “Evidence Against”.  Start to fill in the two columns with concrete examples from your life that speak for or against the negative thought or label. You will then see that the negative label has little to support it.  Then think of an alternative thought to replace the label you just identified.  For example, if you notice that you automatically call yourself “lazy”, a negative label, you might think of times when you were very productive and accomplished things on time.  Your alternative thought could be “I’m pretty good at getting projects done most of the time.”

The important point is to treat yourself well, in a fair manner.  Try not to sabotage yourself by believing the unfair negative labels that were applied to you by somebody else a long time ago.  These can be haunting to you now if you don’t view them realistically and take some control over them.

Stay well!

This blog originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com as a post on View From the Mist.

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