Another in my series of posts on unhelpful thinking styles and this time I'm targeting 'Labelling'. Labelling, or global negative rating of the self or others, is a type of thinking which follows close on the heels of a situation where you or another person has failed to meet your standards or your goal. Typical and common self inflicted labels include: "loser", "failure", "idiot", "stupid", "unworthy" or any number of harsher and even sweary adjectives. Feel free to add your own to this list.
Labels are when you put yourself or others down in an unfairly harsh and critical way. If you label others, it exacerbates any angry feelings you may have towards them. If you down yourself, it only decreases your mood, making you feel disappointed in yourself, angry at yourself, depressed, increasingly anxious, perhaps guilty and ashamed. In short, your emotions will take a big hit. (In this post, I'm going to help you to consider self labels, but many of the same strategies can be applied if you find yourself labelling others too.)
What's your poison?
Consider for a moment how you relate to yourself when things don't go the way you want them to. What do you tell yourself? What is the impact of this? Do you feel this in your body somewhere? What do you feel like doing when this happens? Chances are you can easily imagine a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, or feel tense as you consider any of the negative labels you pin on yourself even if you only do this from time to time. If you do this regularly, how do you think this might affect your over the longer term? Maybe the feeling makes you want to run away, hide or lash out?
None of this would be surprising, as self criticism activates our threat system, which increases levels of cortisol and adrenaline. This, in high doses, is not in our interests if we would like to manage our emotions in a helpful way.
Thinking about your labels
Tackling our tendency to label ourselves is first of all noticing when we do this, and the situations where we might have a tendency to do so. Then we can be ready...
Compassionate questioning can be helpful. You can ask yourselves simple questions. Be mindful to use a kind and caring tone such as you would if you were enquiring to someone you really care about...
What's the impact of relating to yourself in this way? How do you feel? How does it make you want to behave?
Does it make sense to sum yourself up with a single radically damning adjective?
Are you overlooking some of the many other attributes which make the whole of you? Remember that some of the things that unite us all as human beings are that none of us are perfect, we all struggle, and we all mistakes but we all have an untouchable value that remains unchanged... Can you take some steps towards accepting yourself - all of the good and all of the bad? (There's another perspective on this here: What's not on the label)
That goal you didn't reach? Are you 100% responsible for this? Are there other factors which you might take into account?
That rule you set? Was it fair? Did you set up an impossible demand on yourself?
Are you expecting yourself to be something other than a fallible human being?
What would a very close and caring friend sum you up in this way? If not, why not?
Peel off your labels
Be honest with yourself. There may be a part of you which is reluctant to give up on the negative labeling or that critical inner voice. But going on past experience how has that worked so far? What kind of relationship would you like to have with yourself?
What do you think that your inner critic wants for you deep down? Does it have the same desires as the most compassionate and forgiving part of yourself? If so, what might it be like to talk to yourself in the same tones, with the same kindnesses as you would to someone who was very dear to you?
These questions can be soul-searching and sometimes you may need the help of a therapist or a loved one you can trust to work these through. But I hope some of these questions go a little way to helping you to identify how you may hurt yourself with your labels and how you can begin to treat yourself in a more supportive and helpful way.
Take a look at the other ranges of unhelpful thinking styles for further tips on managing your thoughts in a new way...
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath. For further information on how she works, take a browse round the website, or to get in touch, use the contact form on the Contact page above.