6 Tips for Labeling Correctly

How to Stop Mislabeling and What to Do Instead

November 1, 2020

Lazy. Stupid. Selfish. Crazy. Clumsy. Awkward. Loser. Sloppy. Dumb. Bad. Fake. Incompetent. Irresponsible. Not enough. Jerk.

We’ve all been told or called ourselves at least one of these words or concepts and experienced the charged emotions or flat defeat that these labels bring. Perhaps we’ve even fallen into mislabeling others using descriptive terms as well.  

Mislabeling is describing oneself or others with words that are heavily loaded emotionally and not completely true. Mislabeling involves the use of inaccurate, inflammatory descriptions… [i]

When you call yourself names based on things that have happened, you identify your shortcomings, making it all too easy to think things can never change. Soon you are stuck in a rut. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you reinforce a negative sense of self-worth by telling yourself that you’re a born loser, failure, rotten parent, bore, or even a creep. Mislabeling is based on the philosophy that “the measure of a man is the mistakes he makes.” [ii]

If you hold unrealistic expectations of others, it can be tempting to mislabel someone as selfish or uncaring if they do not devote all their attention to you. The problem with mislabeling is that, in addition to being self-defeating, it is quite irrational. Who you are simply cannot be equated with any one thing you do. [iii] David Burns makes this point clear: “Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue… This is nonsense, but such nonsense becomes painful when you label yourself out of a sense of your own inadequacies.”

Possible Outcomes of Mislabeling

When we habitually define ourselves or others in terms of a negative label, we are likely to stay angry and upset. [ii] Worse yet, we reduce our hope for change and it then becomes all too easy to resign to the social role implied by the mislabel.

Assigning a wrong label to someone is really a very powerful thing. Whether mislabels are levied by parents, siblings, peers or even oneself, the results can be crippling. Through mislabeling, people often create self-fulfilling prophecies where the very condition they predict comes true. [iii]

If you, your family, friends, or co-workers have been caught in a cycle of negative labeling, these five tips can help you break free of the trap.

Tip #1: Cultivate an Atmosphere of Respect.

While it is important for children to respect their parents, it is also critical for parents to avoid talking to their children in a manner that degrades them as individuals. A good rule to adopt as a family unit would be “I do not give verbal abuse.” When an entire family accepts the standard of respectful courtesy as their rule of life, the foundation for true family love will be laid and members will feel more emotionally safe. Home really can be a haven of rest and peace.

As you develop an atmosphere of respect toward others, don’t forget that it’s also very important to respect yourself. Many people talk to themselves in degrading ways they might never use on other people. This is detrimental to a true sense of self-worth. If you wish to be respected by others, you must also respect yourself and demonstrate that respect in your own self-talk.

Tip #2: Be a Model of Respectful Behavior.

People who were raised in a name-calling environment will find it especially tempting to slide into that rut. Some parents aren’t sure how to describe the poor behavior of a child without using negative labels. There is an easy solution, however. The key is to replace a negative label with a positive word instead. This does not mean to praise bad behavior. Rather, it means to correct bad behavior in more positive terms.

For example, if your son is mouthing off, telling him that “you need to be polite when speaking to me” is a better choice of words than calling him “rude.” When you put positive word choices into practice, others hear the “target words” or desired labels rather than the offensive ones. Over the course of time, the repetition of those positive target words can help others remember your goal of uplifting talk. So if you want your children to be smart, considerate, prompt, honest, helpful, kind, or creative, use those words consistently when directing behavior.

Tip #3: Explain to Others Why Name-Calling is Harmful.

Teaching a topic is often the best way to learn it. If you are in an authority or leadership role where opportunity is provided to share your wisdom with others, take an opportunity to explain what you have learned about mislabeling.

Many people lose sight of the fact that there are ways to express annoyance and frustration without resorting to insults. It’s fine to say, “I disagree” or “I don’t like what you did.” It’s also fine to say, “I am very unhappy with my actions this morning.” Given time and practice, you can learn to rephrase your language and self-talk to avoid the use of over-the-top, insulting terms.

Tip #4: Avoid Name-Calling As Entertainment.

Name-calling is such an integral part of some entertainment options that it’s practically impossible to watch them without falling into a similar habit… It is difficult to convince children of the evils of name-calling, either as applied to themselves or to others, after they have seen it so effectively modeled in entertainment films. If you really wish to stop name-calling, you would do well to avoid entertainment choices that portray hurtful name-calling as humorous.

Tip #5: Correct or Walk Away.

The key is to determine whether the label is inaccurate and needs to be gently corrected, or if it is the behavior that needs correction because the label is accurate. The following questions will help you decide if you should correct or simply walk away:

Is the label true and completely accurate?

If the label is accurate, is there anything to be gained from using it?

Are you labeling an error (this is safe), or a person (passing judgment)?

Is this label truly instructional, and does it allow for positive change?

When others mislabel in your presence, tactfully try to deter them. Asking a question such as “are you sure that is entirely accurate?” will often slow down a mislabeler long enough to consider the truth of their assertions, together with any consequences that might be attached. Emotionally charged language often sets the stage for mislabeling, but mentioning some positive points about the individual being mislabeled can help to offset or stall the inaccuracies from reaching wider circulation.

If someone mislabels you, take the high road and do not defend yourself. Realize you are responsible for your own emotions. If the label is accurate in any way, learn from your mistake and possibly let the name-caller know you are seriously working on changing. Your goal should be to defend others, though not yourself, from mislabeling.

Tip #6: Keep Track of Your Progress.

If mislabeling is a major problem for you, write down your slip-ups and victories. Keeping track is really the only way to know you are making progress as you seek to reframe your thinking.

Like the other cognitive distortions, overcoming the mislabeling habit comes down to being truthful and accurate in all that you say. [iv] Following the tips listed here will help you avoid mislabeling in your own words and tactfully correct it in the words of those around you. It’s always beneficial to stop and ask yourself, “Is what I just said accurate, or is it a mislabel?”

Adapted from The Lost Art of Thinking

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[i] Pucci, A. The Client’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: How to Live a Healthy, Happy Life… No Matter What! iUniverse.2006. 60.

[ii] Burns, D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1999.39.

[iii] Pucci, A. Feel the Way You Want to Feel, No Matter Wat! iUniverse. 2010. 64-67.

[iv] Beck, A, Alford, B. Depression: Causes and Treatment. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2009. 205.

About the author


Neil Nedley, MD, is a practicing physician in internal medicine. He is the founder and medical director of the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Programs™. Dr. Nedley has presented and published numerous scientific studies in the medical literature and is well known internationally as a public speaker and teacher. He is author of Proof Positive, Depression—the Way Out, The Lost Art of Thinking, and Optimize Your Brain. Dr. Nedley and his wife Erica have four sons.