Label Jars, Not People

labelsWhat’s in a label?: Labels are everywhere. We label people by gender, race, sexual orientation, body size, personality, politics, and so on. With every label comes an image, and with this image comes a prescribed set of behaviors. Girls should be polite and follow the rules; boys have lots of energy and sometimes can’t help their unruliness. People with bodies like runway models are beautiful; people with curves need to lose weight. If you cry a lot, you’re a wimp or overly emotional; if you hold back your feelings, you’re in control and rational.

Diagnostic Labels: In the mental health field, as everywhere, labels, or diagnoses, can be useful generalizations, but they can also be harmful stereotypes. Unlike medical diagnoses, psychiatric diagnoses are not as exact or objective, nor are they based on x-ray results or laboratory findings. Psychiatric diagnoses depend instead on clinicians’ interpretations of behaviors and feelings and quite often involve value judgments about what is “normal” and what is not.

Diagnoses may be helpful when they facilitate communication among clinicians and researchers or when they offer some guidelines about how to proceed with treatment. They can be harmful when they are stigmatizing or when they pathologize behaviors or temperaments that simply don’t fit into a culture’s definition of acceptable roles or behaviors, but are not necessarily mental disorders. Because insurance companies require diagnoses in order to cover therapy, our work as psychotherapists often means we are required to diagnose. Our focus in therapy, however, focuses not upon these diagnoses or labels, but on understanding clients’ issues and the possible impact of ineffective or oppressive societal, cultural, familial, or political systems on clients.

  1. Julie -oo- June 22, 2006

    Yes, labels can hurt more than help…usually. And there is a very fine line between helpful and hurtful labeling of any kind.

    Granted Miss Keller is a product of her time and yet I think Helen is right on the mark even for today when she says: “A person who is severely impaired never knows his hidden sources of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape his own life.”

    Her label, “severely impaired”, is not meant to be read as an expression of denail of her sense of self and identity. Rather, Helen’s use of the label “severely impaired” is perhaps an equivalent to today’s preferred “Deaf-Blind” or “Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing” labels. All three terms are meant to be expressions of and support for self-empowerment of Deaf-Blind and Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals. In this sense labeling is not only healthy, it’s also a symbol of personal power because the individual has mentally accepted a label that may or may not have caused some anguish in the process.

    At least that’s my “interpretation” of Miss Keller’s quote. Smiles.


  2. Tom June 24, 2006

    Your recent post re. various forces (political, cultural etc) reminds me of a book I read that documented the different understanding of various medical conditions (heart disease etc.) in different countries attributed to differences in culture. Also, in the U.S. the legal definition of death has undergone several transformations even to the point that some argue the transplant doctors were a major force in adopting the cessation of brain wave definition because it allowed the harvesting of organs even when the heart was still pumping but no brain activity.
    This yielded much higher quality organs than was the case when death was defined as the cessation of heart activity.

  3. Julie Rems-Smario March 1, 2007

    I found this via Jay’s vlog about labeling. So true! I always believe in avoiding labels and meeting where the person is. Just meet her where she is in her world and understand where she is coming from. I am using the word “her” because majority of people using our services are women. (Here I go with gender labels )

    I dont know if you have the same observation, but I noticed the misuse, abuse or overuse of the diagnosis, Borderline personality, on many Deaf individuals getting counseling sessions. Its a serious “label” creating undue burden on many of the Deaf women I worked with.


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