Labelling means creating a complex, negative self-image based on your errors.

It is an extreme form of overgeneralisation.

Negative filteringThe 'philosophy' behind it is "the measure of a man [or woman] is the mistakes he [or she] makes". There is a good chance you are involved in labelling whenever you describe your mistakes beginning with "I'm a …"

For example, playing a round of golf, you miss a putt on the eighteenth hole, and you say, "I'm a born loser" instead of "I messed up on my putt."

Similarly, when the shares you invest in go down instead of up, you might think, "I'm a failure" instead of "I made a mistake".

Labelling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions and actions. As David Burns puts it, "you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels — they are overly simplistic and wrong. Would you think of yourself as an 'eater' just because you eat, or a 'breather' just because you breathe?" It's an error of thinking that can become filled with pain when you label yourself out of a sense of your own inadequacies.

If you label other people, you may invariably generate hostility. A common example is the boss who sees his occasionally irritable secretary as "an uncooperative 'airhead'." Because of this label, he resents her and jumps at every chance to criticise her. She, in turn, labels him an "insensitive chauvinist" and complains about him at every opportunity. So, around and around they go at each other's throats, focusing on every weakness or imperfection as proof of the other's worthlessness.

Techniques for 'un-distortion'

Robert Leahy has suggested a number of techniques to challenge labelling:

  1. Rate the degree of your belief and identify and rate your emotions.
  2. Identify exactly what you predict about yoru own (or another person's) behaviour.
  3. How would you define [the label]? For example, how would you define worthless and stupid?
    What is the opposite of [the label]? For example, what is the opposite of "worthless person"?
    How would you define the opposite? How would we know it if we saw it?
  4. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis:
    a. Do you think that labelling yourself will motivate you?
    b. Do you think that labelling yourself is realistic?
    c. If you didn't label yourself, how would your thoughts, feelings and behaviour change?
  5. Examine evidence for and against your negative label.
  6. What is the quality of the evidence that supports this belief that you are [rotten, undesirable, etc.]?
  7. What cognitive distortions are you using to support your belief? Are you thinking in all-or-nothing terms, discounting positives, using "should" statements, using a judgment focus, applying negative filters?
  8. How could you prove that your thought is wrong? Is it testable?
  9. Rather than focus on labelling the whole person, think about some different behaviours — positive, negative and neutral — that you see in this person.
  10. Describe the situations in which this person displays a positive and negative behaviour. Is there any pattern?
  11. How was this person seeing the situation? Did he or she have a different point of view, a different need, different information?
  12. As yourself, "Would everyone label this person in such a negative way? Why not?