This is my ninth post in the Cognitive Distortions Series. “Cognitive distortions” is another name for beliefs that hold us back and prevent us from living our best lives. The key reality for this series is that our thoughts have profound effects on our perceptions of reality. In order to improve our lives, we must first become aware of our false or negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
The cognitive distortion of labeling occurs when we take overgeneralization to the extreme. We take a characteristic or a behavior of a person (maybe even ourselves), label it, and apply it to the entire person. If your boss is short and to the point, you may label him a grouch and everything he does would be forever seen through this lens. No matter what he does, you attribute his behavior to him being a grouch. No allowances are made for the fact that he is just a man of few words, is incredibly busy, or has other things on his mind. Nope—he’s just a grouch today, tomorrow, and forever in your mind!
Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time you could make a joke that falls flat. You immediately start blaming yourself for saying stupid things. In fact, you could even end up calling yourself stupid. You might even rant on and on about how you are so stupid. You always say stupid things. You never get things right. You should just keep your mouth shut! You get the picture.
Ever been there? I have. It’s not pleasant.
The problem with these types of labeling is that they are so global. We take a snapshot out of time, separate a particular behavior, make a snap judgement about it, label it, and then act on it. In the above example of the boss, your relationship will be defined by your assessment that he is a grouch. If your mind were open to other possibilities, you might have a great relationship and perhaps even move ahead in your career. In the case of labeling yourself stupid, your self-esteem will plummet and, if you are indeed a stupid person (like you say you are), you will begin to perform and behave like a stupid person (thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy). In both cases, you will discount any other information that might come up that would dispute your label. Soon, the label you create will feel more like reality and over time you will believe it as if it were a fact.
The problem is that this cognitive distortion is, well, a distorted way of thinking. Your boss might be a perfectly nice man who, under the right circumstances, is quite friendly and talkative. Making a broad assumption of this nature is almost never correct. We do a disservice to our boss as well as fail to allow a different sort of relationship to grow. You most likely are not a stupid person. You might have spoken out of turn or found something humorous that others didn’t appreciate, but that hardly makes you stupid. If these assessments are left unchallenged, you can see the damage they can do in your life. The result could be depression, despair, loss of self-confidence, or worse.
On the other hand, if you looked at these things as behaviors and not a characteristics, they would be changeable. We can’t do much about our characteristics but we can definitely change our behaviors. Instead of feeling hopeless, we can have hope for the future.
So, what can you do?
- When you first notice that you are engaging labeling, STOP.
- Remind yourself that this is not a characteristic, but rather a behavior.
- Describe the behavior.
- Ask yourself what the outcome would be if you or the other person changed the behavior.
- Would the label still apply?
- What would be a more accurate way to describe what you are labeling (the behavior)? Resist the impulse to make it global. Just because a person acted like a jerk in one situation doesn’t mean he or she actually is a jerk all the time.
We are all guilty of labeling. Most of the time we are not even aware of it! Even if we are aware of it, we don’t recognize the harm it does to our relationships with others or with our beliefs about ourselves. Each time we label, a little red flag should wave in our brains to remind us to re-frame and restate what we just thought or said. In time we will fall out of the habit of globally labeling and our relationships with others—and ourselves—will improve.
If you would like some help with your cognitive distortions, drop me an email. I’d love to help you. Remember: when you change your thoughts, you’ll change your life!