Find out about the negative thinking pattern of labeling and ways to overcome this cognitive distortion.
Labeling is a type of faulty thinking pattern, known as a cognitive distortion, that can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and dissatisfaction. According to the theory of cognitive therapy, our thoughts make up our reality. Therefore, pessimistic and fear-based thoughts can play a role in increasing one’s symptoms of depression and anxiety.
People who struggle with panic disorder frequently fall into habitual negative thinking patterns. Labeling involves a person negatively evaluating themselves and mistakenly believing that their weaknesses dictate who they are as a person. Labeling typically occurs when a person calls themselves a demeaning name or refers to their lives in a derogatory way. A person who is labeling may think to themselves, “I did this wrong. I’m such an idiot.”
Below are some examples of labeling and ways that you can learn to overcome this cognitive distortion.
Mark typically is a punctual, intelligent, and self-reliant person. Recently, he accidentally missed an important doctor’s appointment. Mark was caught up in a lot of scheduling and planning that was going on at work and he simply forgot about the appointment. His doctor’s office called back to reschedule, but Mark was too ashamed to answer the call. He is feeling embarrassed and disappointed with himself. Mark tells himself that “I always find a way to mess things up. I don’t deserve another appointment.” He labels himself as being “an absent-minded and irresponsible person.” He thinks, “I can’t believe I did that. Only a complete fool would miss such an important medical appointment.”
Often, people diagnosed with panic disorder will negatively label themselves due to their symptoms and difficulties. For instance, a person who experiences frequent panic attacks or other symptoms of panic disorder may unfairly label themselves as “crazy,” “neurotic,” or “pathetic.”
Mark is generalizing his one mistake to describe himself as a person. If he were to look at things more realistically, he would recognize these labels don’t fit him in every situation. Mark may be forgetful about appointments, but he always gets to work on time. Mark can also use this experience as a way to grow. He can consider possible ways to improve his planning capabilities and work on using a calendar or another system to help become more organized with his schedule.
Using labels only increases a person’s feelings of stress and unhappiness. People diagnosed with panic disorder or any other mental health disorder do not deserve to be given such judgmental labels. Think about it: Would you label a loved one such harsh names if they shared with you that they are struggling with an anxiety-related condition>
Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that we are what we think we are. If you label yourself an unflattering term, then you will treat yourself as though you are that label. To begin to overcome this cognitive distortion, start by first observing when you are negatively labeling yourself. Challenge these thoughts and try to come up with times when you do not fit this label. Are there positive labels that you can give to yourself instead? It can be helpful to write this exercise out, first writing down the label you gave yourself and then reframe your thought by writing down times when it doesn’t fit who you are. Over time, you may begin to see yourself in a more positive light.
Burns, D. D. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” Avon Books: New York, 1999.
Burns, D.D. “When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life” Broadway Books: New York, 2006.