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In part 10 of my series on Cognitive Therapy, let’s meet Emily.
Emily’s having a rough day, because her boss just yelled at her.
And that isn’t even the worst part – she got yelled at over something that wasn’t even her fault.
That’s so wrong, right? She didn’t deserve that.
So, Emily does something that I think we all can relate to – she chews him out in her head. “What a JERK!” she thinks.
But notice that, instead of focusing on his JERKY behavior, Emily has slapped this term on him as a person.
LABELING & MISLABELING
Instead of focusing on the mistake, you and I target and attack the person who made the mistake.
But it gets worse.
We add other distorted thoughts into the mix, like jumping to conclusions or looking at things through a negative mental filter.
This means our judgment is often not even accurate or fair. So instead of just labeling, we mislabel them.
Why Name-Calling Doesn’t Work
Labels and name-calling shut down our ability to see people for who they really are.
Psychiatrist David Burns says that when we have been wronged by someone, we often “monster-ize” that person in our heads in order to justify our anger toward him or her.
Let’s be honest – it’s a lot easier to attack a monster than a real person, isn’t it?
And just how obligated do we feel to try to understand or empathize with a monster?
In fact, if we’re really being honest, we get some pleasure out of calling someone a jerk, a rat, or a moron. Name-calling can feel kind of cathartic, like gut-punching a nasty monster.
But here’s the problem. In the other person’s mind, he or she is likely gut-punching the monster-ized version of you or me.
So around and around we go, with misunderstandings escalating into hostilities which escalate into all-out wars.
While name-calling may feel good, we all know that it actually does harm. It just blocks the others’ ears up with insult and acrimony.
How Cognitive Therapy Can Help
Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
- Why am I using this label for this person?
- Does the label always apply, or am I overgeneralizing my view of this person?
- Am I monster-izing him or her?
Principle #2: Be a REALIST.
Let’s shift the focus a bit.
We’ve talked about labeling others, but we also label ourselves sometimes. Let’s say you call yourself a “FAILURE.”
What does this term mean to you?
Maybe it means:
- not being successful all the time;
- not achieving all your goals; or
- not matching someone else’s success.
In this case, the label “FAILURE” should be applied to the entire human race, because no one is 100% successful and everyone has failed at something.
Such a universal term becomes meaningless and unimportant – if everyone is a “FAILURE” by these unrealistic standards, then essentially that means no one is.
It makes no sense to judge others or ourselves based on single actions, rather than the whole narrative of life. Dr. Burns puts it this way:
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. Stop trying to define yourself with labels – they are overly simplistic and wrong. Would you think of yourself exclusively as a “breather” just because you breathe? This is nonsense, but such nonsense becomes painful when you label yourself out of a sense of your own inadequacies.”
We are all far more than our mistakes and failures.
We are also our dreams and our aspirations to do better.
Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.
Being yelled at is unpleasant, of course. And if it’s based on a misunderstanding, it’s also unfair.
It’s normal to react to unfair treatment with anger and frustration, but the question is, then what? What’s the best way to handle it?
It may feel good to vent my sad story, punctuated with nasty names like “JERK” and “MORON.”
Oh yeah, mentally gut punching that monster can feel really good.
But this is about the only benefit that labeling offers us.
And it comes at the cost of escalating hostilities.
A more helpful approach is to focus on the behavior, not the person.
Emily’s boss did a jerky thing. But while calling him a “JERK” may not go down very well, Emily could point out his unfair treatment in a respectful and assertive way.
Labeling a person makes one single behavior an inseparable part of one’s identity, but labeling the behavior makes it a separate and changeable part of one’s life.
Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.
This has a practical benefit: we all respond better to constructive criticism, given in an affirming spirit, than to demeaning criticism.
We have all heard the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
But in reality, words can shatter relationships and build walls of hostility and ill-will.
We are each responsible for the words we say against others and against ourselves.
So, we should watch them carefully.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 39.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 157.
 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 51-55.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 40.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.