Labels are useful things. With a label we identify things with just one word. Instead of saying, “You know, that thing with four wheels that we use to go places”. I can just say, car. Medical labels are useful, instead of having to describe all my symptoms I can just say I have shingles.

But sometimes labels are harmful. Particularly psychological labels. This is because once someone receives a psychological label, they tend to try to live up to it (or down to it). Psychological labels are often used as an excuse to continue to behave in ways that hurt the person or others.

I have worked with a lot of young people who are labeled as ADD or ADHD. They understand the label as saying they have limits, they cannot overcome. It just means that some parts of life are harder for them than they are for some other people. The label is intended to help us understand how life works for me because that understanding will help me be successful in life. But often people surrender to the label and work toward what the label says they should be.

Depression is another frequent label that does a lot of harm. I would say that most of the people I meet with who present as being depressed are not really depressed. Sometimes they are grieving, and because of the circumstances of their life they should be grieving. Life for them will be harder for a while. They have suffered a great loss and they feel it. But the way we respond to grief is different than for depression. It’s important we take the time to understand what’s really going on, so we can seek out the correct response and support.

Other times people who think they are depressed are just stressed and trying to keep too many balls in the air for too long. Mothers of young children often find themselves in this situation. They think they are a failure which only contributes to the problem. But the answers for stress are different than the answers for depression. (Businessmen and women also have this problem.)

We have been taught to use the label “depression” to cover too many of life’s situations. Grief, stress, discouragement, confusion, setbacks in life and other life situations are labeled “depression”. It is not a useful label in these situations.

If you have a label, be aware of the human tendency to allow labels to define us. Just because someone labeled you as stupid does not mean that you are stupid. Labels are useful when they help us handle life more successfully. Labels are harmful when they make life harder.

Are the labels of your life helping or hurting your ability to be successful in life? If your labels are hurting, counseling can help.