Is Labeling Making Your Anxiety and Depression Worse?

Labeling can strengthen or even trigger a depressive episode

Could Labeling be Making Your Anxiety and Depression Worse?

Unhelpful Thoughts Are Irrational and Unrealistic.

If I had to sum up the most important lesson from cognitive therapy in one sentence it would be this:

The way you think controls how you feel.

That might sound weird at first, but trust me, there’s nothing odd about it. This is exactly how the mind works.

Helpful thoughts make you feel stronger, better, and more confident.

Unhelpful thoughts do the opposite. They break you down and strip you of your confidence.

One of the many things you learn in cognitive therapy is to observe, examine, and challenge your unhelpful thoughts.

When this technique is practiced often, you’ll start understanding something very important….

Most unhelpful thoughts are irrational and unrealistic.

Some quick examples, we can’t read minds or tell the future, but we often act like we can.

  • “That date went horribly, she’ll never want to see me again.”
  • “I give up, it’s useless, no matter how hard I try I’ll never make it.”

Check Your Thoughts for Distortions

You can probably imagine the effect that these thoughts would have on someone’s confidence and self-esteem… And it’s not exactly pretty.

But how do we tell if a thought is actually irrational and unrealistic?

In CBT this is done by checking if the thought has any cognitive distortions.

The cognitive distortions are a list of common logical flaws that we often make when thinking and analyzing our surroundings.

Cognitive Distortions

For example, when we catastrophize we only consider the worst case scenario even if it’s incredibly unlikely.

  • “What if this chest pain means there’s something wrong with my heart…”

Or during emotional reasoning we believe something is true just because we feel that way.

  • “I feel like something bad will happen if I go to work today, I better stay at home.”

Labeling is another very common cognitive distortions.

When you label, as the name implies, you put a label on someone else or yourself.

Once someone has been put into a box through labeling, it can often be difficult to get them back out of that box.

Labeling Makes Your Depression Worse

Labeling is especially common in depressive disorders. And like all cognitive distortions they can strengthen or even trigger depressive episodes.

I know I’m prone to depression, and I’ve certainly labeled both myself and others now and then.

Take for example the thoughts:

  • “I’m worthless”,
  • “I’m an idiot”,
  • “They are so stupid.”

These are all thoughts I’ve caught myself thinking and believing at times.

Imagine what happens to your psyche if your reaction to making a mistake is to call yourself a worthless idiot… And in that moment you even believe it to be true.

No wonder these labels are so common and strong in depression.

In his book Feeling Good, David D. Burns writes at length about labeling and other cognitive distortions.

He writes:

“Labeling 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. To put it another way, you’re more like a river than a statue.

Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels – they are overly simplistic and wrong.

Something Has to Change

It seems obvious that if we keep labeling ourselves and others we’ll have a harder time breaking out of depression.

Something has to change with the way we view ourselves, other people, and our surroundings.

What I want you to do is to start being more aware of your thoughts when your mood is down. You can even write your thoughts down, and I really recommend you do.

This is a technique known as thought journaling and it’s a cornerstone of cognitive therapy.

If you want to change your thoughts, you need to be aware of them, but this awareness comes with training.

Make it a habit to observe your thoughts, especially when depressed or anxious.

When you write your thoughts down you can use something known as the triple column technique.

3-Column-Thought-Diary Worksheet

We have the three columns named situation, automatic thought and rational responses.

In the first column you write down the situation or trigger that caused your anxious thoughts.

In the second column you write down any thought containing a label. You can even write down thoughts that don’t have labels, it’ll work the same way.

Finally in the third column you’re going to examine and challenge your thoughts.

Examine and challenge Your Labeling

What you’ll find when working with labels is that most of them are unrealistic or completely impossible.

Let’s take a look at the thought:

  • “They rejected my application… I guess I’m not good enough, I’m so worthless”

We want to examine this thought to see if it’s actually realistic, so let’s ask some questions.

Is there any evidence that the application being refused means you’re overall worthless?

Maybe you find some evidence to support that belief, if so, that’s actually great.

Now let’s look for some evidence against it.

Is it really true that being rejected for a job makes someone worthless, or maybe we’re being too harsh?

Let’s see if there’s any evidence to support that we’re not worthless.

  • “Well my friends and loved ones seem to find me quite worthy, even though I don’t feel like I am.”
  • “I can also remember many times when I wasn’t rejected, or even the opposite…”

After examining and challenging your labels and the thoughts surrounding them, you want to write down some more realistic responses.

In this instance with this specific thought I ended up going with these:

  • “Having my application rejected for a job offer can’t make me worthless, but maybe I wasn’t the best candidate.”
  • “I’m sure everyone has been rejected several times throughout their lives, so it’s actually something I should expect.”

When you challenge your thoughts in this way they quickly lose their power over your mood.

But don’t stop there, write down other thoughts and challenge those too. And if you ever catch yourself using labels, remind yourself to think realistically.

But Are You Still Labeling Other People?

When you first start being more aware of labels and how unhelpful and irrational they are, don’t forget to extend that to other people as well.

Just like the labels you put on yourself aren’t realistic and true, the ones you place on others are equally flawed and impossible.

The best we can do is to keep an open mind and remember just how complicated a person is.

You can’t place yourself neatly into a box, and you’ve probably noticed others attempting to do so in the past.

  • “She’s a bad person.”
  • “He’s selfish and only cares about himself.”
  • “They are evil and can’t be trusted.”

These are all examples of labeling other people, and it’ll hold you back just as much as labeling yourself.

Nothing good can come from labeling others and putting them into a box, it practically guarantees a negative outcome for everyone involved.

Do yourself a favor and don’t label others anymore than you want them labeling you.

Let’s instead keep an open mind and try to be fair in our judgments of ourselves and those around us.

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