It is a tendency of human nature to like things to be recognizable and predictable. We want to slot people into neatly filed pigeonholes, and keep them there. The ones among us who really don’t do that are few and far between – I know that I do it myself, although less now than I used to. It’s really not a helpful habit though, and it’s one worth working hard to shake off. Nobody likes being labelled, or expected to fit other people’s expectations. After all, we are all works in progress. Who is the exact same type of person at 50 as they were at 20? Life shapes us, squeezes us, breaks us, rebuilds us, and just a few years can work a substantial transformation in who we are. 

In many ways, society has made great strides in recognising and accepting mental illness, as well as other illnesses and disorders that weren’t recognised in generations past – chronic fatigue syndrome, learning difficulties, for example. But still, misunderstandings and stigma cling to them. I’ve spoken before about the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding clinical depression, but they are even stronger about some other illnesses and disorders. Talk to anyone who has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or ME) and they will tell you of friends, family, sometimes (sadly) even doctors, who refuse to believe their symptoms, tell them ‘it’s all in your head’, suggest that if they just got out of bed and did some exercise they would be fine, and so on.

It’s sad, but it’s not too difficult to understand. Up until the latter few decades of the 20th Century, all mental illnesses were labelled as madness or insanity. Even epileptics were usually diagnosed as being either demon possessed, or mentally retarded. We’re talking centuries of belief here. Your parents, or your grandparents, grew up in a world where people who were mentally ill (from depression to schizophrenia) were feared and shunned, and possibly destined for an asylum. Society and the medical profession has made immense strides in understanding, diagnosing, and treating, mental illness, learning difficulties, immune system disorders, and so on. Hopefully the next generation will be so well educated and familiar with these problems that they shed all the misconceptions and stigmas that they can still evoke.

In the meantime, we have to do our personal best to treat others with the compassion, curiosity, and kindness that we hope to see in them. Instead of giving people our own personal labels, ones that blame and shame, let’s try to find out more about why they are the way they are, and give them extra support. Essentially, people are good, and try their hardest in life, whether we can see that on their surface, or not. Let’s try hard, not to label someone as lazy, stupid, a misery, crazy, selfish, or anything else that sums up their character in one negative characteristic, one that may be a symptom of an illness, and is more than likely something that they fight against every day. Calling someone by a negative label is one of the harshest things we can ever do, because it causes so much pain, and makes their every day struggle even harder. It never, ever helps or motivates. No child in school is going to improve their learning because a teacher calls them stupid or lazy. No one responds to that kind of negative poking in a positive way. All it does is, at best, leave us with a chip on our shoulder, or at worst, cause us to stop trying because it seems so hopeless. 

Most important of all: when a loved one, friend, colleague, work or school mate, tells us that they have depression, ADHD, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, dyslexia, Aspergers, or anything else that provokes a negative or sceptical response in us, be accepting, be compassionate. Don’t think – or worse still, say – “oh you’re just…… insert negative quality of your choice“. They will almost certainly already think negatively about themselves, and you confirming that will hurt and alienate them even further. Believe in them. Show that you sympathise, and that you have faith in them, and will do whatever you can to help them overcome their challenges, and live as full and happy a life as possible. Show your faith in them – people respond far more to that than to cynicism, criticism, and abuse.

And to do that, start with yourself. What negative labels do you give yourself? When you struggle with a task, or fail at something for some reason, what do you say to yourself? “I’m so stupid. Why am I so lazy? I’m such a loser. I’m a failure.” STOP! Fight those voices. Defend yourself. If we all get into the habit of doing that for ourselves, maybe it will be easier to do that for loved ones and friends.

Because nobody should have to walk through life with a huge LOSER/IDIOT/WASTER/WEIRDO label around their neck. Every one of us is worth far more than that. Let’s live up to our potential, and give others the dignity to live up to theirs too.

7 thoughts on “Labelling

  1. Dee, thank you from the bottom of my heart as a mother of kids with ADHD, epilepsy, Asperger Syndrome, dyslexia, compulsive behaviors and depression to name a few and not to name other more “normal” conditions. Thank you for your wise words.

  2. Thank you for writing words that so many of us think but don’t have the courage to say. As someone who constantly suffers with the ups and downs of depression and what people think about me, it is lovely to read.

  3. Thank you for writing this (especially the mention of M.E./CFS). I feel very strongly about this…which is why I am replying instead of my usual lurking!

    I think that too many people assume that they know things at times when actually they are quite misinformed and their assumptions then lead to these awful labels or non-belief of illness that others are suffering with. I have been on the receiving end of this myself a few times and it really does batter your self esteem and confidence…fortunately, I have a very wonderful and understand family, boyfriend and friends that are willing to learn and understand with my help.

    You are so right about past generations too. My dad’s mum nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar…but back then (1940-60’s) they said she had problems ‘with her nerves’ and she was made to go through ECT which I know my dad found very awful so I’m sure it was much much worse for her. I never got to meet her as she died before I was born but I feel such affinity to her due to my own illness and, although there are people still that do not believe or understand illnesses such as bipolar, there is a much broader group of people that do and so I am in a significantly better position than she was when dealing with this kind of illness.

    Raising the profile of M.E./CFS, bipolar, depression, ADHD, dyslexia, Asperger’s and other such illnesses is so very important so thank you so much for this post as every bit of exposure, no matter how small, can help. Even if one person reads this and makes a change in the way they think then it is a job well done.

    Sorry, bit of a rant there! As I said, I feel very strongly about it.

    I hope you have a lovely day and continue to fight the voices as I will try to do as well 🙂

    Love, Amy ~X~

  4. Went to see Ruby Wax’s show about her battle with depression on Saturday. It was brilliant. As both a wife and friend of people who suffer it helped to laugh and get perspective on it all. You too have the courage like Ruby to talk openly about it. Thank you and be proud of all that you are and all you achieve on a daily basis. Celebrate the small steps each and every hard earned one 🙂

  5. Thank you for your superb post write really well and your posts are always interesting to read.I always try to be positive in my comments and would refrain rather than be negative.All my working life I was a teacher so know how positive comments are the way forward .I too suffer from mild depression(I’m on medication) and as such find I can sink really low if I do not feel good about myself.Last week there were two incidentsI met a friend for coffee on Monday(she has lots of family problems).I bumped into her on Tuesday ,she put her hand on my arm,and said”I was telling B what a good friend Barbara(me) is and how i couldn’t do without our little chats.Run forward to Thursday.I go to a Book Group and we were discussing the book but we have a member who considers herself and another one to be above everyone else.Once she corrected my English and also talked me down on at least one other occasion.I came home feeling bad about myself and asking myself whether really I am thick and should not be in such a group.Which of the these two things is uppermost in my mind.Of course,the second negative one.I am getting over it now but am definitely thinking twice about putting myself in that position again.

    Soory to go on but it kind of fits in with what you were saying Dee.(You really should take up writing)

  6. Wow! I think you may be the first person I’ve read who mentions immune system disorders along with ME and CFS. The main link between these cruel and debilitating illnesses is obviously the immense fatigue, but immune system disorders also have the additional “joy” of being potentially life threatening. Yet still it took nearly 5 years from first physical symptoms to diagnosis of my lupus (SLE), even though in hindsight its very clear to me, my family and now even my doctors, that I had been suffering from many problems that are typical of SLE for many, many years.
    Typically at the time my fatigue was put down to laziness, my joint pain due to “growing pains” as a teenager, irregular periods were just one of those things, etc etc. The real sadness of all this was that I basically had no self esteem, or confidence which led to educational underachievement, low paid or no jobs, and far too many “duvet days” (when you spend the day hiding under the duvet).
    Then one night I got lucky. I woke up at 4am unable to breathe. Yes an odd thing to call lucky I grant you, but the plurisy is what led within a few days to a diagnosis. And treatment.
    It took months to get the balance of all my meds right but things slowly improved. People admitted they had been wrong to label me as lazy, I had a serious illness.
    Since then I have also been unlucky enough to go into kidney failure. Another debilitating illness. By January this year I was sleeping about 20 hours a day (and knitting for the other 4 😉 ). Then I got lucky again and was called for a transplant in February. I had a horrible month in hospital but since then have been getting better and better.
    So I’ve had 2 illnesses which led to people labelling me as lazy and moany. But with persistence and determination and a Hell of a lot of luck I’ve come out the other side, and with more luck my new kidney will work for a long time, my lupus will continue to behave and I’ll stay well, but so many are not as fortunate.
    What you have written is so important. It’s easy to label, we all do it. How often have you looked at that 30 year old getting out of a flash car parked in a disabled parking space and thought ‘bet they’re not really disabled’, I know I have, only to see they have no legs or are wheelchair bound or something. We must be vigilant with ourselves and hopefully it will grow from there.

    Sorry that went on a bit…

  7. I was struck by your comments about past generations shunning the mentally ill (although, a good number of those people were not “mad”). I watched a show about houses somewhere and they were going through a big, old, beautiful house and upstairs there was a “disappointment room” with a lock on the outside of the door. The explanation was that the family who built the house had a member of the family that was …. “different” and they kept her in this room so they wouldn’t have to explain her condition or have her where any outsiders could see her. I guess this was being considerate in the day–at least they hadn’t put her in an institution–but it was sad. I’m afraid I would have had to live in a disappointment room myself!!