Depression makes us pin negative labels on ourselves. Depression makes us call ourselves names. Depression tries to convince us that we’re bad people and deserve our pain. This is one of the most destructive, painful mechanisms of depression.
Fortunately, it is within our power to notice this process, stop ourselves from doing it, talk back and fight back. This change is not simple or easy, but it can be done. Best of all, you’ll feel a little better as soon as you start. Fighting back feels good and gives you the energy to keep fighting back.
Labeling and Mislabeling
In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns lists “Labeling and Mislabeling” among the key cognitive distortions in depressive thinking.
Personal labeling means creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors. […] There is a good chance you are involved in a personal labeling whenever you describe your mistakes with sentences beginning with “I’m a …” […]
Labeling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. […] Would you think of yourself as an “eater” just because you eat, or 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. […]
Mislabeling involves describing an event with words that are inaccurate and emotionally heavily loaded.
Cognitive distortions like labeling are both symptoms of depression and causes of depression. When your depression is at a low point, irrational negative self-labeling becomes more common. And if you let this process go unchecked, it will keep causing you pain and make it that much harder to break out of depression. It’s a negative feedback loop.
Our goal is to start a positive feeback loop instead. The first step is to notice the act of labeling when we do it. Notice the hateful words that depression flings at us. The second step is to cut it out. Don’t let labeling go unchallenged. When labels pop into our heads, tell ourselves they’re nonsense. Ban those hateful words from our vocabulary. The final step will be to talk back, to formulate rational, positive alternatives to these labels.
Let’s get specific. What “labels” are we talking about here?
Words We Need to Stop Using
Every depressed person has their own distinct way of beating themselves up, but there are some common buzzwords of self-loathing in our culture. If you notice yourself saying or thinking these words to yourself, that’s probably depression at work.
“Loser” — Damn, I hate this word. This is the ultimate “completely negative self-image” label in modern culture. And it’s nonsense. There’s no such thing as a “loser”, just someone who has depression whispering “loser” in his or her ear. Eliminate this word from your vocabulary altogether.
“Failure” — Everyone fails sometimes and succeeds sometimes. Depression pushes us to downplay our accomplishments and treat the occasional setback as proof that we’re “a failure”. This label can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you believe from the start that you won’t succeed at something, there’s a good chance you won’t. But “failure” is not a personal quality, it’s just a mindset that you can reject and change.
“Lazy” — Depressed people often apply this word to themselves. It’s a classic example of turning an occasional mistake into a permanent personal failing. Many depression sufferers struggle with procrastination and motivation, but that’s a problem that can be overcome with some practice. “Lazy” is not an innate quality. It’s a particularly insidious label because depression is essentially telling you, “you lack the energy or character to take action, so why bother”. That’s nonsense.
“Worthless” — Another hateful word that depression flings at us. When this word pops up in your thoughts, try to recognize that it’s something painful you’re feeling right now, not something you are. The pain is real, but the label is nonsense.
A few others in unfortunately common usage: “idiot”, “stupid”, “pathetic”, “screw-up”. You might have a few personal labels of your own. They can be adjectives or nouns. The important thing is to recognize them as bogus labels, recognize that they’re harmful and unreasonable nonsense, and don’t let them pass unchallenged.
How to Fight Back
To effectively fight this process of negative self-labeling, we need to develop rational, positive responses to those labels. When those hateful words pop into our heads, we want to notice it happening, challenge and reject the bogus label, and substitute this rational, positive response.
Ideally we want the positive response to become just as automatic as the negative label used to be.
Some practical habits can help us get there.
Negative labels are examples of what cognitive therapists call “automatic negative thoughts”. David Burns recommends a simple three-column written exercise — outlined in our post “Cognitive Therapy for Depression: How to Get Started” — for countering automatic negative thoughts. Write down the thought (for example, “I’m so pathetic”) and the specific cognitive distortion (in this case “labeling and mislabeling”), then write out your rational, positive response. The process of writing really helps make the response stick. Print out some worksheets and get started.
You might also try these “Give Yourself Credit” journaling exercises. Brainstorm and write down your past accomplishments and your positive personal qualities. Review or add to the lists whenever you feel like it. When labels like “loser”, “failure” and “worthless” pop into your head, it’s useful to have concrete counterexamples ready at hand.
Or try this scenario the next time self-hating labels invade your thoughts. Imagine that someone you care about is berating themselves, calling themselves cruel names. How would you respond to that person?
You would probably encourage them to think more positively, not to obsess about past setbacks quite so much. You would remind them of their good qualities and encourage them to feel hopeful about the future. You wouldn’t lie to that person, you would just be reasonable, supportive and compassionate. People suffering from depression tend to be very reasonable, supportive and compassionate toward everyone except themselves. When negative labels pop into your head, imagine what you would say to a loved one who blurted out “I’m such a loser” or “I feel worthless”. Try turning that reasonable, supportive and compassionate nature on yourself.
Does It Really Matter?
You might be tempted to ignore this advice. You might see labeling as a mere symptom of depression, not the important thing to target. Maybe I can stop saying these specific words to myself, but that won’t change how awful I feel. This sounds logical, but it’s wrong.
Or you might think, I’m only joking when I say that, I don’t really mean it, so it’s not a big deal. This might be true for people with high self-esteem and without depression. But people who suffer from depression should avoid putting themselves down, even if it feels like “humor”.
Negative thinking really does have emotional power. Negative labeling has power. If we let these self-hating labels pass unchallenged, over and over and over, we’ll find it hard to take positive action and get motivated and change the things we want to change.
If, on the other hand, we develop the habit of noticing and challenging these labels, we’ll find it easier to take action and make changes. We’ll find it easier to cultivate other positive habits. Consciously rejecting words like “loser” and “worthless” really can make us feel better and stronger. Positive thinking has emotional power too.