- We use harmful, negative labels to describe ourselves and others.
- Words like selfish, stupid, spoiled, and lazy are all used casually.
- But they can be more damaging than we realise.
- Often, we use these words because they’re easier than examining the real issue.
- Here are the six terms, and what they really mean when we say them.
It’s a curse of humanity that we are often highly critical of ourselves. We don’t tend to give ourselves the same sympathy and understanding we are willing to provide others.
For example, you might feel shame over something that happened way back in your distant past, when you were a child. Nobody else is likely to judge you for decisions you made in your younger years, but for some reason, you hang on to it for years, or even decades.
In a blog post for Psychology Today, psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner wrote about the corrosive habits people develop in how they relate to themselves, and others. Some labels, for instance, come from toxic places.
Brenner identified six words we shouldn’t use, because they are “accompanied by feelings of moral judgment, hatred and utter rejection.”
“Rather than understanding the nuance and creating bridges for understanding and communication, such labelling reflects underlying either-or thinking, generally fragmenting us apart from ourselves and each other in an act of linguistic violence,” he wrote. “These are dividing words, misunderstanding concepts, rather than language which joins and deepens mutuality and self-relationship.”
Here are the six terms, and what they really mean when we say them:
People use the word “lazy” a lot, Brenner said, when they haven’t done something they think they should have. It suggests there’s something fundamentally wrong with you if you can’t work hard, for whatever reason.
By doing this, you avoid finding out what is really wrong. So if you start calling yourself lazy, ask yourself why you’re feeling unmotivated. Procrastinators and do-ers have different brains, so the answer may simply be to give yourself smaller goals.
As Betty Draper said in “Mad Men,” “Only boring people get bored.” In reality, that’s probably not true, said Brenner, because feeling bored may mean there are underlying emotions we are ignoring. Rather than facing their anxiety, for example, some people may jump to boredom as an explanation for why they feel stuck in a rut.
“Using boredom this way is usually associated with having one’s mind go blank,” Brenner wrote. “We become unable to think about anything other than being bored, effectively preventing us from getting out of the boredom and paralysis.”
This word assumes we cannot have two points of view, and can’t have internal conflicts. People are sometimes genuinely hypocritical, but sometimes we use it because we refer to things this way because it’s easier than dealing with the actual issue.
Rather than jumping to this conclusion, you should look at multiple sides of the problem, and remember that there is a context, Brenner said.
“Moral values and ethical decisions change a lot from situation to situation,” he said. “Identify the different sides of the apparent hypocrisy, and consider in what contexts would those different perspectives apply.”
Spoiled suggests someone is used to having things too easily, and getting what they want all the time. This is frustrating for people, but Brenner said this is probably because of their own guilt.
“It is easier to ascribe spoiledness as a fatal individual flaw, rather than to understand how being spoiled is actually the result of a complex relationship process, whether that dynamic plays out internally in self-labelling, or externally with close others,” he said.
And if you look at what is within the spoiled behaviour, it’s probably overshadowing something else, like a need for love and attention.
But, Brenner added, “the spoiled and demanding behaviour from ourselves and others sadly and paradoxically gets in the way of getting what we really need.”
Many people who are quick to label themselves as “stupid” are often highly intelligent, said Brenner, which is probably a sign their self-esteem largely hinges on their intellect. This means they can feel vulnerable when being observed, and unforgiving of themselves if they make a mistake.
“It’s about the inability to be kind to oneself when in error, and rather than being gently corrective (let alone forgiving), cracking oneself across the head with a bamboo shaft for making a mistake,” said Brenner. “Now, I have no issue with recognising missteps and course correcting, but generally don’t think self-directed aggression is the best way to change.”
This shame is misplaced, because when we call ourselves stupid, most of the time other people don’t share that opinion. Humour can be a helpful aid, he added, as will realising we are not defined by one sole action.
Selfishness typically has roots in childhood, said Brenner. It may be parents calling us selfish when our needs were inconvenient or difficult. It’s an easy go-to option to stop someone being demanding, because it makes them feel like what they’re asking for is unnecessary.
“When we do this with ourselves, labelling ourselves as selfish when we have legitimate needs, we do violence against ourselves and undermine both healthy self-care behaviours as well as reinforcing a sense of being a bad person – and perpetuating a vicious cycle,” Brenner said.
People who have been in toxic relationships later in life can think of themselves as selfish for having the most basic of needs, because their self-involved partners made them feel like they didn’t matter. Narcissists, for instance, are unable to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes, so when they’re not the center of attention, they take it as a direct attack and call their partner selfish and disrespectful. In reality, they were neither of those things.
You’re going to get unhappy and frustrated with yourself at times (and with others.) But that doesn’t mean you have to use the negative, damaging words that could do further harm.
It’s dangerous to bottle up your emotions, because they will only boil over and show themselves later, with worse consequences. But you can learn to face them in a healthy way, instead of jumping to insults.
Brenner said words like stupid, selfish, and lazy are all ways of avoiding more complicated issues.
“When we notice we are using these labels, or hearing them used, it’s a good time to slow down, hit the emotional pause button, and get real, real curious,” he said. “It is a chance to make better choices about how to move forward, allowing for more mutual communication internally and with others, greater compassion and forgiveness with oneself and others, and the possibility of choosing a different path forward.”
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