Labels Do Not Fit People

It’s always complicated.

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Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my years on this earth it is that labels don’t fit people. It’s never that easy and uncomplicated.

People refuse to stay in the category in which they are placed, and labeling only prevents us from seeing and hearing all of the person — the real person. Even if there is a diagnosed (not by us) psychological problem, personality disorder, or mood disorder, applying it to a loved one either verbally or at the top of one’s mind will only make rational communication impossible.

If you are labeling you are already dismissing what a loved one says because you are hearing whatever label you or a psychiatrist has put on them. It’s impossible to make progress in communication as long as one person has their guard up and is discounting what the other says because of some real or imagined mental disorder with a quick and easy label.

Narcissistic moms are all the rage.

Lately I’ve noticed on Quora and other places that many people seem to think they have a mother given to narcissism and it’s currently in vogue to label selfish people, or maybe people who are sometimes selfish as narcissists and then expect nothing more from them but narcissism. That kind of thinking shuts the door on true communication.

I’m so tired of all the labeling I read about. Lately, it seems almost everyone’s mother is a narcissist. At times I’ve noticed that everyone who cheats on a mate is a sex addict. I’ve noticed that we’re quick to label people as codependent. I guess I was “codependent” when I begged to try to save my third marriage. I was also in love, in pain, and trying to protect my children. Codependent? Ok. Whatever.

Internet lists aren’t really enough for a diagnosis.

Who said they are or were narcissists? Someone on the internet or a description on the internet? Did a psychiatrist say they are narcissistic? A list of attitudes on the internet does not a diagnosis make.

People are too complicated to be labeled like that. Did you tell someone about what your spouse said or did only to have a friend “wisely” tell you the label that applied to your loved one? You cannot think of a person in terms of a label and expect have meaningful communication. You cannot occupy your thinking primarily with thoughts a person is bi-polar, narcissistic, depressed, schizophrenic — or some other disorder — and work things out in a mature and responsible way. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Whoever thinks the other fits under some label is constantly looking for proof and not listening with the heart. To agree, we must share some part of our identities. If we don’t feel some sense of partnership with our mates, we are not going to have beneficial disagreements.

Married people, please don’t label your marriage or your spouse! To do so disrespects your mate, you and your relationship.

If you do classify people as being the diagnosis criteria of a certain personality disorder, that’s all you’ll hear because you’re searching for clues to seize upon to justify your diagnosis. Labeling will not lead to productive negotiation or even good communication. The label keeps you from hearing the person.

Don’t get me wrong. Psychologists and psychiatrists use people’s diagnosis to help understand them and prescribe the proper medicine. The trouble is, most of us are not mental health experts and as such, we aren’t qualified to diagnose. Making a diagnosis and causing a person to believe they are this or that could actually be hurtful and cause an episode of depression or worse.

“Put down that gun, you’re a homicidal schizophrenic!”

What if a hostage negotiator told a kidnapper, “you’re only doing this because you have borderline personality disorder and you need to be in control? Or told the guy with the gun, “put down the gun, you’re just acting out in your schizophrenia.” Or, “you didn’t take your medicine, did you?”

Yes, someone would probably get killed. That’s not the way to relate to or communicate with another human being. You are not hearing him if you are busy fitting labels. It’s as simple as that.

Yes, there are narcissistic people, there are codependents, there are addicts who abuse both sex and drugs, and there are people who truly have personality disorders that need to be treated or a true mental illness. But calling them by the name of what we think is their disorder — what we think is “wrong” with them — won’t help anything. No living being is “wrong” all the time.

We tend to react to people based on what we have labeled them as and not to the person as a whole. Doing that will not help make things better for anyone. If in a fight with your spouse and you keep foremost in mind that you are dealing with a narcissist, you may miss other traits and behavior that would help you to understand them better.

No one is all of one thing or another. We are composites of many traits, life experiences, and yes, sometimes we develop disorders or have true mental illness. But throwing a mental or physical disorder in the face of the person you’re attempting to reach agreement with will not improve the situation at all. It will at the very least distract from the situation or issue at hand, and at worst maybe cause an acting out of the very disorder you are labeling. At this point, do we want to be “right” about the label, or communicate with someone we care deeply about?

I’m 69 years-old, and I’m here to tell you that people do not fit neatly under labels. The person you’re calling a narcissist may turn around and perform one of the most generous acts imaginable. The person we label as codependent may in fact be no less dependent than we are, or their codependency may be something a mate somehow needed or wanted them to be. Your “narcissistic” mother may have given up food when you were a baby so you could eat. She had you, didn’t she? Pregnancy and childbirth is not a selfish act and doesn’t fit the description of narcissism. Giving birth is unselfish as hell.

A “homicidal schizophrenic” helped me.

Labels suck. They fit no one. I knew a man later diagnosed as a homicidal schizophrenic who once helped me out of a very embarrassing and terrible situation. It was over 50 years ago and I’ll never forget it. He went to prison later for life for terrible crimes — where the mentally ill often wind up — but he wasn’t being a homicidal schizophrenic then; he was being a human helping another human who desperately needed it. He is not his mental illness. He is a person fighting a disease. Yes, the worst of the worst can still commit acts of kindness. People labeled as “healthy” and “normal” can and do commit acts of homicide, too.

If we label, we tend to get labeled.

Believe me, most people know what they are and know well their illnesses and shortcomings. Labeling and throwing it into the conversational or especially the argument won’t lead to deeper understanding or even a truce. Leave it out. Who knows? One of those restrictive labels might fit us, too. On some days. In some situations. But seldom all the time.

Former print journalist, former mayor, retired law enforcement officer. Writing about politics and government along with random personal essays.

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