The idea for looking closer at labels came from our last blog about cultural capital and how this
can affect where we feel we belong in society. Whilst the word ‘label’ can have different meanings for us, within the field of sociology it has been described as an ‘abstract concept used to group people together based on a perceived or held identity’.

Labels could describe a core part of our identity, such as our sex, ethnicity, and sexuality, or more changeable aspects such as membership to political, social or faith groups. Labels might also be used to describe how we see ourselves, our behaviour, our personality, our position, our role in society, and our relationship to others.

Labels can also come in the form of diagnoses – whether related to our physical or mental health and learning or behavioural needs.We might choose a label for ourselves, or a label may be given to us by others – whether we like and agree with it or not. And certain labels may be viewed more positively or negatively than others, within our cultures and societies. An example of this in recovery is the use of labels such as ‘addict’ and ‘alcoholic’.

The ‘act of labelling’, whether internal or external, can affect how we think about ourselves and how others think of us. This often serves different purposes and can be both helpful and harmful – often at the same time.

Labels fail to capture the complexity, diversity, and wholeness of our humanity, and have the potential to reinforce stereotypes, which contribute to discrimination and oppression.

How are labels helpful?

In a basic and simplistic way, the use of labels can help us to understand our social environment by serving as short-cuts to identifying and categorizing ourselves and others. We explore this within our Psychology for Change course, by looking at Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s Social Identity Theory (1979). They proposed that as individuals, our sense of self is in part, developed from our membership to social groups – and that our connection to social groups are important sources of pride and self-esteem.

This means that certain labels might give us a sense of belonging to a group, where we experience a feeling of community, with people we see as similar and familiar to us. Through our shared experiences within a group, we might feel heard, understood, and accepted, which can mean we feel safer and less alone in the world.

The use of labels might also help us to understand our individual behaviour and personality more deeply. So, to describe ourselves as loud or quiet, as careful, or impulsive, as an educator or musician - may be important aspects of our individual identity and how we see ourselves and want to be seen by others positively. We might feel we need to be neatly one thing or another, when we are often multiple and contrasting things all at the same time.

We also live in a society with many different systems which operate based on labels. For example, our healthcare, education, and welfare systems require us to label or be labelled, to get the essential health, learning or financial support we need.

This means that having a diagnosis of ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can open routes to funding and support that is vitally needed. These diagnoses, and the labels that come with them, might also bring relief for us, in that they name the distress we may have been experiencing, which can feel validating.

At the same time, being given a diagnosis can feel stigmatising and as if we’re being told that something is “wrong” with us. This can lead to people being viewed by others (and themselves) as their diagnosis, label, or ‘problem’ - rather than as a unique, complex, whole human being. In this way, labels can reduce rather than expand our understanding and view of ourselves and others – which in the long run can be harmful to us.

How are labels harmful?

Whilst labels can offer a sense of identity, community, and recognition, they can also create what Tajfel and Turner (1979) refer to as ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, where we have a positive view of someone from ‘our group’ yet have a neutral or negative view of someone outside our group. So instead of thinking about our shared humanity as ‘we’, an ‘us and them’ mentality is created instead.

In this way, labels fail to capture the complexity, diversity, and wholeness of our humanity, and have the potential to reinforce stereotypes, which contribute to discrimination and oppression. Certain labels may also carry social stigma or negative connotations, leading to social exclusion and marginalisation of those who identify with them.

For example, in recovery, we might label ourselves, or be labelled by others as an ‘addict’. Stereotyping occurs, when ‘all addicts’ are viewed in a particular way, such as being ‘untrustworthy’. Similarly, if we are unable to be in paid work for valid reasons, we might be labelled as ‘unemployed’ or as a ‘benefit claimant’, which in turn can be viewed negatively by society as if ‘all people claiming benefits are lazy’.

We can internalise labels that are imposed on us by others, which means we behave in a way that ‘lives up to them’ and they end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. So, if we were labelled as a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘stupid’ as children, we can behave in ways that conform to this label, which in turn reinforces and limits the ways we are seen by others and ourselves.

We encourage people to think critically, to see beyond and underneath the labels that we carry.

Through these acts of internal and external labelling, we can see ourselves through the judgement and bias of others in our family, culture, and society. This can negatively affect what we think and feel about ourselves, which in turn can limit our choices, opportunities and how we see our place in the world.

What is our approach?

A key part of our work at Foundation for Change is to support people to see the bigger picture, and to understand our lives and ourselves within the context of our environments and the systems we live in. We do this through education, by connecting theory with practice, and from a belief that knowledge is power.

This provides an important opportunity for people to reframe and reauthor their individual life stories – including how we see ourselves, where this has come from, how this has and hasn’t served us, and the ways we want to challenge ourselves to make changes. We encourage people to think critically, to see beyond and underneath the labels that we carry. To experience that more than one thing can be true at the same time and to know that it is okay to shed and outgrow these labels when they are no longer serving us.

This experience significantly moves people away from self-blame, reduces shame and stigma and ultimately liberates, leading to increased psychological wellbeing. Through this increased self-knowledge and self-understanding, people share feeling more inner peace, are more accepting of themselves, more whole, and able to connect with their human and authentic selves.

The label that took over my life the last ten years was that of an addict. Through recovery I got to understand and confront that label, as my whole life I had rejected it without looking at the carnage my life was. Seeing it and getting to understand it, meant I could challenge it and become so much more than that.

We can hold many labels, that cross over and identify with many things. What I have learnt in the last few years is that separating myself from others - unless it is for safety reasons - gets in the way of learning, growth, and connection. However, by looking for the similarities amongst us – rather than the differences – I’ve seen this can support growth, communication, and expand learning and trust.