I recently sat on the other side of the table for some psychological assessments. For several years now, I have been experiencing some vision problems, and my neuro-opthamologist wanted to make sure there were no neuropsychological issues contributing to the problem. Being the assessment taker made me much more anxiety ridden than I first expected. As my wife and I sat through the initial interview, I felt the palms of my hands get moister and moister, the churning in my stomach became more significant, and the desire to flee grew exponentially. These responses were heightened even more when the young testing assistant came in to administer the assessments.
With each new assessment (there were 16 in all), old familiar emotions began to surface—fear, discouragement, disappointment, apprehension, and worry grew. With the completion of each assessment, my concern about my performance expanded, and old messages such as “You aren’t smart enough” or “You are dumb” or “You can do better” became louder and louder as the day progressed. On the hour plus drive to the appointment, I had been conversant and engaged, on the hour plus drive home, I was quiet and withdrawn (thankfully, my wife slept most of the way home).
After several days, the emotions and messages began to fade, but never completely subsided. I knew I would receive a copy of the psychologists’ report, and whenever that reality popped into my conscious thoughts, twinges of those old feelings and messages would pinch me. Even as I write this I am experiencing nervousness and anxiety.
A couple of days ago the report arrived. I was very hesitant to read it, and a number of times I picked it up to read it only to immediately put it back down. When I finally moved past my trepidation and started reading the report words such as “deficient,” “borderline deficient,” and “below average” jumped off the page. These were all too familiar expressions from my childhood and adolescence. I recalled the conversation with my high school counselor when he told me I wasn’t “smart enough” to pursue a degree in psychology. I recalled a number of incidents when my father angrily called me “lazy,” “dumb,” and “not very bright.” It even brought back the day in college my Greek professor told me I “just didn’t have the smarts to learn a foreign language.”
In my experience, labels have rarely been helpful. Labels, for me, mean separation, barriers, and instill a sense of helplessness. It has not mattered whether the label was a diagnosis, a perception, an opinion, or a judgment. Labels have been used to place me and some of my relationships in boxes, boxes from which it has been hard to escape.
But this is just not my experience. I have a young friend who was given a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder a number of years ago. Now, any time she experiences nervousness or uncertainty, she invokes her diagnosis as a reason for not moving forward or completing the task. I have another friend whose grandchild was diagnosed with ADHD at age five, and 11 years later, this young lady is still perceived as over-active, hyper-vigilant, and immature.
Labels are hard to escape. In our education system, once a child is labeled as a discipline problem or uncooperative or simply a social butterfly, those labels follow them through elementary school, as well as middle school and high school. Labels are often used to describe a young professional as an “up and comer” or “success driven.” Such labels create expectations the individual knowingly or unknowingly strives to meet, often at deep cost to relationships and personal well-being. In addition, labels are used as comparisons—comparisons of physical appearance, stature, or intelligence. This person is smarter than this person. This person is more athletic than this person. Labels are used to brand a person with an ethnicity, set of religious beliefs, political preferences, or skin color. With each new label, the human being moves from being a person to an object, a thing.
The bombing of the Boston Marathon and the soon to be published DSM-5 serve as excellent examples of our culture’s need to label. The smoke of the bombs had not even settled when media outlets and pundits began seeking ways to label those suspected in the bombing. Pundits and media outlets appeared unable to discuss news of the bombings without attaching labels, even when nothing was known about the suspected perpetrators of the attack.
Recently, some in the psychology field (see, e.g., Rosenberg, 2013) have speculated that as much as 50 percent of the U.S. population will fit some type of mental health diagnosis as outlined in the DSM-5. What does it say about us as a culture when we have to label half our population as mentally unhealthy? What does it say about our society when we define our relationships by skin color, ethnic background, academic achievement, or voter registration?
One of the elements that has drawn me to depth psychology is the resistance to labeling clients. If labels are to be used, the focus is on labels that give the client value or a sense of worth—when they are used validate the individual’s experience, emotions, and perceptions. In depth psychology, the ultimate goal is to validate the individual and his or her experience as “normal, natural, and predictable” as an old mentor used to tell me.
Nothing I have said here is new or earth shattering—it is not my intent to bring some new perspective to light. Rather, my intent is to remind us that our practice of psychology is desperately needed in our communities and our culture. Our voice is a voice that needs to be heard. Labeling individuals, whether clients or neighbors, does not move us forward. Labeling friend or foe only creates division and suspicion. The power and influence of existential depth psychology is in our ability to help people see that life and death, good and bad, ups and downs, gain and loss, joy and despair are part of life—they are “normal, natural, and predictable.”
Pain, heartache, loss, and grief cannot be avoided. Many of our behaviors are not anchored in a diagnosis of a personality disorder or an eating disorder or schizophrenia—they are just aspects of the life we live. Assisting our clients, our neighborhoods, and our communities in developing better coping skills and gaining different perspectives will move us much closer to being healthier as individuals and communities, rather than assigning labels and handing out pills.
Rosenberg, R. S. (2013). Abnormal Is the New Normal: Why will half of the U.S. population have a diagnosable mental disorder? Slate. Retrieved from https://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/0…
— Steve Fehl