The Blessing and Curse of Labels

Get in the goddamn DSM-V, Shinji

I.

Picture this: you’re walking down the street with a friend. Your friend is carrying something, let’s say a bag of groceries. Your friend has to tie his shoes, so he hands the bag to you for what you assume is just a moment - but when he stands up again, he doesn’t take the bag back!

If you’re as neurotic as I was when I was fourteen, you don’t want to complain, because it’s not really an important thing, so you’d sound petty and small-minded. If you’d been asked to carry the bag as a favor, actually, you wouldn’t have minded at all - but you sense that this isn’t even recognized as a favor, that your friend doesn’t know what he’s doing - or worse, maybe he does, maybe he’s laughing at how submissive you are. Now you’re filled with resentment totally out of proportion to the occasion.

In hindsight, there are a few ways to handle this situation. When I was fourteen, I made up a word for it: atlassing, or to atlas someone, inspired by the story of Heracles’ Eleventh Labor. I encourage you to popularize this term with your friends.

So why was coining a term helpful? A few related observations:

  1. Having a single term for this situation compresses the language you need to describe it, which means you don’t have to explain it like a dork.

  2. The very existence of the term implies that other people understand this situation, and why it’s annoying, which again makes it easier to talk about.

  3. Making up the term and sharing it with my friends was itself socially positive. You see this use of shared recognition to build rapport in standup comedy: airplane food, the DMV, bad drivers, etc.

I hope you can recognize that we reap these benefits all the time: often in small ways, when we want to vent about the petty misfortunes of the day; sometimes in large ways, when having a shared language can help us deal with major traumas. At the very least, they spare us the practical difficulty of describing every experience we have from scratch, so we don’t end up like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.

As a bonus example, consider why I described my younger self as “neurotic” in paragraph two. For one, I just think it’s just a funny word, and because I’m talking about my past self, the connotation is that I’m not like that any more, so it’s free self-deprecation. More straightforwardly, it’s a quick way to evoke the experience of teenage angst that almost all of us are familiar with.

Keep these benefits in mind, because I want to proceed to some less positive cases. These cases arise when we start using terms as descriptors of people: that is, labeling them. For instance:

II.

Let’s imagine someone who is immersed in a very lively social scene, and finds themselves a bit drained. It’s not that they don’t like their friends - but they feel obliged to drag themselves out night after night, and it’s just too much for them. One day they read an article on the Internet about introverts, and they say - ah! I am not alone! And they explain to their friends that sometimes they need an introvert night to themselves.

This story has a happy ending, but here’s another.

Let’s imagine someone who has just left home for college, and finds themselves in a social scene that isn’t a good fit for them. They find it draining to be around these people, but they’ve never really had a friend group before, so it doesn’t occur to them that they might just be in the wrong crowd. One day they read an article on the Internet about introverts, and they say - ah! So this is what’s happening! Now that they’re an introvert, they start skipping all these events that they hate, but they also never try to meet other people that they might like better.

This story is not so happy. This protagonist has mistakenly taken on a label that doesn’t really apply to them. This causes them to miss out on things that they might have otherwise enjoyed.

My point is that labels, especially labels you apply to yourself, are a two-way street. Labels can be socially useful to describe things you experience; but also, labels can actually change your life for the worse by changing how you interpret your experiences.

III.

If labeling yourself is dangerous, labeling yourself with psychological terminology is double-dog dangerous.

This should be obvious, but I’ll give the standard disclaimer: yes, of course, some people actually have mental health issues. If your cat is telling you to do crimes, please see a mental health professional and/or exorcist.

But if you start playing doctor with yourself, you’re entering risky territory.

This strikes me as more dangerous than the case of the “introvert” for a few reasons:

  1. Per the tweet below, you’re limiting the scope of responses you can have to your problem. There’s nothing wrong with drugs per se, but by regarding your feelings as the product of a totally impersonal system, you no longer even consider things in your life that might be bringing you down.
    Important note: these could be things you want to change about yourself, or they could be things you want to change in the world with the help of others.

  2. By using scientific language, you’re giving your label a connotation of authority which it probably hasn’t earned. Unless you’re actually making observations and running experiments, you’re just hitching your subjectivity to scientific terminology. That’s not science, and it shouldn’t feel like it’s set in stone.

I’m sure many people share these memes, subconsciously understand the metonymy at play (“brain produce serotonin” ≈ “me happy”) and go about their day. But I really believe that, over time, uncritically ingesting this language does change our behavior in ways we might not like.

IV.

So, what to do?

We established in (I) that labels do some handy stuff. But in (II) and (III), we looked at some cases where labels were more of a mixed bag. Can we get the good parts without the bad?

Yeah, we can. The trick is just to know what you’re doing. So, congratulations: if you’re reading this, you’ve already won!

When we look back to (I), we can see that all the benefits of labels are social. And that’s the simple secret of labels. I can’t use them to scientifically classify myself, like I’m igneous or sedimentary rock; I can’t use them to find my “true self” by playing some bizarro game of 10-dimensional Guess Who?

I can, however, use labels as a social act. If I understand what I really want to do when I’m using a label, perhaps…

  • Make an exception to my social contract to do something I want to

  • Make an exception to my social contract to not do something I don’t want to

  • Set up people to expect certain behavior from me, so they don’t keep being surprised

  • Offer people a mechanism of causation for my behavior, so they don’t mistakenly attribute some other feeling to me (e.g. “I’m just tired, I don’t hate you”)

  • Relate my experiences to another human’s, because it’s fun

then I can use the label to achieve that end. And in my experience, when I have an understanding of what I am trying to achieve with a label, it is so much easier to keep that label in the land of social context, where it belongs.