The Problem with Psychological Diagnosis – you are not your label

When people are experiencing a psychological problem a common approach is to go their G.P. If the problem is severe enough and satisfies a medical checklist they then become “diagnosed” or “classified”.

This is done so that the patient – and doctor – knows what they are dealing with and to allow a suitable method of treatment to be selected and administered – usually drugs and a referral to psychotherapy or CBT.

The therapeutic world absolutely loves a label: reactive depression; social anxiety; anticipatory anxiety; dissociative disorder; OCD; borderline personality disorder…the list goes on.

Labelling isn’t just confined to therapy of course, it’s also relevant – sometimes even more so – if you work in a corporate organisation: synergy; harmonisation; optimisation; self-directed; performance management; quality assurance.

If you’re involved, in any way, in the corporate world I’m sure these words will ring a familiar tone.

It’s a human thing: we are compulsive labellers. We love to summarise and reduce complex, fluid processes into static concepts so we can simplify and understand our world.

It’s a natural urge that has some plus sides but also some big downsides.

With the constant stream of stimuli fired at us on a daily basis we need a way to sort, categorise  and recall information. Linguistic Labelling is one of the methods we use to do this.

From a therapeutic point of view, it also offers people a certain amount of closure. One of the often terrifying parts of experiencing a psychological issue is when sufferers don’t know what is going on with them. All they know is that they’re experiencing some nasty psychological and physical effects that appear to be out of their control.

So being able to put a label on their experience offers an element of security; it makes the unfamiliar a little bit more familiar and softens the blow a little. It creates the perception that it is something that can be “managed”, whether that be through therapy and/or medication.

There is a considerable downside to therapeutic labels though. As well as giving people closure it also closes the problem around them.

What starts off as an active changeable process, becomes a static concept; something that the person “has” rather than something they are “experiencing”.

It’s a small distinction but a crucial one: when we transform an active process into a label, and then fully subscribe to it, it becomes a rigid concept inside our mind; it’s no longer something that’s active and fluid and, as a result, becomes significantly more difficult to change.

This is where people find themselves stuck: they start believing that they “suffer from a condition” rather than it being a changeable process that they are involved in. The “condition” becomes a separate entity from themselves, like they’ve been invaded by some kind of alien force. By confusing the label with reality they have inadvertently boxed themselves in.

From an NLP (Neuro linguistic Programming) perspective, we encourage people to appreciate the power of labels but also to see through them; to convert them back into the active processes they originally were.

If you think about it, what is a label like “social anxiety disorder” anyway? It’s just a linguistic way of summarising a complex active process. And not everybody’s experience of being anxious socially is the same. There are many different varieties. So the generalisation inadvertently takes us further away from what the person is actually experiencing.

We do this with physical problems too. Have you ever heard someone say that they “have” sciatica? It’s pretty common.

The truth is that there is no such thing – physically – as “sciatica”. We have a sciatic nerve, and there are many ways that it can be aggravated causing pain down your leg, but the term “sciatica” is a generalised label used to describe a whole variety of potential configurations.

In fact, if you ask any skilled body-work expert they will never accept “sciatica” as a diagnosis. They will explore further to see how your body is organised to create pressure on your sciatic nerve, and then go about helping you alter the process.

So why, then, do we accept a label like “social anxiety disorder” or “reactive depression” as a definitive diagnosis?

Surely it would be more helpful – and accurate – to look at how a person is uniquely configuring their problem rather than throwing a blanket label round it.

It’s important that we approach our psychology from a similar mind-set to the afore mentioned body-work expert. We need labels, to a certain extent, in order to talk about something, but it’s important to see through the transparency of them and examine the processes that exist within.

There will be labels you will want to keep of course – we do also have positive labels that define our identity and make use more resourceful – but, ultimately, it’s important to appreciate the inherent, illusionary nature of the abstract concepts we subscribe to.

They are just ways of summarising. The reality is that you are so much more.

So maybe you’ve been over-subscribing to a label that’s been holding you back? 

Perhaps you have a label that’s attached to your potential that’s not an accurate depiction of what you really have to offer?Or you’ve attached a label to someone else?

What if you were to see the transparency of those labels? What if you were to peer beyond the abstraction and see the process that’s going on?

It’s only when we stop over generalising that we start to gain clarity regarding our experience. No longer do we box ourselves in, and we start to see our issue as the active – and potentially changeable – process it is.

We are not our labels. We are so much more.

All the best,



P.S. Here are some other articles that you might find interesting:


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