By Lon Woodbury

In some circles, the term “labeling” is used as a criticism. I frequently hear this from some mental health professionals who are dubious of commonly used diagnoses. These people seem to feel that by labeling behavior, the person is being pigeon-holed or stuffed into a predetermined category where all with that “label” are seen as being the same and require the same therapeutic treatment. They claim that when “labeled,” in the eyes of a professional using that “label,” the person’s uniqueness is lost in a regime of rote actions. They might have a point.

However, this seems to be a universal human trait, that is naming (or labeling) everything. It seems to give the feeling of understanding; as if once you can name something you know about it, or perhaps even an ability to have control over it through using that knowledge.

This idea of control or knowledge about something through simply naming (labeling) is a very ancient belief and seems to be deeply ingrained in people. For example Adam’s naming of all living things in the Second Chapter of Genesis seemed to be an important task, at least according to the ancient writers. Also, people in some cultures seem to have hidden their real names in the fear that if someone knew their real name they could be controlled by that person. And, look at the popularity of developing lists, or bullet points on something, done to help understand it better and to have control over the use and control of that name.

This attitude has been further enhanced in modern times by the success that has come from categorizing (labeling) used in the physical and life sciences. One of the most important elements in gaining and communicating scientific understanding has been through categorization schemes that have been developed through experimentation and long experience.

However, just naming something does not mean it is understood. The major system of categorization in mental health is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (Revised) (DSMR). Although the diagnostic “bible” of the mental health industry, it has attracted a lot of criticism for it’s imprecision. In my experience, I have worked with a number of mental health professionals who have radically different understandings of the same diagnosis. They have appeared to agree on something, but subsequently it was found that no common understanding at all had occurred.

You don’t find this kind of confusion in the physical science systems, or even in the life sciences, anywhere to the extent it is found in mental health fields.
I also often see this in people who throw out terms (labeling) in conversations who, upon questioning, really have very little knowledge of what they are talking about. I also see this in people in conversations using the same terms, but have entirely different understandings of the terms they are using. In these cases, there is only a pretend meeting of the minds.

Labeling is seductive. We seem to be “hardwired” to naturally try to understand things by naming (labeling) them, but doing that without really understanding the term is confusing, can be misleading, and even a tool of manipulation.