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Usually, when people give someone or something a label, they are trying to describe the person or object. One might label to help define what is going on around them. One might be trying to make sense of what’s occurring. It is human nature to label things and people, and it can occur without the person acknowledging that they are doing so. In the book Drunk Tank Pink, written by Adam Alter, he delves into the definition of labels, stating, “In the 1930s, Benjamin Whorf argued that words shape how we see objects, people, and places (29)”. Many people do not realize that while they are quickly assessing what is in front of them, they could be judging or assigning a negative label. Labels are powerful, in a sense that they could begin to affect how the person or object is perceived. Alter also states, “Labels are harmful to the extent that they become associated with meaningful character traits (34)”. Common labels can potentially turn into stereotypes, which is unfortunately unavoidable. If one would educate themselves before making an assumption, labels and stereotypes can become more positive and accurate.
I realized the power of labelling roughly two years ago. After suppressing my emotions, and refusing to grieve my father’s death, I sought out help, to help me cope with how I was feeling. I was entered into an intensive outpatient program, and was assigned group therapy. On my first day, I felt like the elephant in the room. After observing my peers, I quickly decided this option was not for me. The various personalities made me uncomfortable, since pity, and talking about my emotions sounded less than ideal to me. I labeled the other teens as ‘weird’ or ‘lame,’ because none of them dressed or spoke how I did. Alter explains, “It’s much harder to convey what’s in front of you, if you don’t have words to describe it (29)”. I realized I was judging the other teenagers in the group based on their appearances, since that was my first impression of them.
I began to notice how I treated my peers. Because they dressed and talked differently, I began to feel as if their mental diseases did not equate to mine. I began to believe I was not "as depressed" as them, that my symptoms should not have landed me in group therapy, and that they needed more guidance than me. My personality is very head-strong, caring, and thoughtful. I began to baby the other teens of my group, labelling them as "weaker" or "unstable" in my mind. Being the leader that I am, I wanted to treat them delicately, and solve their issues, while ignoring mine. I noticed their behavior shifting, as I gave more insight and solutions to their problems, instead sharing my story. Instead of growing stronger, I felt as if the teens in my group became more dependent on others to help them with their mental issues. Taking a step back, I focused on my treatment of the different personalities, and how it was affecting their behavior. The "weaker" teens began to question themselves, and ask if "weak" is how others looked at them.
With no progress, the instructor suggested a solution that could potentially help all the teens in the group. We began to tell our stories, leading up to the point of ending up in the stress center. Instead of ignoring everything they said, I took notice of their issues, and realized everyone in the group had at least one thing in common. In Drunk Tank Pink, Alter states, “Unfortunately, we’re also incapable of ignoring social labels when assessing a person’s intelligence (32)”. Because I was judging their "lower-class" appearance, I failed to realize that we were all, indeed, in the stress center for a reason. Being in group therapy was an eye-opening, and humbling, experience. It taught me how quickly labels you give someone can spiral out of control, and begin to affect everyone involved in the judgement. I am grateful for the valuable life lesson. I graduated early from group therapy on my father’s birthday, and saw everyone from a different point of view. Being kind to people is something that should be emphasized. One may never know what someone else is going through, and similarities may go unnoticed, because of the labels someone puts on another person.