by Paul J. Hannig Ph.D.
Betty slinks out of the room, trying to pinch off the cutting pain of insult deep in her stomach. She shudders at the prospect of looking over her shoulder at her sisters whose words, "You are too sensitive," knife their way from her guts to her heart. She feels the collapse of the labeling superstructure fall on her head. She's labeled, "Too sensitive." A whole host of other labels are released from her mental memory banks that bear the sounds of her sisters' voices. She feels the critical knife wounds that keep telling her that she is not doing the right thing. Her choice of boyfriend is the new target for her sisters' critical, disapproving label. Betty is so much in love with Carl, but her sisters' verbal labels of disapproval travel down her ear canal, through her brain, and lodge painfully in her soul. Her mind keeps replaying the words of her sisters, "He's not good enough for you." Each repetition creates fresh trauma and depression. Betty goes down and under.
Betty physically and emotionally withdraws from her beloved sisters. Protection from injury is her immediate need. But, withdrawal does not solve her problem, nor does it stop her sisters' painful labeling. Is there another strategy that she can use, in order to maintain her internal integrity and stop her sisters in their tracks? You bet there is! Betty can reclassify the labels that have been put upon her. First, she can make a list of every negative label and find the hidden strength in each one of them. Then, she could feed back her reclassified labels to her sisters and give them a new perspective on her situation. Let's take a look at that negative label, "You are too sensitive." Betty can look deep inside that label and find her own essence. Instead of being "too sensitive," she can redesign herself as "highly perceptive, deeply empathic, very considerate, warmly accepting, caring, loving, and tenderhearted." You name it! The list is endless.
When her sisters say to her, "You are too sensitive," Betty can reply, "I am rather tender hearted aren't I? I do care a lot, don't I? Opinions mean a lot to me." When her sisters tell her that Carl is not good enough for her, she can reply, "I am very sensitive to his needs. I care for his feelings. Everybody needs love and approval. I am a very accepting and loving person." Instead of a buckling under her sisters' criticisms and innuendoes about her "poor judgment of mates," Betty can assert her underlying emotional strengths that get missed in typical family encounters and change the communication dynamics.
Reclassification Creates Change
Lousy labels lock people into certain actions and behaviors. When those labels are reclassified according to hidden strengths they change perceptions and interactions. They also change moods and feelings. Parents begin to label their children while in the womb. "He was a very active baby. I knew what he looked like, while he was inside of me. She kicked a lot. I was nauseous for a long time." These labels tend to influence your thinking and your behavior toward your child, from conception onward. "He was so cute. She was angry right from the start. He never cried. She fussed a lot. He never slept. I didn't get a full night's sleep for two years. He was very active. She whined a lot!" Sometimes these labels are not very direct and may hide a hidden negative meaning. Innuendoes, euphemisms and evaluations of all sorts can become very fixed in a parent's mind, while a child is still very young. If you reclassify a label in your mind toward your child, you may change the way that you perceive and relate to that child.
Take the labels, "obnoxious and pain in the ass." Obviously, there are other similar adjectives that can be used when classifying a child's behavior. An obnoxious child, who is a pain in the ass, can be seen as annoying and disruptive at times. This child can be reclassified as spirited, tenacious, brilliant, assertive, vociferous, determined, zestful and full of sparkle. A "slow" child can be reclassified as observant, perceptive, slow to anger, careful, cautious, speculative, meditative, spiritual, respectful, analytical and considerate. Sometimes, parents emotionally react to their own label of the child, rather than to the underlying, hidden strength. Once a parent becomes aware of a lousy label, that parent can learn how to redesign new labels that make more sense. If you learn how to redesign negative labels into contagious good labels, then you are on the road to building a healthy relationship with that child. I might also add that becoming aware of labels may help you better predict your child's future potentials and strengths. For example, the "whiny" two-year-old may become the "analytical, perceptive, focused mathematical genius, superb athlete, responsible and protective parent, creative, energetic, piercing, determined, disciplined adolescent or adult." You may also be able to help your child overcome annoying actions by relabeling the behavior. But, dealing with annoying behavior is a future topic.
Labeling in Relationships
Ted slowly and fearfully walks into the room. His entire perceptual apparatus is tuned into his ex-wife's body language and facial expressions. If he is not careful, she may strike him with that bloodcurdling, heart knifing label of "bad Ted." What kind of mood is she in? Will he get sliced with that "bad Ted" label? He feels like a helpless target. His heart wants to scream out in protest, "I'm not bad, I'm not bad." But, he is afraid of upsetting her and reconfirming in her mind, that he is "bad." He feels like a skulking, little boy who ashamedly creeps up to his mother, begging for her love and affection. He is the "bad boy" in the grown-up body, who has attacked his mother and she punishes and deserts him for being a "no good, angry little kid." Ted endures a lifetime of delayed punishment and retribution for being the little boy who frightened his mother to death. Now, with his beggar hand extended, he cries for little crumbs of affection from his frightened and distrustful ex-wife.
His heart cries out, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'll never do it again! Please don't desert me! Don't leave me alone. I hurt so badly and I need you so much. Don't leave me!" During Ted's session, it became apparent that he was seeking forgiveness for living a life of transgression against his mother and his ex-wife. Ted also needed to make the transition to feeling and releasing the repressed emotional pain that kept setting him up to repeat old patterns.
I also asked Ted to reclassify the "bad" lousy label that his ex-wife had fixed upon him. It was obvious that she was intimidated and frightened by his anger and she labeled him as "bad." In order to change his and his ex-wife's perceptions and reactions to him, I coached Ted to consider the underlying qualities that were missed by the label. I suggested the following to test his reactions and see what he would come up with. "Nobody's perfect. I'm only human. I tend to be assertive. Yes, I am very determined to achieve certain goals. I'm very ambitious and achievement oriented. I can be very focused on achieving my goals. That's the warrior in me, that wants to protect what's mine." As Ted responded to his ex-wife, with contagious positive labels, they both became believers. She started using the new labels in order to change the negative reactions that her labels created in her family and others. Before long, they decided to give their relationship another try.
Labeling is a universal phenomenon. Everybody does it. As a professional coach and therapist, it's my job to help people find effective strategies for achieving success. Not only do I coach spouses how to be better marital partners, I also coach them on developing effective parenting skills. Parents are natural coaches. They will spend their entire lives trying to coach their children on how to function more effectively. By coaching parents, I teach them how to be coaches for each other and their children for life. Reclassification of labels is a successful coaching strategy that can be used in all walks of life. Corporations, small businesses, politics, educational settings, relationships, family settings and parenting are the perfect arenas for applying these scientifically tested coaching methods.
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