Sticks & Stones & Other Myths: Why Name-Calling is Never the Answer

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April 9, 2020

Why Name-Calling is Never the Answer

The wounding words we say are like feathers released in a harsh wind; once said, we will never get them back. Jason Versey

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Meet my imaginary client, Emily.

Emily’s having a rough day, because her boss just yelled at her. And that isn’t even the worst part – she got yelled at over something that wasn’t even her fault.

That’s so wrong, right? She didn’t deserve that.

So, Emily does something that I think we all can relate to – she chews him out in her head. “What a JERK!” she thinks.

But notice that, instead of focusing on his JERKY behavior, Emily has slapped this term on him as a person.

In psychological terms, this is called “labeling.” It’s an overgeneralizing thought pattern in which we use a single characteristic to describe a whole person.[1] Instead of focusing on the mistake, you and I target and attack the person who made the mistake.

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Why Name-Calling Doesn't Work

Labels and name-calling shut down our ability to see people for who they really are.

Psychiatrist David Burns says that when we have been wronged by someone, we often “monster-ize” that person in our heads in order to justify our anger toward him or her.[2]

Let’s be honest – it’s a lot easier to attack a monster than a real person, isn’t it?  

And just how obligated do we feel to try to understand or empathize with a monster? Not very.

In fact, if we’re really being honest, we get some pleasure out of calling someone a jerk, a rat, or a moron. Name-calling can feel kind of cathartic, like gut-punching a nasty monster.

But here’s the problem. In the other person’s mind, he or she is likely gut-punching the monster-ized version of you or me.

So around and around we go, with misunderstandings escalating into hostilities which escalate into all-out wars.

While name-calling may feel good, we all know that it actually does harm. It just blocks the others’ ears up with insult and acrimony.

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Four Principles to Prevent Name-Calling

Each principle is based on gold-standard therapeutic techniques used with those dealing with clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety. But even those without anxious or depressive symptoms sometimes sabotage their own emotional health by using unhealthy thought patterns like labeling

Here's how to kick that thought pattern to the curb:

Principle #1: Do your RESEARCH.

The first is doing our RESEARCH. What I mean is, we pretend we are research scientists or defense attorneys defending a case of mistaken identity. We examine the evidence for our labels or mislabels. We can ask questions like,

  • Why am I using this label for this person?
  • Does the label always apply, or am I overgeneralizing my view of this person?
  • Am I monster-izing him or her?

Principle #2: Be a REALIST.

Second, we can learn to view others and ourselves in a more REALISTIC way.

Let’s shift the focus a bit. We’ve talked about labeling others, but we also label ourselves sometimes. Let’s say you call yourself a “FAILURE.” What does this term mean to you?

Maybe it means:

  • not being successful all the time;
  • not achieving all your goals; or
  • not matching someone else’s success.

In this case, the label “FAILURE” should be applied to the entire human race, because no one is 100% successful and everyone has failed at something.

Such a universal term becomes meaningless and unimportant – if everyone is a “FAILURE” by these unrealistic standards, then essentially that means no one is.[3]

It makes no sense to judge others or ourselves based on single actions, rather than the whole narrative of life. David Burns puts it this way:

Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with labels – they are overly simplistic and wrong. Would you think of yourself exclusively as a “breather” just because you breathe? This is nonsense, but such nonsense becomes painful when you label yourself out of a sense of your own inadequacies.”[4]

We are all far more than our mistakes and failures.

We are also our dreams and our aspirations to do better.

Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.

The RATIO I'm talking about here is the cost-benefit ratio. What is the cost-benefit ratio of labeling ourselves or someone else?

Being yelled at is unpleasant, of course. And if it’s based on a misunderstanding, it’s also unfair.

It’s normal to react to unfair treatment with anger and frustration, but the question is, then what? What’s the best way to handle it?

It may feel good to vent my sad story, punctuated with nasty names like “JERK” and “MORON.”

Oh yeah, mentally gut punching that monster can feel really good.

But this is about the only benefit that labeling offers us. And it comes at the cost of escalating hostilities.

A more helpful approach is to focus on the behavior, not the person.

Emily’s boss did a jerky thing. But while calling him a “JERK” may not go down very well, Emily could point out his unfair treatment in a respectful and assertive way.

Labeling a person makes one single behavior an inseparable part of one’s identity, but labeling the behavior makes it a separate and changeable part of one’s life.

Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.

The golden rule is a standard of behavior embedded in many philosophies and faiths. It means we treat others with kindness and respect -- in other words, the way we might want to be treated ourselves.

This has a practical benefit: we all respond better to constructive criticism, given in an affirming spirit, than to demeaning criticism.

We have all heard the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

But in reality, words can shatter relationships and build walls of hostility and ill-will. 

We are each responsible for the words we say against others and against ourselves.

So, we should watch them carefully.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” This is a lie. What we say matters. The unkind things we communicate can soil the best of relationships; even with the deepest of regrets. Jason Versey

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This post also appeared on another website of mine, Leaving the Shadowland.
[1] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 39.
[2] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 157.
[3] Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 51-55.
[4] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 40.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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