Labels: Catch 22

Far from
Blackor White

Labeling is an adaptive process used to manage the complex environment within which we live.  Labels allow us to categorize and organize information.  The practice of labeling is necessary for communicating, perceiving, and storing our thoughts and actions.  Unfortunately, labels often contribute to, and reinforce, painful stigmas, stereotypes, and illusions.  These concepts instigate and reinforce conflicts; which are almost impossible to eradicate from society once they are in place.

A single label does little in provide an understanding of an individual’s personality, intelligence, or physicality.  Human beings are complex, unique, and multidimensional.  And, whether an individual is described as an introvert or extravert, quiet or loud, warm or cold, positive or negative, thinking or feeling, active or a couch potato, healthy or sick; each of these dimensions falls on a continuum.  A description can vary from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, and year to year.

While many people often describe themselves as anxious before a test or performance; the majority would not ascribe to having an anxiety disorder.  That does not suggest an anxiety disorder can not or will not develop in the future, or that the anxiety would not disappear completely with a Xanax or two.  Anxiety is an adaptive evolutionary response, meant to protect us.  The absence of anxiety would also be considered abnormal, but…at what point?  The same continuum and questions arise in relation to the vast list of personality traits used to describe all individuals.

Typically diagnostic labels are assigned when symptoms are severe and ongoing.  This can vary depending on the diagnostician, as well as the individual’s active symptoms during the evaluation period.  Medicine is NOT an exact science.  A good deal of art, along with science, is necessary to evaluate a psychiatric disorder.

Symptoms tend to be experiential, rather than physically observable. 

While progress is being made in the fields of neuroscience, genetics, and neurogenetics; it is likely to be some time before objective tools are available to measure mental illness.  The debate regarding what point on the continuum a disorder should be classified as a clinical illness will continue… just as the debate as to what temperature requires us to stay home from work; what weight to consider obese; and what level of cholesterol necessitates treatment with medication.

Labels can
individuals with mental disorders

Advantages of diagnostic labels


  1. give us the sense that the problem is manageable.  There is often relief in having a diagnosis.
  2. give professionals a frame of reference within which to collaborate in supporting individuals.
  3. enable researchers to study the causes and treatments of disorders.
  4. assist individuals in finding specialists, exploring proven treatment options, and managing their expectations.
  5. may make an individual’s behavior less mysterious and “scary” to others.
  6. eliminate presumptions that individuals are lazy, stupid, unmotivated, making excuses, or “inflexible.”
  7. provide others with an explanation for the side effects of medication, which may be observable.
  8. validate that symptoms are NOT psychosomatic.
  9. protect individuals as stipulated by the law.

Concerns and risks of disclosing diagnostic labels

  1. Individuals with the same diagnostic label often experience different symptoms. Others may erroneously group them together, despite vast differences in presentation.
  2. Diagnostic errors are not uncommon. Labels represent large categories of overlapping symptoms.
  3. Labels can lead others to assume the disorder is responsible for ALL behavior, rather than considering other environmental factors. They can oversimplify the nature of problems, and limit opportunities to adjust other factors, which could be very helpful.
  4. Differences within a category may be underemphasized; disregarding the importance of individually tailored accommodations.
  5. Labels can become more confusing than helpful, as individuals seek a way to “fix” their “problems,” encountering an over abundance or information and opinions from others, who consider themselves to be “experts,” based on their own experience.
  6. Labels may limit expectations of what an individual can accomplish, and discourage potential achievement.
  7. Labels can cause us to reinforce differences, and diminish empathy, rather than recognizing our common humanity and individuality.

Our understanding of co-workers is formed by interacting and observing the manner in which they function, the way they process information, sights, sounds, touch, their organizational and learning styles, and their interactions with internal and external customers and colleagues.

It is important to consider how diagnostic labels can hinder our ability to “let go” of expectations as to how others “should” be, rather than seeing them as the multidimensional individuals they are.  It is far more practical to focus on an employee’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than on his or her “disability.”

Diversity is not just about color, culture, religion, and gender, etc.  It is about respecting, supporting, and benefiting from the creativity, intellect, and individual experience of others.

“Authentic” inclusion can not be achieved until employees no longer needs a disability “label” to access “reasonable” accommodations. Unfortunately, many organizations remain inflexible, single minded, and reluctant to meet individual requests. They fail to trust employees to identify and implement the adjustments, which have the potential to multiply personal productivity.

Employee “self-awareness” should be valued, respected, and…when reasonable,

  self advocacy

The need to “justify” accommodations with a label, as protected under the law, is regrettable.  It demands individuals disclose a disability in order to ensure their needs are met; making it unlikely that ANY employee feels respected, trusted, or supported by the employer.

For further consideration as to Why Words Matter and Inconsistent Labels, see Inclusion – Roadblock #4 – The Language of Labels.

Be Counted!  Illuminate Mental Diversity at Work.
There is safety (AND strength) in numbers. “All for one, and one for all.”

Suggestions, feedback, comments, and questions welcomed at

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© October 2015


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