What’s Label Shaming & Why Is It Toxic?

First, let me say that labeling objects, people, and things is essential to human survival.

For example, it is vital to have a word to indicate if something is poisonous.  


Without the word “poison” we wouldn’t be able to communicate to others whether or not a mushroom is safe to eat or a snake is deadly. 

As long as humans have roamed the earth, we have used labels not only to ensure their survival but also to sort ourselves into groups.

As Sebastian Junger clearly articulates in his best-selling book, “Tribe,” humans have a biological instinct to belong to groups.  


Throughout human history, there have always been in-groups and out-groups.  


These groups have been called different names throughout human history- here are some variations on a theme:  

  • Tribes
  • Territories
  • Kingdoms
  • Neighborhoods
  • Congregations
  • Clubs
  • Departments 

Regardless of the group name, we humans always create small groups that are organized by categorical qualities.

This instinct to categorize and label is neither “good” nor “bad.” It simply is.

However, it is important to consider if our instincts to label things is helpful and protective or if labeling things is based in fear.  


Labeling is helpful and protective when it is used to create healthy boundaries. 


For example, when another person tries to force their label on you, saying the phrases below are examples of healthy responses:

  • “I can see that you’re worried about me and I appreciate the concern.  However, I’m capable and get to feel what I feel and make my own decisions.”
  • “I understand how you feel. I’d like to now share how I feel.”
  • “I’m surprised by all this, and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. In order to formulate a response, I want to take some time to think about what you’ve said. I’d like to discuss this further tomorrow.”

Labeling is not helpful when we apply negative labels to a whole person.  


Categorizing people or whole groups has the potential to make them feel small and can be shaming.

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on the type of labeling that is not helpful.

I’ll be examining the concept of label shaming and share why label shaming is so toxic.    

So what is label shaming?


There has been a great deal of research on label shaming.  Interestingly, most of the research has been in the field of criminology.  


Here is what we know:  

Criminology researchers generally agree that applying a negative label to the whole of a person is stigmatizing.  


I thought it might be helpful to define ‘stigma.’

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “stigma” is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular quality, circumstance, or person.

If stigmatizing a person was effective, it would be lovely because labeling someone a:





Toxic Parter

feels good to the wronged party and is an easy thing to do.



I sincerely wish giving someone a label would correct the wrongdoer’s behavior.    


It would both feel good to the offended party while also changing the wrongdoer’s bad behavior.

However, what has been found is that label shaming- especially to a non-repentant offending party- only rigidifies their defenses against the label.

This finding- on its face- seems ridiculous.

However, if you think about it for a moment, it makes sense.


Let’s say someone calls you a narcissist.  


Would you wholeheartedly accept that label?


Probably not!


Defensiveness is a completely natural (and universal) reaction to a slight… 

Stigmatization is unforgiving and uncompromising... the offender is left with the stigma permanently.

The label is the wrongdoer’s identity. 


Unfortunately, defensiveness is the arch-enemy of a healthy family, friends, and work relationships.

There appears to be a “good” type of shaming.

Criminology researchers have found there is a type of shaming that is effective.  


It is called reintegrative shaming.  

“Reintegrative shaming communicates disapproval within a continuum of respect for the offerer; the offender is treated as a good person who has done a bad deed.”
-John Braithwaite

Importantly, research on this subject indicates that societies that are forgiving and respectful while also taking the crime seriously and holding the wrongdoer accountable have lower crime rates than stigmatizing societies.  

The problem with label shaming

Stigmatizing labels have the potential to hijack a person’s entire identity.  


If your identity is defined by the worst things you have ever done, it would be hard to accept… and could destroy whatever remnants of self-worth you have left.


"The refusal to take on an identity defined by our worst deeds is a healthy act of resistance."
-Harriet Lerner

Every person is better, larger, and more complex than the worst things they have ever done.

Label Shaming is toxic because it can be used to rationalize bad behavior.


Let’s say someone calls you a narcissist.


And your comeback is:


“I can’t help it.” 

“As a child, I grew up in a household where I was belittled, humiliated, and rejected.  Now, as an adult, I can’t help that I can’t take criticism.”   


These excuses invite you, an adult, to avoid the responsibility for the harmful consequences of your decisions and actions.

Here’s the hard truth:
Bad circumstances aren’t the cause for an adult to act badly.

In other words, label shaming can give an adult wrongdoer an “out” for their poor choices.  


After all, if they lack the will or choice to have made different choices, the wrongdoer loses the ability to be truly accountable for their poor behavior and choices.  


If label shaming is toxic, what are you to do when you’re the offended party?

In my opinion, the ideal way to navigate through a difficult situation is to hold on to two seemingly opposite ideas:

It is holding the wrongdoer accountable while also giving grace.

If you think these are contradictory concepts, you’d be right…

In my next blog I’ll take a deep dive into this topic and weave together the importance of having grace while also holding the wrongdoer accountable.

 In the meantime, are you ready to give therapy a go?

Free free to contact me directly if you have questions or to schedule a brief call to see if I might be able to support you as you journey forward.


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