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Labeling Theory: To Perceive or Not to Perceive

The way that we perceive things, whether it is a situation or a person, influences how we interact with the situation or person. For example, if we consider a situation to potentially be unsafe, we may act with more caution. This is a part of our survival instincts as humans, leftover from a time of physical dangers like wild animals. Our judgments have continued to exist into our current society, although we rarely need to judge whether a situation is safe because of the potential for wild animals. We now label and judge people and react to them based on these labels.

Labeling Theory is the idea that when we label something as something, that is how it is treated and that is what it becomes. This idea comes from sociology and criminology and directly relates to perceptions of truth and the power of language. Just as what we say can become truth, what we say about others can become truth.


Stay with me on this and consider snakes. Snakes have been labelled as dangerous and not loved (by most but not all people), and they are then treated as such. We avoid snakes. We become nervous when we are around them. We do not seek them out and we are nervous about interacting with them. I can remember the first time I went the Snake Pits on a class trip (this may be a uniquely Manitoban experience, but it is a place where the garter snakes hibernate in the winter and then awaken in the spring to mate). I was horrified that all these snakes were wild and everywhere. I was so nervous to hold one and so scared it would bite me. But then I did hold one. And it was fine. It was quite sweet and gentle, it wished me no harm, and it really wanted nothing to do with me. So, my perspective began to slowly change. But without this first-hand experience, I probably would have continued to think snakes were scary and gross.


Consider how this affects people. What names do we call our fellow humans? What labels are we quick to give? How do we treat people with certain labels?


Think about the label of addict. What images, thoughts, emotions, and ideas does this call to mind? Is an addict someone you wish to befriend or someone you are uncertain of? How does knowing that someone is an addict impact how you treat them? My guess is that knowing that someone is an addict may call to mind ideas regarding impulse control, concern of trouble, and fear about being taking advantage of. This may or may not be true for you, but in general, there are concerns regarding an individual who is identified as an addict. How does this impact how you act around this individual? Would you be willing and eager to lend them money? Would you be willing and eager to meet them for a coffee? These same questions can be asked for any title that holds negativity. These same questions can also be asked for any title that holds authority or is seen in a positive light. The reality is that labels affect the way that we think about and treat other humans, regardless of the characteristics of the individual that has been labelled.

Imagine now the power of labeling theory when you apply it to yourself. Do you have certain names or phrases that you refer to yourself by that you would never say aloud or say to your friend? What power does calling yourself a failure, a loser, weak, or pathetic (all things I have called myself) have on the way you think about yourself and how you treat yourself? If you think of yourself as a failure, are you willing to take risks to follow your next dream? Probably not. If you think of yourself as a failure, are you going to spend your time and money on a course that will help you fulfill your goals? Probably not.


Think now about the possibility to use labeling theory to your advantage. Do you have certain qualities or titles that you wish to achieve? Maybe you want to be a warrior, wanderer, or adventurer? When you call yourself the title you wish to achieve, you can begin to shift your thinking and begin to think of yourself in that more positive space. You may also begin to treat yourself the way that that title deserves and do more things that are associated with the title.

The labels and words we use have power, use them to your advantage. What positive names do you wish to call yourself?


In darkness and in light,


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