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Why labelling things limits everything we desire.

It’s Monday. There’s a big day ahead, so you’re up early. The dawn is breaking, the birds are singing. It’s a crisp, clear morning and you’re heading out for a run. As you take off around the familiar streets, you’re really enjoying yourself… You’ve got a steady pace – the rhythm of your feet is in time with the music on your iPod. You feel great! … And then you slip.

Regaining your balance just before you fall, you realise you’ve hurt yourself. Your ankle sprains and it’s already starting to swell. There’s no way that you’ll be able to go forward. You’ve got no choice but to head back home, sit with your foot up and apply an icepack.

As you’re hobbling along, you might be cursing, telling yourself how hopeless you are for tripping up. You might be feeling grateful that at least you can walk, and nothing seems broken. You could already be thinking how funny life can be… Just when you were starting to feel a little overwhelmed, it slowed you right back down. You might already be solving… planning how you’re going to manage all of your responsibilities with a sprained foot. Or, you might be a ball of stress and frustrated negativity – wound up like a spring – anxious that today, life is not going as you planned it and now it’s completely shot to pieces.

How you viewed this particular scenario will determine how you cope with it.

Hopeless, stressed, anxious, shot to pieces.


Grateful, can be solved, funny and serendipitous.

In other words, the label that we put on something is our reality.

Labelling is a tool that we invented to resolve the complexity of our environment. Like so many human faculties, it’s adaptive and miraculous, but it also contributes to some of our deepest problems. The reason is that labelling gives us our map – our sense of ‘where we are and what comes next’ in any situation.

Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labelling in the 1930s, when linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Yeah, it’s a bit of a mouthful. But according to his hypothesis, the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just placeholders; they actually determine what we see.

Whorf said that labels have the power to shape and change our perception.

Labelling isn’t always a cause for concern; in fact, it’s often very useful. It would be impossible to catalogue the information we process all the time without the help of labels like “friendly”, “deceitful”, “tasty”, and “harmful”.

However, it’s also important to recognise that labelling has a downside. We can fall into the trap of making generalisations and ‘expecting’ things to be as we label them.

Labels can distort our perception.

In 1931, the Polish-American Scientist and Philosopher Alfred Korzybski gave a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, Louisiana. In this paper, he spoke about the map is not the territory concept.

Korzybski further developed this theory in his book Science & Sanity (1933), where he stated that any map might have a structure that is either similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory. In a nutshell, the map is not the territory.

Nevertheless, what exactly does the map is not the territory mean?

Put simply, it means that the world is what it is. We can make all kinds of maps and models of how the world works. Some of them can be very useful, and we can talk about them with great benefit. However, these maps and discussions can never do more than approximate the actual world or the specific phenomena being examined. The actual territory is beyond verbal description.

We make abstractions all the time. An “abstraction”, as used here, is something which simplifies, condenses or symbolises what is going on in order to better talk about it or think about it.

For example, if I walk down the street, I might experience a particular event taking place. My perceptions in themselves constitute an abstraction. Different people will experience the same event differently, depending on many aspects: their vantage point, how their own perceptions work, what mindset they are in and what life experiences they bring to this particular moment in time.

Even though we might each think that we witnessed the event in great detail, each person’s view will never be more than a portion of what went on. You see, I will record certain sights, sounds and feelings, and these form my (unique) representation of the event. I might then start describing what I experienced – the colour of the cars involved, what direction they were travelling, the sound of their impact, etc.

Even though I am aiming to provide clarification of what I witnessed, my words will abstract it further. While my description is able to paint a picture for you, no matter how descriptive it is, it is still an imprecise approximation of what I actually perceived and how my memory recalled it.

As time goes on, I might leave out more of the details and say just that “I saw a car accident”. This creates further abstraction.

What it all boils down to is this: If somebody took my verbal description of an accident as what actually happened, then all kinds of mistakes might come out of that. Because, in line with Alfred Korzybski’s theory, a map is only a map – a frame of reference – and different maps might be drawn for the same territory. Descriptions and models are very useful in daily life, but there’s always room for interpretation.

So what is the point?

Most disagreements, arguments, confusion and uncertainty come about because people forget that we each have our own maps. My map is different from your map. But, as you also now know, maps don’t completely correspond with what is actually going on anyway.

When we ‘label’ things – situations, events, people – we give our minds a reference. But that’s all it is. It is never completely accurate.

Remembering this is critical. Otherwise, if we leave it ‘unchecked’, labelling can ‘lock’ us into ways of thinking which can distort our reality. It can change the way we perceive and assess. Ultimately, it can hinder our happiness and stop us from believing in the power of ourselves.