Why Labels Matter: A Personal Perspective


I’ve been writing a lot lately about the why words matter, and how the language we use can go on to influence our lives in many ways. In my clinical work with patients, I make an extra effort to explain the process of making a diagnosis. I also stress to my patients that diagnosis is a way of conceptualizing mental illness to help physicians design appropriate treatment plans. I want them to know that diagnosis is an imperfect process. When we label someone as “depressed or anxious,” we may not understand the lasting impact this can have on them. Many patients internalize and identify with being “depressed” sometimes to the detriment of their treatment. 

True Story:

I can share a personal perspective on the power of labels, because one particular label almost prevented me from becoming a physician. Imagine you are in fourth grade, and to that point you were already identified as “one of the least academically gifted” children in the class. At this point it was already clear there would be no gifted and talented classes for me. After another year of painful struggle academically, my parents requested I be tested by the child study team for a learning disability. At the time I did not know this was going to pretty much set the course for the rest of my academic career. Sure, enough, after what seemed like endless testing I was classified, given an individualized education plan (IEP), and placed in slower paced classes with fewer students. Now I had been officially labeled as having a learning disability. I had a real excuse to give up on any academic ambitions. 

Looking back on it, I’m not sure I even had a learning disability as much as the educational material and teaching was just so uninspiring. I continued through middle school, and high school and average student in below average classes, and I thought I was okay with that, after all I had a learning disability. I identified with this label which had a profound impact on my academics and ultimately set my medical career back five years. 

Famous Last Words:

The point of this is to help people who have been affected by labels. If you find yourself continually self-sabotaging, you may be allowing early labeling and the conditioning that comes with it to limit your potential. It’s important to accept your circumstances, and to try the treatments or interventions offered if you are not functioning well. However, we should not allow our life to be defined by these labels. Just because you have a learning disability or depression does not mean you cannot be successful. It took me many years to accept that I might actually be smart enough to go to medical school. I often think about how much further along I could have been if I did not identify with and internalize the idea of having a learning disability. Do not make the same mistake.

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