Life potentials What is Labeling Theory Psychology?

Labeling theory is the theory of how your identity and behavior is influenced by the terms (labels) you use to describe or classify yourself.

More from Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are

What is labeling theory psychology

What label have you attached to yourself lately? 

Labels are what you call yourself in your head. They are tags that you attach to yourself to describe the person you think you are.

Are you a successful career woman, a super mom, a loser, an ugly person, a sex bomb, a “fatty”, a good-for-nothing? We put ourselves in boxes trying to define who we are. We do it to others, and we do it to ourselves. Whether positive or negative, what we whisper to ourselves every day has a great influence on our self-concept, and dictates the direction of our thoughts and actions. More so than the labels attached to us by society. We are what we think we are.

Read about the different aspects of your personality here.

The Effect of Positive Labeling (Praise and Encouragement)

  • If you think you are hard-working, inspiring, promising, etc., you will be encouraged to achieve more since these positive words make you feel good about yourself.
  • If you believe in yourself, you unconsciously take more risks which leads to self-development and growth.
  • Self-encouragement helps you overcome life’s challenges, and minimizes the stress you feel when faced with the problems we encounter on a daily basis. You are more capable.
  • You live up to the labels you attach to yourself. If you think you’re a winner, even if you’re not, you will act and think like a winner – until you eventually become one.
  • People who like themselves are generally kinder and have a positive outlook.
  • Those who think of themselves kindly are happier.

Samples of positive labels: Achiever, Beautiful, Generous, Giving, Compassionate, Friendly, Capable, Intelligent, Smart, etc.

The Impact of Negative Labels (Self-Criticism and Degradation)

  • Restricts your potential by keeping you confined to the negative label.
  • It is self-prophetic. If you believe you’re useless, your actions and thoughts will be that of a useless person.
  • You often feel frustrated and unhappy, and often you’re unaware that your thoughts are the cause.
  • It can cause physical symptoms such as migraines, nausea, anxiety attacks, and stomach aches.
  • It is a major contributor to Depression and Anxiety.

Samples of negative labels: Ugly, Stupid, Weak, Fat, Loser, Hopeless, Selfish, Unworthy, Poor, etc. 

Avoiding Negative Labels 

Being aware when you’re undermining yourself is a positive step in the right direction. Although we know the truths about our self, constantly highlighting weaknesses and mistakes, and calling ourselves names will lead to unhappiness and undermines our potential. The labels we attach to ourselves can be a powerful motivator or detractor. Where the label came from, whether from society or a self judgement, doesn’t matter. If you adopt, reinforce, and feed the label in your mind – you give it power over you. 

Before you label yourself, challenge the label with the following questions:

Is that a fact that cannot be disputed or is that just your interpretation? 

Sometimes we exaggerate a situation and blow things out of proportion at the height of emotions. Gather the facts and examine them first. If you failed at a task or you did not reach a goal, does that really make you a hopeless, good-for-nothing?

Does your friends and family think of you that way too? 

What do they think about you? Is their image of you the same as your self-image? Negative thoughts have a way of getting out of control, and some of us are simply self-critical. Check if you’re not being too harsh on yourself.

Have you always been that way, or did something just happen?

There are some things that are beyond our control. Maybe you’re not movie star material. Maybe you were born with a disability. If it’s not something that you asked for or caused by your action, then you shouldn’t blame yourself and let it define you.

If a behavior or trait manifests as a reaction to a situation, then it’s just a momentary lapse. Your whole person cannot be defined by a mistake or one failure in judgement. You cannot be a loser, or stupid in an instant. At a certain moment, maybe you were, but that doesn’t warrant a label. We all make mistakes. 

If I’m looking at this positively, how will I think? 

This question will stop the negative downward spiral of thoughts by opening your mind to another way of thinking. What is the silver lining?

What have you achieved in the past that proves otherwise? 

So, you failed, and you think you’re a monumental failure. Have you always been a failure? Have you achieved nothing in the past? Look at all your achievements, big and small. 

Do I want to be this person?

Granted that your self-judgement may be justified. Is this the person you want to be? Are you happy to be labeled this way? If not, there’s always something you can do to change things. And if it’s something you can’t change, then change the way you think about it. Look for your other strengths and label yourself with those, and not highlight the negatives. 

Not Letting the Negative Labels Stick

Like the price tags and labels on the stuff we buy in the department store, personal labels can become rather sticky and hard to remove once it’s firmly attached. Before you stick a label in your forehead, remember: 

  • One word cannot define you as a person. Don’t put yourself in a box.
  • You can always change what you don’t like about yourself.
  • Give yourself a break. We all make mistakes. · Don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is an adventure.
  • Don’t strive to be perfect. Just be better than you were yesterday.
  • What you think of yourself affects how you live your life.
  • Labels are self-prophetic. You become what you think you are.
  • You are a being with potential. Don’t put yourself in a category.
  • Words are powerful. Use them wisely.
  • Every experience that doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

Whenever I hear that critical voice in my head, I say, “Here comes Ms. Perfectionist again!” It just puts things in perspective when you’re aware of what’s going on in your head. Check the negative labels you’ve attached to yourself in the past. Get a sponge and scrub it off. Then think of yourself kindly and appreciate the person you are. If you can empathize with other people, surely you can do it to yourself too. 

Remember all the good you’ve done in your life and stick those positive labels instead. Your view of your life will change for the better.

You can read more fascinating facts about personality here.


  1. Wikipedia: Labeling Theory
  2. Psyche Central: Avoiding Negative Self Talk
  3. WebMD: Turn Down Negative Self Talk

Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are

Read about the major factors of human personality in "Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are" by Harvard graduate Shawn Achor.

Get the Book today
Popout amazon

More from Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are