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September 07, 2016
Be Mindful of Labels: How Words Can Hurt and Heal - Ellie Herman
female friends at coffee shop

“Like most fat people, I’ll probably always be this way; this is who I am,” stated author, Lindy West. She was speaking on the episode “Tell Me I’m Fat” on the podcast, This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass.

Glass responded to Lindy by saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone just say those words — in context to this is who I am.”

As I listened, I felt struck by so many emotions at once: confusion, frustration, passion, and empathy. I thought, “Wait a second — fat is not who she is. Fat is a descriptor of her body size. It is a label. It’s not her identity.

Glass continued, describing the complexity and social shaming that often arises around the topic of fatness, “When you come out as gay, most people accept it because they know you can’t do anything about that, that’s who you are, you can’t change it. But coming out as fat — doctors and your family and the entire culture is organized to point out how wrong-headed you are.”

And this is exactly what happened to Lindy — she was shamed by the public, including her boss, Dan Savage, a journalist — just because she was fat.

Lindy took a strong stance, though, publicly responding to her boss through a news article. She wrote, “You’re not concerned about my health. Because if you were concerned about my health, you’d be concerned about my mental health,” as she recounted 28 years of hurtful, shaming language that slowly eroded her mental health.

So much for the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Here’s how labels can hurt

But this is not a blog about fat shaming. The account I reference above simply underscores the message that I want to get across today:

Even language that is well intended can have shaming qualities and negatively impact others’ mental health!

How does this happen?

Let’s start with labels. Have you ever noticed how often our culture labels others?

Instead of using labels to define “who we are,” maybe we could acknowledge that these words are simply descriptors.

My body size or my mental health diagnosis may be parts of who I am, but they can also be fluid; these descriptors may change over time, or they may not. This is where labels can be dangerous — no matter how positive a label is, labels can limit us.

Must we be limited to being gay, practicing a certain religion, having a career type, being fat, thin, or old? These labels can feel restricting, confining, and certainly do not encompass our whole selves.

Plus, some labels feel very negative, leaving people feeling flawed or broken.

As a therapist, I regularly see patients label themselves negatively with mental health diagnoses like, “I am bipolar” or “I am depressed.” These statements often create a feeling of permanency and hopelessness. Medical providers even reinforce these labels with statements like “You are bipolar.” This language leaves patients with little room to separate themselves from their illness. Depression or bipolar disorder is not who a person is, it is a diagnosis and a descriptor of a mental illness.

Here’s how words can cause shame

Shame, defined by social researcher, Brene Brown, is a painful feeling where someone believes they are flawed at their core.

The feeling of shame can even become tied to one’s identity: “I am not good enough” or even “I am too much.”

We all feel shame! Feel free to take a moment and notice the “shame story” you may carry. It may come in one of the following forms: “I am not ___ enough” or “I am too ____.”

A simple change of wording, however, can change this. For example, saying, “I have depression” instead of “I am depressed.” Doesn’t this phrase feel a bit lighter and more manageable? Changing from “I am too broken and depressed” to “I have a mental illness that doesn’t define me” changes our experiences — simply by using mindful language.

In my opinion, our body size and shape are not our identity, nor are our behaviors, disorders and diagnoses. Our identities, and who we are, have much more to do with our hearts and internal workings, including our values.

5 ways to speak mindfully

As I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately, I am learning many lessons myself and am now pledging to:

  1. Consider how my own language might affect my own and others’ mental health
  2. Take a stance of empathy and compassion
  3. Separate the person from their behavior; how they act does not define who they are
  4. Separate a person’s body size from who they are
  5. Separate a person’s diagnosis from who they are

If we can all be more mindful about the words we use and how we speak and write, we can decrease inadvertently shaming language and support healing.

After all, as Lindy reminded listeners of the podcast, if we care about health, let’s consider how mindful language can reflect our caring about others’ mental health.


Ellie Herman, MA, LPC, NCC is an Alumni/Family Liaison for Eating Recovery Center.

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