Labels are everywhere. They help us organize our world. Labels help us name persons, places and things. The names we give provide a frame of reference. They can certainly be helpful, for example, when reading the back of a cereal box or distinguishing between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. However, when it comes to people, they often contain value judgements and fail to capture the multi-dimensionality of the person.
Thinking outside the label box: Some labels tend to reduce a person to a set of assumptions. We have all heard the terms at one point or another, some more familiar than others: addict, alcoholic, abuser/perpetrator, victim, anti-social, a real man, feminist and so forth. For example, all too often, inherent within the label of a real man are assumptions associated with traditional masculinity that say that men are stoic, tough, dominant and in-control, un-emotional, etc. Adherence to such a label positions men in a stereotypical box and negates experiences that fall outside the confines of the label such as expressive, collaborative, and nurturing.
More than just sticks and stones: The old saying don’t judge a book by its cover, is particularly true when it comes to labels. There are often some harsh judgements and assumptions that are attached with the label of addict. When doing free association, messages such as criminal, weak-minded, flawed character and so forth can surface. Where do these messages come from? Some are created and sustained by popular culture, media, family, religion, and other social structures. I wonder if even helping professionals, despite having good intentions, might inadvertently hold too tight to a label such as addict or alcoholic. Perhaps this primes them to focus in on deficits rather than other dimensions of personhood such as strengths, capacities, ambitions, hopes, personal ethics, and the exceptions that exist within a person’s life when the problem is not occurring.
Seeing the humanness in others: When working with people whose use of substances is problematic for them, what comes to mind is the importance of what Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard. To me, this has always meant being able to see the humanness of others. I have come to appreciate that a holistic vision involves seeing multi-dimensions – the darkness and the light, limitations as well as strengths, mind and the body, a person’s past, present and their preferred view of the future.
At Helix Healthcare Group, we aim to provide a multidimensional treatment approach that transcends labels and offers a new way to talk about addiction and mental health.
By Greg Babcock, Social Worker, MSW, RSW