What's In A Name? A Lot!

Words especially labels can have a strange and powerful affect on us. When a label comes from a credible source, a doctor, a therapist, or a teacher for example, most of us tend to believe the label is true. Whether the labels attached to us are positive or negative, we have a propensity to become the thing we’re called.

Negative labels can be harmful. Others often evaluate our behaviors based on the label they have for us. Sometimes their responses to us are very subtle, just a look or a gesture. We notice these non-verbal cues and they can make us feel inferior. Consequently we behave in ways that confirm the negative evaluation.

When given the choice to describe someone with a positive or a negative label it might be more useful to choose the positive one.

A young man who was very concerned about his bright and active three-year-old son took the boy to see a therapist. He wanted to know if his son was Attention Deficit Disorder. When asked what was it about the boy that disturbed him, he described a very active child who was not well controlled.

The therapist observed the interactions between father and son and agreed there were some problems. After a couple of assessment sessions, she asked dad, "do you want to solve some of your boy’s behavior problems?" The man emphatically answered, "yes, of course I do, but I still didn't get an answer to my question, is he Attention Deficit Disorder?" He went on to explain that a long time ago, someone had diagnosed him ADD and he wanted to know if his son had the same problem.

The therapist "diagnosed" the boy as very bright and perhaps even gifted. He would need to be treated like the gifted child he is. She explained that he would be more difficult to parent because of his above average intelligence and his precociousness. She suggested she might be able to help dad to get his boy’s behaviors in better check. Dad agreed to work with the therapist on issues of parenting.

After several more sessions and much improvement in the boy's, (and the father’s) behaviors, the therapist asked dad if he was satisfied with the progress they had made. He said he was. She sincerely complemented dad on the good parenting he was now doing and described in great detail all the things dad was doing that were effective. She encouraged him to trust himself and to keep doing those things that were working so well.

The therapist suggested they terminate therapy sessions at this time and indicated her availability if there were problems in the future. Dad insisted he would not stop therapy until he had a label for his son, to which the therapist replied, "which label would you prefer, gifted or Attention Deficit Disorder? The man’s answer was simply to set up another appointment.

Father arrived at the next session without his son. He told the therapist he definitely liked the diagnosis of gifted better than Attention Deficit Disorder.

"And, by the way," he said, "I took an intelligence test and discovered that I also am gifted. I've begun to take more initiative at work and have had some successful outcomes. I'm so glad to finally get an explanation that's useful. It's changed my life as well as my son's. Thank you."

Communication theory states "the word is not the thing." The word is only a symbol for a meaning we attribute to the thing. We can just as easily attribute one meaning as another. Therefore a positive meaning and a positive label can be just as "true" or "false" as a negative one.

Which label would you rather have?

—M. LaCourt

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