Is there any difference between label and category? We use categories everyday. Psychiatrists use it too. Aren't psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder just labels that are assigned to specific disorder cases that patients have?

Isn't "labeling" itself a label? People have some thoughts, but some of them are labeled as "labeling".

If I say that the bird I see is a pigeon, this is labeling as well. But I don't think that saying that the pigeon is a pigeon is a cognitive distortion.

Sorry, I am not a psychologist. But my psychotherapist said me that I assign labels to person and their actions. But I don't understand what it means and why it is bad.

  • $\begingroup$ Have you asked your psychotherapist and listened carefully to their response, without judgment? $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 16, 2020 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ you make a valid point here insofar as why I, and a minority of other people in the antipsychiatry movement, have a problem with labels. my personal perspective: we can best understand (though not only understand) schizophrenia and perhaps a few other conditions as neurological problem akin to dementia or epilepsy. in general, though, psychiatry hurts people (and most especially young people) with pseudoscientific labels like "borderline", etc. those people then come to identify themselves with the labels and therefore make excuses and limit themselves. especially bad since shrinks often g $\endgroup$
    – Ria Byss
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ to start off, let's see their definitions. Categorization is an activity that consists of putting things, such as objects, ideas, or people, into categories (classes, types, index) based on their similarities or common criteria. Labelling or using a label is describing someone or something in a word or short phrase. $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Ooker That's not what labeling means in this context. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause so what does it mean in this context? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 8:02

2 Answers 2


Scientific labeling:

  • If you study arthropods long enough, you will find that many of them have two pairs of antennae. We call these creatures crustaceans.

Cognitively distorted labeling:

  • If you study arthropods long enough, you will find that many of them lack coherent goals in life and generally fail to accomplish anything meaningful. We call these creatures losers.

Science, as a discipline, uses labeling just as you mention. Biologists label creatures to fit them into categories based on their ancestry and features. Psychologists classify mental health conditions into diagnoses such as depression and schizophrenia to aid research and treatment. Astronomers divide heavenly bodies into classifications such as stars, planets, dwarf planets, moons, comets, and asteroids.

Scientists sometimes disagree on the best classification system, the exact set of labels to use, or exactly what should get each label. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created the new label of dwarf planet and reclassified several worlds into this new category, including the formerly classified as planet Pluto and the formerly classified as asteroid Ceres. The fact that there has been a relabeling or that there is a disagreement does not mean that cognitive distortions are being used if the labeling systems being used are founded on logically and empirically reasonable models.

Learning about idiots, losers, has-beens, never-wases, stupid people, and uglies.

Labeling, as a cognitive distortion, is not simply attaching a label to something. It is a pathological process of attaching an extreme and ambiguous label to something in a manner not warranted by the evidence. Read resources on labeling as a distortion. Nearly all of them give examples such as "loser", "failure", "bad", or "pathetic". Note a trend here. These are statements of opinion, not fact, and they are applied in such a way as to be unfair to the target.

Now, let's consider a scenario. You're a gay Scottish dentist. You have several labels but they are all completely factual and value-neutral. You go to your local singles mixer and identify yourself as such, and maybe even add a nice opinion label like "cute" or "cool" to yourself. There is no distortion here.

Now, you botch a root canal and are in the depths of despair. You call your sister frantically and call yourself a "loser" and a "failure" who should "never be allowed to practice dentistry ever again". Now we are getting into cognitive distortion territory. Maybe you made a mistake. Maybe you were even reckless. These things don't define who you are as a person. Cognitive distortions are acts of unfair or unreasonable mislabeling that accomplish no good but instead cause psychological distress. Calling a duck a duck is not distortion, but good science.

Ways to approach this:

  • You are a person who made a mistake. You are not a mistake.
  • You are a person who screwed up. You are not a screw-up.
  • You may have failed this time. You are not a failure.

As Bryan Krause suggested (above), talking with your psychotherapist is likely the most important next step for you to take.

Also, please note that what I write below is simply general information about cognitive behavioral therapy. I do not know your situation. What I share with you here is not personal advice. It is information only.

You might find it helpful to read more about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) because it might answer at least one of your questions, which I will paraphrase as: Why are cognitive distortions potentially harmful?

Brief answer with an example

What you think (assumptions, beliefs) about yourself and the world greatly influences what you do (behavior) and how you feel (emotions). Our minds often distort reality by "telling" us untruths, which in turn lead us to feel and act differently.

Example: I'm a college student majoring in psychology. I studied reasonably well for a statistics test, but I received a "B-" grade. My friend received an "A". I immediately think, "I'm not smart enough to be a psychologist." I subsequently don't study as hard and I start thinking about changing to an "easy" major. I feel down and start to smoke weed every day to feel better, which causes me to feel even less motivated.

Thus, according to cognitive behavioral theory, my negative (distorted) thoughts about the "B-" grade led to a downward spiral of maladaptive behaviors and depressed mood.

Very brief history

[Edit of 17 Dec 2020: Thank you to tale852150 for calling attention to my egregious and baffling omission (see the Comments, below). I added this section about Albert Ellis because Ellis was indeed the first cognitive-behavioral theorist and clinician.]

Albert Ellis (1913–2007)

In the mid-1950s, Albert E. Ellis, Ph.D., developed the first systematic cognitive therapy, which he originally called "rational therapy", with the therapy approach evolving, the name changed to "rational-emotive therapy" (RET), and finally, "rational-emotive behavior therapy" (REBT). This book chapter provides a concise, yet complete overview of REBT:

Dryden, Windy, Daniel David, and Albert Ellis. "Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy." In Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, 3rd ed., edited by Keith S. Dobson, 226–276. New York: Guilford, 2010.

And here are few representative samples of Ellis' publications:

Ellis, Albert. "Rational Psychotherapy and Individual Psychology." Journal of Individual Psychology 13, no. 1 (1957): 38-44.

Ellis, Albert, and Robert A. Harper. A New Guide to Rational Living. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.

Ellis, Albert. "Rational-Emotive Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Similarities and Differences." Cognitive Therapy and Research 4, no. 4 (1980): 325-340.

Ellis, Albert. "Changing Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET) to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)." Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 13, no. 2 (1995): 85-89.

Aaron Beck (1921– )

Aaron Beck, M.D. developed "cognitive therapy" in the early 1960s. One of his first breakthrough articles was:

Beck, Aaron T. "Thinking and Depression: I. Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions." Archives of General Psychiatry 9, No. 4 (1963): 324–333. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1963.01720160014002

Helpful articles

John M. Grohol, "15 Common Cognitive Distortions", PsychCentral (24 Jun 2019). Here is a quote from Dr. Grohol's article:

What’s a cognitive distortion and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.

Cherry, Kendra. "What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?" verywellmind (13 June 2020). This is a quote from the article:

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to and worsen emotional difficulties, depression, and anxiety. These spontaneous negative thoughts have a detrimental influence on mood.

Note that "automatic negative thoughts" and "cognitive distortions", as used by most psychotherapists, have very similar if not identical meanings.

Best-selling book

The top-selling cognitive behavioral therapy book on Amazon.com currently is:

Gillihan, Seth J. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies for Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, and Worry. Emeryville, CA: Althea Press (Callisto Media), 2018. (Amazon rating/reviews: 4.6 stars; ReviewMeta: 4.6 stars)

I haven't read Gillihan's book, but a ReviewMeta rating of 4.6 based on 97 reviews suggests it's been helpful to most people.

Of course, there are scores of good online articles and books about cognitive behavioral therapy. The ones I mentioned are just a select sample to (hopefully) get you started learning more.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Can’t believe you didn’t mention Albert Ellis here as equally useful and informative $\endgroup$
    – tale852150
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 5:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is more of a comment than an answer. Or do you mean that by labeling the (OP's) therapist actually mean cognitive distortion? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @tale852150 Albert Ellis was the father of REBT not CBT. See psychology.stackexchange.com/q/1977/7604 $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers yes, and REBT (or RT as it was called then) was the first CBT, circa 1957. Albert Ellis is known as the grandfather of CBT. $\endgroup$
    – tale852150
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 12:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @tale852150 - I can't believe it myself! You are, of course, absolutely correct. I edited my answer today. // I suspect I have been influenced by the overemphasis on Beck as the "father of CBT", and I was previously not aware of the bias that had developed in my mind. I appreciate you identifying my error. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 22:14

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