Power of Language and Labels

Posted on June 27, 2014

As a trainer, I get to hear myself talk a lot!  Much of what I’m talking about is how we communicate with clients.  Since I talk about talking so much, I’ve really started to pay attention to the specific language I use in describing our clients. 
This change stems from a concept in Motivational Interviewing where we attempt to separate the problem from the client as a person.  I have thought about this concept quite a bit lately and how it challenges us, as helping professionals, to reconsider our language at a very core level.  Here was how my thinking changed.
“Homeless” or “addict” are two commonly used labels that we place on our clients, and words I often have used in my trainings to get participants thinking about certain populations.  Take a moment to pay attention to your internal thoughts when you read the word homeless. What images come into your mind?  Do you see specific faces or groups?  If so, what do they look like?  Now do the same for addict.  What images come up?
When I think of homeless, I immediately am flooded with pictures of people living on the streets, in the extreme poverty that I encounter as I travel from city to city presenting.  I also get a sense of hopelessness and frustration at how big the problem is, both from an individual and societal perspective.  The image of the addict is just as devastating in my mind.  I see a person in psychological pain attempting to manage this pain through drugs, which are now creating more pain and trauma in that person’s life.  Again, I feel sorrow and frustration as I see society treating the addict as sick or immoral, and not as a hurting person who need the resources and safety to heal from their past.
A homeless person or addict is not a specific person in my mind, but a combination of experiences I have had throughout my personal and professional life.  This got me thinking about what it means for our clients to take on the labels we give them: at-risk youth, criminal, mentally ill, sexual perpetrator, homeless, HIV positive, addict and so on.  In order to receive most of the services we provide, we have to find the right label and funding stream designated for that specific label. 
I get the reality behind why we do this practice, but I can’t help but wonder how this impacts our clients.  Through mountains of research, we know the power of self-fulfilling prophecies; that people will act out the expectations others put on them.  Now think about a homeless person who is an addict, HIV positive, and has a criminal history.  Where can that person find hope, while buried under this mountain of labels and their accompanying stereotypes, both in society and in the client’s own mind?
I remember once I was laid off from full time work to part time from one of my first jobs due to budget cuts, and had to go to the Unemployment Office.  I had just come from a class in my final semester of my graduate work in psychology, and walked in as a student and helper who needed a little assistance getting back on my feet after an unfortunate work situation. After about an hour of taking a number, waiting in long lines, and being talked down to by the workers, I felt “unemployed.”  Luckily for me, my identity as a student and a professional overpowered the message I got from the system that I was stupid and lazy.  Unfortunately, many clients I worked with over the years didn’t have the positive past experience or identity to fall back on. This helps explain why these experiences in the system can be traumatizing, as it reinforces negative self-concepts established in abusive environments.
There are enough reminders for our clients that they are their labels.  I imagine that many of you work in organizations with a label in the name: homeless shelter, AIDS service organization, child welfare, domestic violence shelter, etc.  Then we ask all those labeling questions on the intake: “How long have you been homeless?”  “How did you contract HIV?”  “Have you had past mental health diagnoses?”  “What drugs do you use and how often?”  Again, I understand the need to ask such questions, but I’m also more and more convinced that we might be doing more harm than good by asking them, especially early in the helping relationship.
I know this blog post won’t change the names of our organizations, intake questions we have to ask, or the labels we need to assign to get funding, but we still have the power to look at our own words.  I have realized that there is a big difference between the words “homeless person” and “person experiencing homelessness; “addict” and “person struggling to manage an addiction.”  A “person experiencing homelessness” has an issue to resolve, and a “homeless person” isthe issue. 
As I’ve discussed in past posts, our society and many of our systems of care are designed to manage the homeless person or the addict, so this language seems natural at times.  These labels come with a cost for our clients, our own sense of hope, and how society views those we serve.  Separating the person from the problem brings forth the good and value of that individual.  We can experience sympathetic paralysis in the face of large amounts of collective suffering, which is why it is easy for whole societies to blame the homeless person or the addict for a dysfunction that lies within the people with these labels. 
It is a much different experience when we say, “Bob is currently experiencing housing instability.” Now I have human being who is struggling with a problem, and our brains can work with that much better than the hopelessness we experience in the face of larger societal issues.  In order to help our clients overcome these issues, we first have to separate the issue from the person, going back to Dr. Sandra Bloom’s question, “What happened to you?”  This gives us a story and a hero that we can help emerge from their struggle.  The old paradigm question, “What did you do?” keeps us all stuck managing a problem with a million faces and no face at the same time. 

My challenge to you this week is to think about your language.  Are there small changes you can make that help to lessen the impact of these labels on our clients and in our own heads?  Love to hear your experiences in the comment section.

One response to “Power of Language and Labels”

  1. Molly Meinbresse says:

    Matt, you and your readers might appreciate this blog post about harmful language related to people with mental illnesses.

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