Do you ever self-diagnose or diagnose others around you in a derogatory way? Then you may be pathologizing. If you tend to put a label on people, know that it can have harmful consequences.
If you’ve ever jumped to diagnose yourself or others based on a symptom or preconceived notion you have, this is known as pathologizing. You may have said “I’m too emotional” about yourself because you cry more than others you know or made an assumption about a person’s mental health condition based on certain stereotypes.
Whether you are doing this intentionally or not, putting a label on yourself or others can be harmful. If pathologizing sounds like something that you do, there are ways to unlearn this behavior.
Pathologizing is when you treat others differently based on their non-normative behavior or characteristics, says Steve Carleton a licensed clinical social worker residing in Denver, Colorado. In other words, you treat these differences as a sign of an underlying mental disorder.
This term implies judgments about how you think a person should act or behave based on a typical expectation or social norm.
When you make an assumption about a preconceived notion that you have about a person or group of people it can have harmful consequences. The individual(s) being pathologized can feel there is something wrong with them, says Carleton.
“This can lead to a feeling of shame and isolation and can have serious consequences for their mental and physical health, as well as their social and legal standing.”
Pathologizing someone’s typical behavior as a problem that may require intervention is something that is happening in our society today. For example, over-diagnosing typical human emotions like sadness and grief can be mistaken for depression, says Carleton.
When this happens, it can lead people to become unnecessarily medicated or hospitalized when they are not experiencing mental illness.
“These kinds of labels are stigmatizing, both to the people being labeled, and to the people that actually experience mental health conditions,” says Emily Treichler, PhD, LCP residing in San Diego, California.
When this happens, Treicher says, it can make it harder for people experiencing significant mental health symptoms to seek help and find support in their communities because they see how others are criticized and ridiculed using these kinds of terms.
There are several things you can do to avoid the temptation of putting labels on people and making harmful assumptions. Here are a few ideas.
Be mindful of your words
Be aware of your own biases and prejudices, says Carleton. This can lead you to pathologize others without even realizing it.
The way you speak to others can have a huge impact on how they’re perceived by others, says Joni Ogle a licensed clinical social worker based in Houston, Texas. Be conscious of the impact your words have. She suggests avoiding using stereotypes and labels when talking about others.
“A good thing to remember: if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it behind their back.”
Be an ally
Educate yourself before passing any judgment, says Ogle. As you continue educating yourself, you can use your knowledge to educate and/or correct those around you who may be engaging in pathologizing behavior.
Showing your support can make a big difference in someone’s life, explains Ogle. “This could mean speaking out against discrimination or promoting positive representation in the media.”
Practice compassion towards others
To avoid pathologizing someone you need to first walk a mile in their shoes, says Treichler. Having compassion towards others can help you see another perspective and better understand how they’re feeling.
Acceptance can help stop the cycle of pathologizing. Try to learn to accept yourself as well as others.
The more kind you are to yourself and others, the less you may pathologize and the more you may try to understand other people’s experiences and point-of-views, says Dr. Emily Donald, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in North Carolina.
Get to know others better
Before judging someone or making assumptions about them, try to get to know the individual better. Take a moment to think about the person’s cultural, religious, and social background, says Treichler.
Sometimes you may pathologize for things you’re unfamiliar with because it’s not what you grew up with. However, it could be completely healthy for that person and their family or culture.
Take some time to reflect on why you think you need to comment on a person or their behavior, says Donald. Ask yourself how you’d feel if someone commented on you in that manner.
It may help to journal to understand yourself better and develop more self-awareness. The more in tune you are with yourself, the more intentional you will likely be with your words and actions.
Pathologizing happens when you make an assumption about a person based on your preconceived notions of how someone is supposed to behave. This can be from a bias you may have and not realize or from something you’ve learned from your surroundings.
When you pathologize someone, it can have harmful consequences. These labels can make people feel shame or believe something is wrong with them. Pathologizing can also lead to mental health issues being treated less seriously.
You can avoid pathologizing by:
- being mindful of your words and bias
- educating yourself and standing up for others
- practicing compassion
- getting to know others better
- self-reflecting and developing self-awareness
If you need more support or resources to help you avoid pathologizing, consider speaking with a therapist. A mental health therapist can help you become more mindful of your actions and explore why you believe what you do.