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  • Writer's picturebeccabland4

Family Estrangement: Do I Let The Labels Stick?

Updated: Apr 4


I have worked with many people in my family estrangement coaching practice that have felt damaged by a label that somebody else stuck on them. So much so that they feel the relationship may be beyond repair. There are many labels I could cover here: addict, bi-polar, narcissist, alcoholic, avoidant, fucked-up, immature, entitled, selfish, crazy, difficult, victim, toxic, abusive. Labels are a judgment and in some cases an unskilled diagnosis. There is an important difference between the self and the behavior. If we start to conflate these two aspects of a human and label people wholesale then we can get into unhealthy waters.


I know from personal and professional experience that labeling behavior can be helpful for us in the healing process. It can be so useful to realize for ourselves what that behavior felt like, and it can lead us to helpful resources, healing communities and a greater ability to cognitively forgive someone that we may feel has a particular struggle. Yet, the all important question remains, whether it is helpful to communicate these judgments and how we should do it.

Although many people may use a label as a wake-up call, so someone else can really see themselves, it can end up pushing someone away further. To be judged negatively and being diagnosed inappropriately will rarely feel good.  

This blog will take a look at labels and when to use them. It will cover deciding whether to let that label stick hard and how much we walk around wearing it. Because we do have a choice about the labels we accept, and how much other people’s judgments play a part in our perception of ourselves and our lives.


Do we let these labels stick? I do want to caveat, that it can be useful to really understand why someone would think and feel as they do and give consideration to their perspective. We all have blind spots and the hard thing about blind spots is we ourselves can’t see them. Hence the name. When I am spiritually fit, I can consider these perspectives with a lot of humility and take them to trusted coaches and counselors to unpack. Sometimes, other people’s perceptions can help us to become a whole lot more honest with ourselves. There can be truth or elements of truth. But only we can decide what we take and leave and what is true of ourselves.


Family estrangement and the labels we stick on people


In my decade of experience in supporting people with conflict in their family relationships, the two most common, crunchy and potentially hurtful one-word judgments are abusive and narcissistic. This doesn’t mean they aren’t valid labels for certain behaviors, but I see daily how hard it is for others to accept these words. So much so, that I recommend in my amends letters to stay away from these labels, as it can send the other person into shut down almost immediately. It's like saying here is your worst fear served on a cold plate.


If the goal is to really help another person listen to your perspective and experience, we have to be aware of the dynamite we are dealing with when we bring these words out. There is a gentleness that is missing when we reduce behavior to just one word or diagnosis.


Yet I do understand the importance and healing power of calling these behaviors what they are and clearly stating they are wrong. People can often hear very hard things about themselves if they are said and delivered in a way which doesn’t shame their whole being or feel fundamentally unkind in nature. Also if there aren’t ultimatums woven into the mix.


We have to be aware that abuse and narcissism play on some of our biggest fears as humans, parents and people recovering from trauma.


Let’s talk about abuse first. For parents, the ultimate betrayal is abusing a child in your care or enabling harm on any level. Most parents (not all) go into parenting with the very best of intentions and without any conscious desire to harm or neglect. That they abused that power is the worst thing they can be told. For those of us who have survived abusive dynamics, the ultimate fear may be to be abusive ourselves and turn into that harmful caregiver that made life so hard for us. We are desperate to break the cycle and so we are very sensitive to any indications that we are harmful to someone else. A short way of saying this is that there is a lot of fear woven into this word and it is very loaded.


Narcissism is slightly different. It is an expression of self-obsession and an inability to recognize the needs of the other person. It’s all about you. I’m writing this on International Woman’s Day and I can’t help but feel that this label is so much more hurtful to women. There is a cultural expectation for a woman to be nurturing and to put others and their needs first. If we are self-obsessed, then what kind of woman are we? We exist and are validated most often for how well we meet others needs.


There was an excellent blog by Dr Joshua Coleman recently about the narcissistic mum label and how it isn’t a kindness to all women to use it. Mainly as we are making some assumptions about what women are in the first place, and then judging negatively when they don’t meet that archetype. Yet it is very common for me to hear people diagnose their relatives with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and create a problematic mental health profile for their relative. If someone gas lighted you and told you that your mental health was the reason you feel what you do, then you will understand how much anger can come with being labeled and judged unprofessionally.


This is the tricky aspect of narcissism. Whilst it can be useful to identify the behavior, to then diagnose it as a disorder for someone isn’t always kind and can be the result of ongoing anger. I feel we should let the professionals do the diagnosing of any mental health disorders, and prompt people to see them. It is relationship dynamite to take that task into your own hands, and then send someone to therapy as the prescription.


I would like to take the unusual step of defending narcissism for a minute and show it some compassion. Anyone developing such behavior has most often been through trauma. Our ego is very keen to look after our sense of self after these experiences, so that we stay alive. This can drive these self-facing, dominating and avoidant behaviors. If anyone feels they have a narcissistic relative, it would be useful to read Traumatic Narcissism by Daniel Shaw. It can really help to build a compassionate understanding of this issue.


If you were told that you deserved behavior that was harmful towards you because you were flawed in some way then the likelihood is that you will defend that shame by developing a self-image that needs positive validation to feel safe. Yet, in the quest for survival, we will, like every human, have developed traits that don’t serve us and your relationships. They may have served you at one part of your life, but are no-longer needed. It can be hard to accept our rounded humanity and we may only want to have the 'good' in us reflected.


I have been on this journey. I cannot tell you how much of a relief it was to allow myself to be human, be flawed, not get things right. I could accept that I deserved love even if I wasn’t perfect. Yet it was a long journey out of narcissism for me. It was helpful for me to accept this label and work on those traits. But I didn’t have someone pushing it on me. I came to the realization about my behavior in my own time and with my own sense of self-awareness. I used Gabor Mate’s compassionate enquiry method to help me.       


Why labels hurt?


Firstly, these labels can hurt if they have been stuck on us in a violent way. They label the person we are, and not our behavior. Our behavior can grow, change and evolve with the right support but our person is more fixed. Once you have been labeled a 'bad' person it’s pretty hard to come back, but 'bad' behavior can change.  


Secondly, we aren’t prepared for them. There can be a considerable gap between our image of ourselves and the reality of who we are as messy humans. I say this with a lot of respect for all humans reading this. Existence is a complex affair where there are rarely straight lines, perfect lives and self awareness at all times. It can really feel like a shock to be judged and then abandoned on the back of that judgment. We just didn’t see it coming, as we didn’t think ourselves like that.


How do we use labels kindly?


It can be very helpful in the healing process to use labels to help you process the experience you had. There was a very big breakthrough for me when I started to label the behavior I had experienced as an abuse of power. It helped me process the pain and gave me a lot of tools, community and healing to draw upon. I came to this label with the help of a few different professionals who reflected it back to me in our process.


I felt insecure about using this phrase at first, and I noticed a lot of resistance when I talked to really close friends. Was I really right about this? This limiting belief in my mind was the result of the gas lighting I had experienced. Am I allowed to say this? I had been very firmly disconnected from myself and lacked trust. However, by working on this limiting belief that I wasn’t able to trust myself, I could allow myself to believe my own intuitive wisdom. What happened wasn’t right and wasn’t appropriate. I began to trust myself. I also began to embody the idea that nobody can tell me my perceptions are wrong. My experience is always true.


If we are looking to heal a relationship then it’s important to understand that actively and vocally labeling someone can cause more hurt and push them away. This is particularly true if we vocalize this label as a universal truth about a person, rather than on the level that it impacted us personally. It also becomes much more hurtful if we label the person and not the behavior. For example, ‘he is a dishonest person and can’t be trusted’ is quite a violent phrase but ‘his actions felt fundamentally dishonest to me’ would land very differently. This pulls it back to your experience and takes it away from universally judging.


I coach towards using more neutral and less loaded labels that can help people understand the hurt they have caused and move the dynamic forward. For example, helpful and unhelpful, safe and unsafe, supportive and unsupportive. My home didn’t feel like a safe place for me to be myself. My brother’s behavior really wasn’t helpful and I feel it damaged our relationship. I felt that what my parents did wasn’t very healthy for our family. Their behavior was hurtful to me. And, ultimately, what matters? It matters that you are safe, supported and healthy. These are the benchmarks of a secure relationship.  


If you are noticing that in reading this, you feel a lot of resistance then it’s probably because we haven’t processed our anger entirely yet. We may want to label someone to kick back, to hurt them when they have hurt us. We may feel they deserve it. All this is very valid, and is a huge signal to think about how to process the hurt feelings more deeply. It’s OK to be angry and it’s natural in these circumstances. It’s also important to recognize from what place we are speaking or labeling others from.


We do have a choice about how much verbal violence we return, and the anger we carry. It won’t make us feel lighter to use violent language back, and it can push people into incredibly defensive reactions where there is no chance they can or will see themselves. So if you must use labels outwardly, it’s worth thinking about how we feel they will be heard. And if we have fully processed our anger enough to stick them on cleanly.

If someone is vocally judging you, it's good to seek support. You do have a choice about how much you let the label define you and your self worth. It doesn't have to stick.



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