Global Labeling: Cognitive Distortion 13

In Global Labeling, we generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in the context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

Here’s a story to illustrate Global Labeling.


Julia thought of herself as progressive-old-fashioned. She loved the days gone by mannerisms popular in her youth. But also embraced modern technology. She thought of herself as a hip grandma who knew just enough about modern culture to be dangerous. The problem is that Julia found herself increasingly dissatisfied with the world around her. Violence everywhere, rude people all over the place. The moral fabric of society seemed to be broken.

Julia was dissatisfied with the status quo and longed for the better times of her youth. By discounting some of the good changes that came along with her advancing years, she was missing the big picture. Eventually, Julia took a step back and learned that violent crime has actually been on the decline in the past 30 years, even accounting for small increases here and there. And that while marriage rates are in decline, divorce rates are lower per capita than in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

With some perspective, Julia realized she had a lot to be thankful for.

She loved all the conveniences of modern appliances and healthier fast-food options. She learned to accept more traffic in her city because it came with better access to medical care.

So, while everything wasn’t peachy, there were some really great things happening amongst the bad. With her more nuanced approach, Julia learned to accept the good with the bad and lead a happier, more content life.


Global labeling is easy to fall into.

Read the news and spend time in a busy grocery store, and you’ll conclude the world is falling apart. However, no time in history has been completely idyllic. Human nature creates drama and problems. There will always be pockets of crime and pockets of good. So, when we fall prey to global labeling, we do ourselves and everyone else a disservice. By looking at things only negatively, we discount the good. By only seeing the good, we could discount someone’s suffering and fail to help where we could. The more we understand human nature and the nuances of tough decisions, the more we will build our empathy and understand of our fellow humans.

To help break the cycle of global labeling, here’s what it sounds like rattling around your head and what to start noticing. I’m a terrible person. Society is screwed. I’m no good. Nobody listens anymore. I’m not smart. Everybody is selfish. I’m always wrong. 

From the outside looking in, these statements can’t be true all the time, logically. But, for someone who suffers these pitfalls, it takes vigilance and a bigger picture view to break the cycle. Instead of beating yourself up for a failure and labeling yourself bad, label the decision / action / situation bad. Instead of globally calling yourself an idiot, reaffirm to learn something from the situation and grow. We learn by growing and doing, which involves some amount of failure. Give yourself grace through the process and keep failing forward.

Seagulls on a Rock Watercolor Painting
Seagulls on a Rock Watercolor Painting

I wonder if these seagulls are doing some global labeling about the tourists?

Find more art here!


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