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You're Bad: The Detrimental Effects of that Pernicious Label

September 8, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

Recognizing that we are decent human beings trying our best, we can be forgiving, and optimistic that we really can change.

One of my pet peeves is when people ask, "Is she a good baby?". While some babies may be easier to deal with than others, they are neither good nor bad. Because good and bad are moral choices which babies are not capable of. We throw around the word bad without fully thinking through the implications. How many times do we hear someone who was on a diet say, “I was bad today” – code for I didn’t stick with my diet.

What is wrong with this statement?

In the first place, unless it’s life or death, I don’t think choosing to diet falls into a moral category. But leaving that aside, we are all psychologically aware enough to know how destructive labeling is; we all studied those parenting books that admonished us to criticize the action, not the person. We weren’t bad today; we may have made a poor choice, possibly a self-destructive choice. Maybe we weren’t our best selves.

This distinction is not just semantics; it’s crucial. It’s very hard to grow and change from a place of depression and discouragement. The cause (ourselves!) seems hopeless. We have sunk so far. We are so flawed. We are so “bad”. It’s not impossible – we believe it’s never impossible – but it’s certainly very difficult.

On the other hand, if we recognize that we are decent human beings trying our best to keep moving forward in a constantly challenging environment, we can be forgiving. And, more importantly, we can be optimistic that tomorrow will be better, that we really can change. We aren’t “bad”; maybe we made a choice that wasn’t the best for us.

We need to fight against despair, even in the small areas, perhaps particularly in the small areas. We need to recognize that we can change, and that even though this particular choice (eating chocolate cake) may not be significant, the ability to choose well, the discipline to choose well is important.

If we get used to exercising self-discipline in one area, it frequently translates into other areas as well.

I hate to keep using diet examples but hey, I think many of us can relate. One of the common pitfalls in the dieting world may actually be a little success. Why? Isn’t success wonderful? It certainly is but if we feel we have conquered something, if everyone around us tells us how great we look, we relax our guard, we become less vigilant. And the next thing you know, we’ve slipped back into our old ways. This may not matter much in the diet department, but it does matter if we’re working on being more patient with our children, on being kinder to our husband, on being more sensitive to our employees…

And I believe that small changes can generalize into bigger behaviors. If we get used to exercising self-discipline in one area, it frequently translates into other areas as well. It may start with resisting the pint of ice cream but it can lead to not honking at the car in front of you, not lying around in bed wasting time, not yelling at our husband when he walks in the door.

This is the time of year when working on our character is at the forefront of our minds. We need to treat ourselves with the same care and concern we have for our friends and our children. Since we would never call our children bad because of a poor decision or disobedient behavior, we shouldn’t label ourselves in that negative way either.

We are good people working on making better choices.


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