Diagnosing and Labelling Another is a Very Slippery Affair, says Edwin Friedman

Lately I have been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s classic Generation to Generation. On page 55, when discussing individuals who have recently been given a particular medical diagnosis, Friedman notes how “the labelling effects of diagnosis destroy the person.” When others in the family or organisation learn the diagnosis, they start to see the diagnosed individual as now being limited in terms of their capabilities. As he adds, “eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity.”

          This is especially true, Friedman says, when we are talking about older adults. As family members anxiously worry about their aging relatives, they often expect that their older loved one cannot function any better because of “the condition”(p. 56). So they rush in to be supportive, often over functioning and over helping, and thus inhibiting their loved one’s potential. The older person is now seen as one who is no longer capable or as one who is not able to change and grow. The diagnosis thus limits the person’s potential.

          This is another example of how ageism adversely impacts older adults and robs them of the dignity and respect they deserve. When people of any age become identified by labels or diagnoses we fail to see their humanity and potential as God’s precious children. Friedman suggests that when we are tempted to label or diagnose someone else, it is important to look inside ourselves first and see what we are trying to hide. (p. 56) What is going on within us that is causing us to think this way about someone else?

          It is important not only that we do not label others, but also that we do not label ourselves negatively either. Pejorative labels are often self-prophetic. If we think we are stupid or unattractive or clumsy or useless, our thoughts and actions will reflect these feelings. If we think we are too old, washed-up, or that no one values our opinion because of our age, others may well disregard us. Indeed, negative self-talk can greatly restrict our potential by keeping us confined to inhibiting labels.

          Instead it is important that we remember all the good things we have accomplished in life, the love and friendship we have shared, and the good that we continue to do for those around us. Best of all, let us remember these words from Ephesians 2:10: “We are God’s masterpiece!”

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