The Process of Pathologizing Among New Healers: Let’s Get Clear.

Many of us are healers of various types. We want to heal with our words, our hands, our songs, our science. We want to heal and help, and this is so natural to us. Or so it seems.

Sometimes we are already wondering when someone thinks they can tell us, we want to believe them.

Sometimes, we have a tendency to want to heal others because we ourselves have been wounded. If those wounds are still tender, then we may not be aware when something is triggering us to shut down, even as we try to help them.

Sometimes, I feel that someone can listen to me and pathologize my experience, especially those who are trying to help.

This is something that I must do as well, so I figured we could explore it here and perhaps find some tools for the future!


What Do You Mean, “Pathologize?”

Pathologizing according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is

To view or characterize as medically or psychologically abnormal.


If I say that I’m thinking about something a lot lately, and you ask me if I’m obsessed with it, that is sort of making me appear sick. It is taking something simple and giving it a loaded label.

The same is true if you tell me you are feeling down, and I ask you if you are depressed or worse yet, if I say something like “Wow it sounds like you’re depressed” or another statement that makes it implicitly easier for you to agree, consciously or unconsciously, than to argue with me. Really, there are better questions to ask than that and better ways of going about trying to help someone.

Why Is Pathologizing Dangerous?

Maybe it’s not dangerous. But I do think it gets in the way of a more pure and simple understanding that comes from compassion and empathy. It bypasses the process of curiosity and zips right into labels; and not just any labels. Charged labels, judgy labels, labels that you then have to talk yourself out of.
And the funny thing is, these labels can also make us feel like better healers. That’s right. If I decide that you’re depressed when you say you’re sad, and by the end of our conversation you sound happier, then I sort of cured your depression! in some messed up unconscious way. If I simply talked to you long enough for your natural mood to pass, then that’s less cool for me and my ego, but it might be the reality.

The Value of Curiosity

I realize that I am probably notorious for this process of pathologizing or else I wouldn’t notice it so sharply when other people do it. I must remember that having a curiosity for the reality of someone else is one of the best things that I can do. It teaches me to slow down and to have that same curiosity for myself, rather than to zip from “wow I’m sad in this moment” to “I must have a raging case of undiagnosed depression and I better make sure I don’t accidentally bring others down with me.”

The charged label is simply piling on layers that then become harder to get rid of, especially for those of us that are already hard on ourselves.

But Isn’t there More Anxiety And Depression?

Psychology Today has an interesting article on this topic. According to the article, depression and anxiety are becoming more commonplace because the normal human experience is being labeled as such more often, not because these states of mind are becoming more common. Furthermore, the author talks about how the labels are not meant to be taken as being solid things. They are meant to be used for the therapists to do their job more effectively, not to label people. The article is quite good, I recommend it!

With easy access to WebMd and other sources for self-diagnosis, it’s no wonder that more of us learn these terms and try to use them on ourselves, and on each other. It sounds better if we say “Sounds like you have an acute episode of a semi-psychosomatic illness brought on by environmental stressors” than if we say “I don’t know how to really relate with your experience at this moment, maybe you could call a therapist or just come over for some tea and we can hang out.” Or however it works with your relationship.

Is this from the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, who just love getting their chemicals on your neurotransmitters, or from people eating more additives in their food and having finicky immune systems? Who knows, but one thing remains clear:

We Can Stand Up For Ourselves

I know that personally, when someone gives me an insult, it can stick if it’s something that I already partially believe. For this reason, if someone labels me in a way that I’ve been labeled against my will in the past, then I may get a little triggered. I may feel the need to defend, or an impulse to believe them. Maybe I AM obsessed, maybe I AM in denial, or whatever.

I haven’t spoken to my therapist in years, and if I do, then I can hear whatever words of wisdom she has and take them in. She’s licensed, she knows me, and it’s her job. The people that may mean well but that throw out these loaded terms simply to try and understand something are most definitely not in the same position as she is to be, as they say, “going there.”

If you hear loaded terms from anyone who is trying to help you and is not a therapist, perhaps there is something that you can say back to them. Or someone you can talk to about the situation to see what they think, such as a real therapist. For now, I’m going to remind myself to use this question:

This is easy, simple, doable. Whatever someone says, whether they are my therapist or a stranger on the bus or a person I just met, I can ask them “Why use that word?” if they use a word that I find to be particularly charged.

I don’t know if that’s what you should do. I don’t want to pretend to have advice that I don’t have. I do know that if I get better at using some Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, then I might end up with more creative solutions to this issue.

I also know that trying to do this will help me at least to be aware of when the feeling of resistance or being triggered arises. If I can notice it, I can ask this question, and perhaps help the people I talk to become aware of when they are doing it, and help myself to do the same.

Do you have any experience with this, has someone ever used powerful words to describe your experience when you feel they are out of line?

Do you have friends that offer unsolicited therapy advice? Is it hard to turn it down or tell them to stop, or do you love when they do it?

Are you aware of the words that are most charged for you? (I’m not asking you to share them, though) Do you think that being aware of them can help you when people start using them unskillfully?

I hope you all have a great week!



28 thoughts on “The Process of Pathologizing Among New Healers: Let’s Get Clear.

  1. I love that! I often do find that people use “loaded words”. It’s definitely something people should ask others, “Why use that word?” but I think it is also something that we can ask ourselves, “Why did I choose to use that word?” Making ourselves more aware of the words we use and not just the words other people use. As the saying goes, think before you speak.

    • DEFINITELY! Ah, one of those things I forget to mention. Generally when I think of doing things to or for other people, it’s myself that I turn that light on first. Being like “Hey, self, did you really ‘need’ to call yourself a big lazy slug of a jerk today? or not?’ “and stuff like that. haha, thank you so much for reminding me of that. It’s very good to be aware of ourselves!

  2. Another great post, on the nail of a common but oft unnoticed habit.
    Two thoughts on this. One – I was speaking to someone today who said that their friend was down. They offered all kinds of advice but the friend kept saying “yeah, but” and giving reasons she couldn’t do it.
    He was annoyed that she should ignore the advice and felt she was just moaning.
    Maybe she was, and maybe all she wanted was to talk – not to be “fixed”. Sometimes we just need to listen, not solve or label.
    Second. There is someone in my life right now who is very insecure, but who compensates by trying to find problems in others that they can solve (so they can feel in control and useful). They will say “you have this ailment” and name a clever “mental health” illness. Then give all kinds of advice. But this illness is nonsense. The scary part is, this person easily and often convinces others. They are a walking pathologiser.
    I wonder if the drug companies (and others? who might they be? who has an interest in keeping us labelled?) perpetuate this labelling inorder to encourage us to believe we are ill and pay for treatment? Or maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe I have cognitive dissociative disorder!

    • Wow, those situations sound intense!
      I think part of it, at least for me, is in the belief that labeling something makes it easier to deal with. When I was younger and realized that other people had OCD like I did, it made it a LOT easier to find help. That was beneficial. I was able to heal. However, if I continue to find labels when they don’t fit, then it gets to be bad, and it also is really, really unuseful if someone else starts pulling those labels from the sky (or the Internet) in an attempt to sound smart or “helpful”. I think it comes from so many places, this need or tendency to be labeled and to label- in some sense, it really CAN be useful; that’s how it was intended. But like so many things that are intended for good, it gets turned sour by greedy minds and insecure and unconscious impulses. It’s sad. It’s good I think that you are aware of what your friends are doing- at least it won’t be as likely to stick to you, and you can help the people in some ways that do get affected to see it with perspective. once we can label others’ labeling, sometimes, it’s easier to let it go ๐Ÿ™‚

      • True – one is client not friend, hence I can sit back and see the dynamics.
        Labels are difficult. We must be open to seeing things for what they are, not for what we believe or assume they are – illness included. Otherwise we treat the illness, not the patient.
        Though as you say, a label really helped you. Much more thought required! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I do agree that people, even educated people in different health fields do not understand how their simple remarks can have a profound affect on someone….one simple line I learned a long time ago to use when someone asks you a somewhat dumb or not well thought out question that basically is none of their business (unless they are your legit therapist)…is this: “Why do you ask?” It makes them realize how inappropriate they are !!
    anyway, I love your insight and depth of thinking and especially your empathy for others : )

    • I’ll have to remember that question! It’s mainly useful in regard to my own self-talk I bet. So often a simple thought can get turned into something so huge and judgmental, when really, I could stand for a higher dose of curiosity and gentleness ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Very interesting. How do you keep coming up with such thought provoking topics of discussion?
    Although I enjoyed your article, I don โ€˜t entirely agree with you when you specify that one who has being professionally trained to provide advice is probably more adept at noticing issues that are causing emotional grievance. I think this opinion, and the one I have, is formed primarily from personal experience. In my case when I have in the past spoken with a therapist of sorts, I always (with the exception of one particular individual) came out thinking they were a bunch of deluded idiots who either handed down opinions because they felt compelled to do so because of their professional place in society, or simply to provide me with the feeling that I am perfectly healthy.
    Additionally, I feel that many of these professional people, true, have acquired the necessary education and training to formally diagnose people, but even with this writ, I believe that many of these professionals have never personally suffered any issues, including depression and other such negatively associated feelings. Not to go a little off track, but I believe this is true with doctorial personnel. I mean, how many times have you gone to the doctor and you have being suffering immense pain, and they have seemed so incredibly blase because they have never suffered what it is you are going through?
    On the other hand, it depends (in regards to your second question) as to which friend of mine is providing advice. For instance, if my mother were to provide to me advice, I would find it annoying and inaccurate, which is reflective of the strained familial relationship weโ€™ve had. If a certain friend of mine provided information, I might still find it annoying, but I would also appreciate her honesty and the fact that she cared enough to provide an opinion. So, in further answer to your question, no, I donโ€™t exactly โ€˜loveโ€™ it when friends/family provide advice that is supposed to be โ€˜therapeuticโ€™, but it can at times be helpful in analysing oneโ€™s feelings if a word is difficult to fathom.
    In regards to your final question, yes, I do know the most charged words that can describe me. Yes, I believe that being aware of them is helpful in deciphering such feelings when others attempt to name them. I know what feelings I have and what words can be used to describe them, which can be efficaciously beneficial if I ever want to potentially help a friend of mine and play the part of the novice therapist in an attempt to help analyse their feelings, provide them with feedback and cheer them up. True, not a therapist I am, but being able to relate to another personโ€™s feelings and thoughts can allow me to provide in-depth, personally knowledgeable and honest feedback.
    Also, just an observation, but I find your NVC comment a little funny – I don’t personally know you, but judging by the care and consideration you apply to your writing when talking about others, you don’t seem that dangerous.
    Again, very interesting post!

    • I am so glad that you like it! I agree with you fully. I was all caught up in the lovely feelings I have for my therapist (who I haven’t seen in years, and I miss her!) and had forgotten momentarily that some therapists are certainly, even if licensed, not very good! They are probably all good for at least someone, but maybe not for us, and that happens very often.
      I also agree with what you say about personal experience- if a therapist or a friend has gone through something similar to what you have gone through and their response was similar, their advice can be so immensely useful and trustworthy. I think that I definitely sense when someone tries to cheer me up after *not* having been through a similar thing, and it surely doesn’t work as well. There is that feeling of falsity, even with good intention, that ruins it. If someone is genuinely clueless about how to help but just tries to be present and listen or engage with me, then it helps much more to bring me into the moment.
      In terms of NVC- it is a whole communication technique, and I’ll have to learn more about it so that I can explain it better! But it has to do with phrasing things in terms of needs and feelings, so that instead of saying “this person makes me feel this way” I could say “when such-and-such happens, my need for something-else isn’t quite met, and I end up feeling x-y-z” or something along those lines..if I learn about it more, I’ll surely use it to illuminate things ๐Ÿ™‚ I love your comments!

  5. I have thought along these exact same lines many times. As a trainee counsellor I get this. I want to help people and I come up with all those solutions for them but really I need to open up and listen. Ditch labels. Labels take the power and responsibility away from the labelee. They weaken us. We grab hold of them though because they are easier than doing the work. Someone has pathologised us so we need someone to fix us, so off we go to our doctor or herbalist. I am for alternative medicine but I think it can become a clutch. You can get herbs or homeopathy for everything so we put our suffering on external resources. Suffering is so much part of life and acknowledging it rather than seeking constantly to cure it seems more sustainable and ironically less anxiety provoking. Rant over! X

    • I so agree. One thing I’d add – Can homeopathic medicine have a function as a totem (the placebo?). The cure itself doesn’t have to have any medicinal effect, but can offer a focus for the intentionality of the patient – a totemic gesture of an intent to care for the self.
      Through this gestalt method of focussing self-care the patient becomes more tuned to and aware of their bodies messages and needs, and nurtures themselves better, enabling the body to self-heal.
      The benefit being that homeopathic medicine (generally) doesn’t have all the harmful side effects of allopathic drugs.
      It’s an interesting thought your comment prompted in me.

      • That is an interesting thought! I’m not a homeopathic expert. I know some people that absolutely adore it, and some that don’t. The body and placebo effect intrigues me because it seems it can work in both ways- the body can stay sick against great help or get better with no help..I do wonder how it all works!

        • Also sorry, I was replying from the comment screen and not this and didn’t realize you were writing back to Zanni, as I saw your comment first- didn’t mean to jump in like that ๐Ÿ™‚ I thought it was so cool that you both brought up homeopathic medicine!

        • Me too. My wife is a firm believer, me more of a skeptic (I know, who’d’ve guessed!)
          I do think the placebo effect is one of the most important things we spend too little time researching – but then how would drug companies profit from that!

    • Oh you have hit that master point! “Suffering is so much part of life and acknowledging it rather than seeking to cure it seems more sustainable…” – YES! Every so often I remember that well, and then other times I don’t realize that I’ve forgotten it. The need to cure ourselves can take so many forms…but between all us mindful bloggers I bet a whole lot of moments happen between people where suffering is at least sometimes acknowledged without being controlled.. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I really enjoyed this. I dont have much to add exactly. I’m still mulling it over. In general, it would help if we could all learn to listen without our egos and insecurities getting in the way. Then we might not need to lavel…we could just be.

    • ๐Ÿ™‚ It would be great if that could happen. I feel like it totally does for everyone, but just for like a half a moment at a time when our partner is telling us about their day or when we are talking to a good friend about something happening right at that second. When we notice it, it’s nice.

  7. I can completely relate to this post! I catch myself making judgments all the time so I am working on myself, doing the work within myself first. These labels, judgments, and binary thinking comes from some place within us that we may be resisting to work on so we project ideals on to others so I try to break down what my deal is and be more aware. If I want to work as a healer I have to continually heal me first!

    • I fully agree! I sort of enjoy how my brain will pick up on things that other people do that bug me, because it’s nearly guaranteed that if I look closer, that same thing is something that I do all the time and should work on, and yes, there is generally resistance. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for checking out my stuff!

  8. I think there is a tendency to label because it makes things easier. I dislike the medical model, and I notice when a co-worker does not like someone they tend to throw out labels in order to categorize that person and say “see, this is why they are unlikable, it is not just me being mean.” But the truth is… it is probably just the co-workers being assholes…

    I go back and forth on labeling… In many instances it is quite necessary, but in others it is simply a stage for prejudice, discrimination, and stigma. Looking Glass theory states that we tend to become what is reflected back to us (messages from others about who we are and what we represent). If I label a 10 year old who is acting out as “Oppositional Defiant” that label can stick and a child who may otherwise just be naturally dealing with the issues in his life can begin to take on the traits of the label simply because this is what he is being told he is. Labels carry stigma, and can cause shame. Shame can create issues that last throughout our lives.

    It is a precarious balance, one I am quite uncomfortable reconciling in my field.

    • I have never heard of the Looking Glass Theory, I will look that up soon. It’s also kind of scary..we get so many labels put on us not only directly, but also indirectly, I feel. When you start to listen to the straight language of commercials, a lot of times the wording has lots of labels and questions that use marketing techniques to make it seem like they are telling the truth…it’s so scary and sad.
      It’s so hard because labels are useful and necessary. I think it’s kind of like most things that are useful to us as humans; there will always be cases where they can be misused because we have so many things going on inside our brains. Thank you for engaging with this ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Love this post! I never thought to ask someone this question. It really can help me to emotionally disengage from those trigger words, while (hopefully) getting the sayer to step back & re-evaluate their own speech. Thank you for this insight!

    • You are very welcome, let me know if it works! Also as my mom (Joanne) pointed out above, another good question could be “Why do you ask?” when someone asks a question that really seems just too intrusive or out of the way. And the hardest part is just simply catching that moment when it happens, and once we can catch it, the charge is already sort of reduced I trying is the first step! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Jennifer, as with so many of your posts, this one really made me think. I do this all the time and I’m particularly interested in the idea that by using these phrases I’m satisfying something in myself. It can have nothing to do with the other person, this “help” my ego says I’m giving. I have truly never looked at it this way. I appreciate this post and now I’ll have to think. Great post.

    • I’m so glad that you liked it! I just love finding things that I didn’t realize I was doing, then it’s so much easier to see when maybe those things aren’t serving me, and I’m endlessly touched that others can relate.

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