Use of profane, derogatory or dehumanizing terminology to describe another individual or group.

Labels Designed to Hurt

Name-calling is one of the most common tactics people use to hurt others or disparage them. It often occurs when someone has an emotional argument to make with little or no supporting logical argument.

The emotional mind can often have a “mind of its own” or “emotional intelligence” which operates independently of the logical mind, and name-calling is a product of this emotional mind, an explosion of feeling in the form of barbed words.

Most people who indulge in name-calling know that the label or name they choose to describe another individual is not factually accurate. The label is often regarded as hyperbole or as a metaphor. Something which more accurately describes how the speaker feels about the other person than what the speaker actually thinks about the other person.

The Difference between Judgment and Name Calling

In the book "The Language of Emotions", author Karla McLaren illustrates the difference between judgment and name calling using the example of a household rug:

"Let’s imagine a rug that isn't ideal for the room we’re in. We can judge the rug and see that its pile is too high or the color is wrong. Perhaps we feel sad that money was wasted, but we freely process information about it and add that information to our skill set. That’s judgment. It’s not name-calling; it’s a considered, decisive process. We have a problem with the rug, we have feelings about it, and we’re definitely judging it, but we’re not doing damage to our minds, our emotions, or our psyches. Therefore, we move forward with more knowledge about rugs and rug care and about purchases in general. 

Now let’s get into name-calling about the same rug: “Why would anyone buy this rug? What kind of moron puts a pale, fluffy rug in a public area? Look at the way those colors clash; it looks like someone ate a box of crayons and then threw up on the floor!” With name-calling, we get personally affronted and it’s about our own emotions.

In both of these examples, we don’t like the rug. But name-calling doesn’t make us smarter, stronger, or more aware—it just pits us in futile opposition to a floor covering. Healthy judgment helps us choose what works in our lives."

"The Language of Emotions" by Karla McLaren

How it Looks

“You little -----”
“You are worthless”
“My sister is totally useless”

How it Feels

It’s normal to feel hurt and defensive when a person starts labeling you or calling you names. When you are on the receiving end you lose in two ways.

The first way is in loss of self-esteem. You receive the message that someone important to you does not like you or thinks less of you than you actually are or deserve. You may begin to wonder “what is wrong with me that this person does not like me?”

The second way you lose is in discovering that after the insult, there is no path of resolution being offered to you. When a person is name-calling, they have abandoned intelligent conversation in favor of emotional outburst. In an indirect way they are informing you that they are not immediately interested in problem solving, compromise, personal improvement, meaningful debate or mutually beneficial conversation.

How to Cope

When a person resorts to name-calling, they have in that moment abandoned logic in favor of an exaggerated expression of their feelings. There is little to be gained by confronting them with any form of reasoned argument about what the facts are or if the name is warranted.
There are generally two constructive options open to the victim. The first is to stay and validate their feelings, but not their statements. The second is to leave and wait for a time when they are ready to engage on a more logical or constructive discussion. There are also a number of destructive options - including retaliation, and enabling.

Feelings validation can sometimes produce constructive effects in people who are going through an emotional storm. Sometimes once their feelings have been understood and validated a person will quiet down and be willing to discuss the facts more rationally. However, the problem with staying and validating their feelings is you may have to absorb a prolonged, ego-crushing series of insults for some time without retaliating. Most people have a limit of how much patience they have. It is hard to control a conversation with someone in the midst of an emotional firestorm without getting personally hurt yourself.

In general it is easier for therapists and other people not directly involved in a Personality Disordered person’s life to provide this kind of validation, since they are usually not the ones being insulted.

Since the resulting conflict rarely addresses the root problem - the way the Personality Disordered person suddenly feels so negative - these behaviors generally do not make them feel better. Furthermore, if the Non reacts defensively or destructively to name-calling, they may inadvertently turn a blaming episode into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The real problem is that the Personality-Disordered individual feels bad. They want to feel better. A discussion or argument about your list of faults - or anybody else’s is not going to solve it.

The other constructive option available when someone calls you a name is to politely decline to accept the label and exit the conversation, which also helps avoid a circular argument and, by refusing to accept the label, also asserts a firm boundary.

What NOT to do

  • Don’t become defensive and validate a label or projection by arguing about it or about what the facts are. That will often lead to a circular conversation. Name-calling is an expression of a person’s feelings, not the facts.
  • Don’t assume that the person really believes what they are saying or always feels that way. Don’t assume that there is a logical reason for why you are being called names.
  • Don’t assume or believe that other people agree with the name you are called.
  • Don’t try to play therapist or develop a fix-it syndrome. A person who has a Personality Disorder can’t be changed by changing yourself.
  • Don’t assume that because their blame is inaccurate, they are being deliberately manipulative or calculating. They may be so focused on their feelings that they are giving very little attention to their behavior.

What TO do

  • Remember that an episode of name-calling isn’t about you. It’s really all about the way the other person feels.
  • Pay attention to the feelings rather than the facts being expressed. While the facts may be way-off, the underlying feelings between the lines are often real and even honest - “I feel scared”, “I feel worthless”, “I feel weak” etc.
  • If you feel comfortable, you can model “I” statements in your responses - “I feel scared when you say that”.
  • Remember that what the person is feeling is temporary and they will probably feel different in a few days or a few hours.
  • If necessary, you can verbally validate the name-caller’s feelings while rejecting the label and try to redirect the person with the Personality Disorder to the real issue - so long as you are able to stay in the conversation without feeling threatened or getting hurt, and so long as you aren’t exposing others - such as children - to the abuse.
  • Politely, briefly and calmly refuse to accept the label and state the truth ONE TIME ONLY.
  • End the conversation by taking a time-out even if the other person doesn’t want to.