Denial: Labelling’s harmful side effect

Slapping the ‘alcoholic’ label on someone can do more harm than good

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me,” must rank among the most untrue proverbs of all time.

As too many people know, names or labels hurt alright.

Indeed, a newspaper which labelled a person in a way that damaged their reputation could find itself paying a lot of money in damages and legal fees.

We just don’t want to be labelled in negative ways and that’s an attitude that runs deep – we are protective of our identities and it hurts when our identity is changed against our will – from “employed” to “unemployed”, say.


Consider the importance of labelling for people who got into an unhealthy level of drinking during the lockdowns. They got to this point for many reasons. For example, drinking is something to do when you have nothing else to do; some drank more in response to relationship conflicts heightened by being cooped up with others.

If I said to you “Look, your drinking has been getting worse and I’m afraid you’re turning into an alcoholic,” I would be slapping a label on you that you might see as an insult.

Research in the UK suggests that the danger of being labelled an alcoholic wouldn’t just lead you to deny you have a drink problem, it might prevent you from recognising that you have a problem in the first place.

That’s how deep our avoidance of unpleasant labels runs.

Labelling in relation to drink comes down to whether drinking too much is an “either/or” thing or is on a spectrum.

In the either/or version it’s a question of “either” you have “no problem with drink or else you are an alcoholic”. In the other version it’s “your drinking is on a spectrum from harmless to very harmful and there are many points in between”.

Nowadays, writes Emma L Barrett in an article for the British Psychological Society Research Digest, drink problems "can be seen as lying on a spectrum of severity, as opposed to being divided by a stark cut-off line".

The trouble with the either/or approach is that it “leads to a lot of psychological resistance in heavy drinkers, who don’t wish to be saddled with the stigma of being labelled an alcoholic”.

Many of us can recognise this. I have known people who went to an early grave denying that they had any problem at all with alcohol although everyone else could see they were on the road to destruction.

To observers they may have seemed perversely stubborn or willing to go to any lengths to safeguard their addiction. But the UK research would suggest they were just not able to take on the “alcoholic” stigma, even to themselves.

The research, published in Addictive Behaviors, involved 244 people whose drinking was assessed as being harmful but who did not believe they had any problem with addiction.


The researchers found that telling people that drink problems were on a continuum and telling them in a non-stigmatising way made it easier for them to go on to acknowledge that they had a problem.

That’s hugely important because accepting that you have a problem with anything – not just alcohol – is a necessary step towards doing something about it. It’s too hard to do if you don’t think there is anything to worry about.

So when talking to loves ones whose drinking concerns you, be careful about using the “A” word. Think of it as being on a spectrum and talk to them in those terms.

If you yourself suspect that drinking is getting in the way of living the life you want for yourself and those close to you, then you don’t have to label yourself as anything in order to start tackling it.

This isn’t an attack on Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a pity that people who are far along that spectrum sometimes feel reluctant to join because of a fear of stigma. On the other hand, vast numbers of people have stepped past that fear and flourished as a result.