The Problem With Labeling One Person as the Problem

A therapist explains how to think differently about your relationship challenges.

Kathleen Smith
Published in
3 min readFeb 24, 2022


Source: Canva

Humans are cause-and-effect thinkers. We like to point at one person, or a group of people, and say, “Here is the problem.”

But our relationship systems are much more complex than that. We all are constantly reacting to each other, so thinking about your part in the process is more useful than trying to recruit others into changing.

When people label others as the problem, they tend to say things like:

  • He needs to learn to be more responsible.
  • She needs to not be so sensitive.
  • They just can’t do it on their own.
  • She needs to stop being so critical.
  • My life would be fine if they’d just get along.

We set ourselves up for trouble with when our fate depends on people behaving better. Your mood will rise and dip rather steeply when people are cooperating with your thinking or not.

As a therapist, I observe how putting an anxious focus on another person is rarely helpful. When we try to get people to change, they often will double down on the behavior that’s causing so much trouble. In other words, we invite the very rebellion we’re trying to avoid.

It can be useful for people to step back and think about the relationship process rather than labeling the problem. You aren’t responsible for people’s behavior, but what is your part in the pattern? How have you contributed to the stuckness? Here are three possibilities you might not have considered.

You might be overfunctioning for people.

If you are focused on how someone needs to be more responsible for themselves, it’s useful to step back and think about how you’ve been over-responsible for them. There is not much incentive for your kid to do their chores, or for your colleague to take initiative on a project, when they can sense that you’ll swoop in and take over.

You might not be setting the boundaries you need to set.

You can spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince people to behave better. Or…



Kathleen Smith
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.