The Term “Diabetic” – The “Trap” Of Negative “Self-Talk”

(Bill) #1

As some of you know, I am trained as a psychologist/neuropsychologist. I did my doctoral dissertation in diabetes management. And I’ve now had diabetes for over 60 years.

As I have watched the many posts on our forum I have been concerned about how often I see the term, “diabetic.” Why am I concerned? Because, in my opinion, the term is a “trap,” a trap that is accompanied by negative and limiting “self-talk.” In its extreme it can become “an identity.” Let me explain my concern.

There is a field of study and practice in psychology that looks at the relationship between cognition (our perceptions of “our world”) and behavior (how we relate to “our world”). This area of study/practice is known as “cognitive-behavioral” psychology.

As we are all aware, at one time or another (all the time?) diabetes can cause each of us discomfort. We can simply find it difficult to take. Especially when diabetes is difficult to manage. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists suggest that, when a person is having trouble living with a situation, they can change their emotional reaction by changing what they “tell themselves.” Rather than “just suffering with it,” they can change their “self-talk.” They can work to develop and implement problem-solving strategies, and emphasize parts of their lives that provide them with pleasure (“positive tracking”).

Some years ago a woman was referred to me by her family physician. When I asked her to tell me a little about herself, she scowled and replied, “I’m a diabetic.” When I asked her to tell me more about herself she said, “I have to follow this diet and I hate it.” After about twenty minutes I was finally able to get her to tell me that she was married, had two daughters, and owned a florist shop.

What I discovered in that first twenty minutes was this woman was “trapped” by her negative thoughts about diabetes – her negative self-talk. She was so “trapped” that, when she was asked to “tell…about herself,” she was unable to call up thoughts that gave her pleasure (i.e., her husband, her girls, her florist shop, etc.). As it turned out, she had lost her ability to “track the positive parts of her life.” She had truly become a “diabetic,” and, for all intents and purposes, in her thoughts, that is all she was. It had become her “identity.”

Over a period of several weeks I worked with this woman and helped her replace her negative “self-talk” with honest and positive statements about herself – statements that caused her to smile. And her frustrations with diabetes management eased; her management improved. She got out of the “trap” of being a “diabetic” and got back to living her life. She returned to being herself.

So, if I asked you to tell me a little about yourself, how would you respond? Think about it. Would you list other parts of your life, the positives, first?

If you asked me to tell you a little about myself, I would say, “I’m my wife’s buddy, I’m a father, a scientist, a ‘maker,’ a writer, a lecturer,” and on the list would go. I would never say, “I’m a diabetic.” I refuse to get caught by the “trap” of that negative “self-talk.” It’s just not my identity.

If you asked about my medical history, T1D would be at the top of the list. Yes, I have diabetes. But I’m not a “diabetic.”

This may sound like “semantics” or “political correctness” to some. Maybe it is. But at a very personal level, it is how we “talk to ourselves.” It is my opinion that the way we talk to ourselves can influence the courses of our lives.

Be who you are; become who you want to be. And manage your diabetes – give it its fifteen minutes a day. But dump that term “diabetic.” It doesn’t do anything for you, in my opinion.



(Sal) #2

Thank you for this insight. I’m no English language expert, but it seems like the term “diabetic” is a medical term that was never meant to be used by the general public. The public uses it out of convenience. “I can’t eat that because I’m diabetic” is just easier than saying “I can’t eat that because I have diabetes”.

The correct term is “I have diabetes”, not “I’m diabetic”. Diabetic is indeed a label. If someone has cancer, they don’t say “I’m cancerous”, they say “I have cancer”.

I am a man. I have a wife, I have children, I have a job, I have a house, I have a car, I have milk in my fridge, and among other things that I have, I also have diabetes.

According to

“Rather than talking about a diabetic or diabetics, it is better to talk about a person with diabetes, people with diabetes”

(Bill) #3

Right you are, Sal - the term “diabetic” is a “label.” It is a label of “convenience.”

But stop and think about it a moment - what happens when we use such labels? He’s a diabetic, she’s a schizophrenic, that one’s a hemophiliac, and the one over there is an alcoholic. All of those “-ics.”

The problem with labels is they cause us to lose sight of “the person.” They cause us to lose our “empathy” for the person who has the disorder. And when we lose empathy we lose, or “give up,” our ability to care. That includes caring for ourselves. (Please look up the definition of “empathy,” and contrast it with “sympathy.” The two are very different. Empathy is a “healthy” response and is often what propels us to advocate for change.)

As people lose their empathy they often dismiss the importance of issues faced by people who have the disorder. Said another way, when people lose their empathy they become dismissive of the needs of others. I don’t think we want to use a term that makes it easier for others to be dismissive of us. And, as we continue to manage our personal cases of T1D, I don’t think we want to be dismissive of ourselves. The term “diabetic” sets you and others up to do just that.

I would encourage every person who has T1D to consider their “self-talk.” Work to increase empathy for yourself and others who have T1D. Throw away the term, “diabetic.” I would encourage family members to do the same.


(Randy) #4

Hello Bill,
Thank you for your insightful critique of the “diabetic” semantics. I have had a guttural reaction to the word since soon after my childhood diagnosis at age 6. People tended to use the word in a context of what I could NOT do, rather than learning and appreciating my potential. I always said “I have type 1 diabetes,” even thought it takes more syllables, because I am a lot more than just this disease. Moreover, it still stings a bit whenever someone sticks that label on me. I don’t want to be known as this disease; I want to lessen the impact of this disease on my life and everyone else who carries the diagnosis. Thank you!

(Dennis J. Dacey, PWD) #5

Yes Sal @Zale about 2,500 years ago a physician in the area we now call Greece attached a descriptive to a symptom to a physical condition that had been identified and written about in Egypt a thousand years earlier. That descriptive, Diabetes Mellitus - or in English translation as frequent passing of sweet water - has now been used by the medical profession [and general public] as label persons afflicted by a few different diseases.

Our autoimmune condition is one of those conditions labeled as “Diabetes” or “Diabetic”. As @BillHavins says, a “label of convenience”. Someday soon, we may come out of the “dark ages” [tasting urine was the preferred method of diagnosis in the 19th century] and give our condition a name - but why create a label for ourselves? Let’s just live our lives proactively and productively.

Even T1D is a label - a relatively new label. during my 60+ years living with diabetes, or being a person with diabetes {PWD] I’ve had several labels attached; such as diabetes, diabetic, A Type, T1D.

(sneathbupp) #6

I’m a diabetic, but not defined by diabetes. It concerns me that so much time and energy us spent on words and labels in our society. I think it’s energy spent on avoiding actual issues Luke cost of insulin, cost of insurance or on working for cures/better treatments. I appreciate your concern, but I feel like we spend way too much time on smokescreens.

(Dennis J. Dacey, PWD) #7

What you say @sneathbupp is right on - why hide the important matters with semantics. The condition I have, although given at least five titles during the past 60 years still INSISTS that I take insulin, observe what I eat and understand how activity affects me.
During this same time period, the cost of my insulin, although greatly more effective now, has increased in price by more than 175%.

(Teresa) #8

Thank you so much Dr. Bill. I completely agree with you. Whatever your cross is in this life, be it having diabetes, being a single Mom, being in a wheelchair, financial troubles, marriage problems, suffering of whatever degree; It does not define us! All of us have adversities. It is a mystery but that is suffering. But, that suffering does not need to debilitate us. That suffering can actually empower us to be stronger. We can choose to die from that suffering. And, by die I mean slip into negativity, become solely focused on ourselves, forget that life has anything else for us. OR, we can use that suffering to become empowered, to strengthen, not only ourselves, but others.

This past year we had some very trying times at my daughters school (I am a type 1 Mom). We dealt with an obstructionist nurse who refused to train anyone on giving insulin at the school, when she wasn’t there , which was rarely since our school district has only roaming nurses. Long story short, we keep advocating, kept on pushing, kept on educating. Yet, the time spend, pain in our hearts, not to mention my daughter being left alone without anyone there for here was full of angst and hurt. Yet, we now have a full time LVN on-site for our 7 year old daughter who has type 1. I refuse to let this very painful year, define us. Truthfully, it made all of us stronger! God has allowed all of this to happen for a reason. I do not expect life to be easy because it is not, most of the time. For those of you who haven’t gotten the memo yet…Life is not fair either.

However, I can take this experience and use it to gain strength, courage, and empowerment for our journey. I am hopeful that this blog can be a place to vent but also a place to empower one another. Don’t allow type 1 to stop you from being your best self. The good news is that it is manageable. There’s no denying that it is a ‘beast’. But, we can be our kids voice, the way we handle it, teaches them how to handle it. How we CHOOSE to react, teaches them how to react, not just to type 1 diabetes, but to all of life.

I encourage those struggling to attend a diabetes camp where they can be surrounded by others living with type 1. Google search type 1 individuals who are triumphant and living amazing lives, in spite of the challenges. Attend a diabetes summit in your area. Educating is key. It will help you empower yourselves. Acceptance is key too.

Keep up the good fight!

Empower yourselves with strength.

Los Gatos CA

(wadawabbit) #9

So far it looks like we’re in the opposition here, but I’m with @sneathbupp.
If you ask me to define myself I will tell you I am - in no particular order - an African American Christian woman; wife; stepmom; pet mom; diabetic for 55 years :star_struck:!!!); previous caregiver to my mother until she died a couple of years ago; guardian; avid reader and needleworker; sci-fi fan; and lots more.
People should feel free to use the term that makes them comfortable. For me it is precisely because my diabetes does not define me that I prefer to say “I’m diabetic” - it incorporates diabetes as one of many complex pieces that go into making me who I am, in addition to simply being quicker to say. But if we’re looking at semantics, saying “I have diabetes” could sound like a burden I am carrying, like “I have a headache” or “I have cramps.”
So again, I think it should be a matter of personal choice, whichever term the person feels comfortable using and makes them feel good about themselves. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to say “I have diabetes” that’s fine, and saying “I’m diabetic” - my personal choice - is fine too. Let’s put our energies into taking care of ourselves and our loved ones, and looking forward to a cure.

(dolphinn33) #10

This posting resonates so much with me. I HATE the word diabetic! I am a person with diabetes and have said this since I was first diagnosed 25 years ago. Now, more often than not, when I need to tell somebody that I have diabetes, I say that I have Type 1 diabetes because there is so much confusion between Type 1 and Type 2. I work in pediatric healthcare and we always try to use people first language instead of labeling someone by their disease.


(ex-nerd) #11

Why is “diabetic” a negative word? I’ve only been diabetic for a few years, but how is it any more of a negative stigma than being acrobatic or angelic or capitalistic or comedic or empathic or semitic or tantric or … any of the other hundreds of words with the suffix that means “of or pertaining to”? I have type 1 diabetes. I am diabetic. It’s just a word, and it’s a lot easier to say than “my immune system decided to start attacking my pancreas at some point in the last 30+ years, oh and by the way nearly 3/4 of people get T1DM as adults even if most of us end up misdiagnosed as T2, which …” (ok, so I do that sometimes, too). Maybe it’s because I understand (and will happily educate) that none of the 8+ recognized forms of diabetes mellitus are anything to be ashamed of, and by far the VAST majority of us are fighting against the genetic lottery and poor education among medical providers more than we are against lifestyle choices.

I happily own the label. This disease is not “other”, and it does not control me or who I am. But it is as much a part of me as my hair or eye color, and it is certainly more relevant to most of my daily routine than either of those other physical characteristics. But I do know the power of words and semantics/semiotics and fully recognize that what I do is very intentional and specific – and I do differentiate between “I’m diabetic” and “I am a diabetic”, but mostly because one is just awkward to say, and it singles me out rather than describes a condition that I have.

(DDrumminMan) #12

this is exactly I never tell people I am a person with diabetes. People have misinterpretations about what it is. I don’t want people to label or pigeon hole me based on false interpretations. It is on a need to know basis for me.