Therapy has given people a language to talk about their experiences. However, as this language is becoming part of our everyday life, it’s original meaning is being distorted, leading to oftentimes, a lack of nuance in the way they relate to each other.

It’s hard for me to scroll through Instagram these days, without a life coach or some expert explaining how to center yourself. Almost everyone is supposed to be a “narcissist” these days. Terms like “gaslighting”, “toxic” and “boundaries” seem to be everywhere. Words that used to generally be confined to the therapist’s office are making their way into everyday life. However, as they become part of the everyday lexicon, they tend to be taken out of context, with their original meaning usually distorted.

With countries around the world experiencing a mental health crisis, perhaps part of the reason for the rise in therapy-speak is that people are going to therapy more. The pandemic, in particular, has led to soaring rates of people experiencing anxiety and depression, especially among young people. Although, it should be said that the number of people seeking therapy is bolstered by the de-stigmatization of mental illness as well.

While these terms have given language to people to put a name to their experience, it has also eliminated a lot of nuances from a conversation. The new vocabulary has given people terms to encapsulate their experiences but they can just as easily be weaponised. Accusing someone of gaslighting, when they merely disagree with your view or opinion might help you win the argument in that moment but isn’t entirely helpful in the long run. As Esther Perel told Vanity Fair,

“On one hand, there is an importance in gaining clarity when you name certain things. On the other hand, there is a danger that you lose all nuance, that you’re basically trying to elevate your personal comments and personal experience by invoking the higher authority of psychobabble. What you call therapy-speak, we used to call psychobabble—it’s a new word for an old concept.”

Sometimes the misuse of these terms is more insidious than just being used to win an argument. Therapy-speak was again dominating headlines recently after alleged messages between actor Jonah Hill and his ex-partner Sarah Brady were published online, in which he says she should not post pictures of herself wearing bathing
suits, go surfing with men or have friendships that he doesn’t approve, demands that to me seem more about controlling someone than anything else-all in the name of maintaining “boundaries”.

In 2019, a relationship coach’s Twitter thread that offered a template for telling friends who need support that you are “at capacity” drew criticism for equating friendship to emotional labor. As Daisy Jones wrote in the Guardian,

“Often peddled by Tik-Tok life coaches and relationship influencers, these ‘internet terms’ are used to endorse a brand of advice that essentially boils down to: Don’t compromise, be selfish and immediately dump anyone who gives you even a hint of discomfort.”

The rise in therapy-speak has led to an odd way of dealing with relationships, one that, instead of dealing with the messiness of life, prizes fragmentation and isolation. It doesn’t mean we need to stop talking about our emotions or find validation for our experiences.

However, instead of defaulting to these “internet terms”, we need to describe it in more detail and use more words to capture the reality of the experience. We need to limit the use of these terms to an appropriate context, namely therapy and counselling session, where these terms aren’t misused and their meaning isn’t blunted. What you’re experiencing is real, just not necessarily something pathological.

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Vanshika Ahuja
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