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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Image Credits: Vox.com

Vanshika Ahuja
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The internet age, especially the reign of social media and the increasing prominence of pop-culture has brought with it the infamous ‘labelling culture’ and brought with it bouts of armchair psychologists. While we have willingly accepted and internalized the ‘Instagram trend’ of fixer-culture, it’s imperative now that we stand back and actually think about it. Can your well-meaning 3AM-therapist friend also be harmful to some extent? What’s wrong with armchair psychology? It’s time to deep dive.

Quite often, you have heard your ‘selfish’ roommate being called a ‘narcissist’ or your ‘socially-awkward’ friend being randomly labelled as ‘autistic’ within your friend circle. This is what we call as armchair psychology- jumping to labels and conclusions without understanding a person’s behavioural context or even being qualified enough or licensed to diagnose individuals with mental health labels. And this is going wrong in several ways.

When we talk about ‘armchair psychologists’, it refers to individuals who are not licensed to practice therapy or treat mental-health related issues, or in simple words, aren’t the professionals. This also includes your 3AM-therapist friend, as well. But you might say that your friend only means to give you ‘friendly advice’ but usually it isn’t true. As Gen-Zs inspired by Instagram culture, we often are swallowed by the ‘labelling culture’. Your so-called therapist friend also comes into a loop of inserting labels to your problems- “Stop being a psychopath”, “Don’t be so bipolar about stuff”, “You’re so possessive”, “So hyper-sensitive” or “so obsessive” yada yada yada.

Professional psychotherapists usually do not jump ahead and insert labels to issues. They go through several sessions, slowly analysing patterns and try to resolve individual aspects, rather than attaching labels to your personality. Giving mental health advice without formal training not only may push individuals to internalize those pseudo-labels and associate them to their problems but also may tend to neglect real mental health disorders. Armchair psychology leaves the other person out of the conversation, allowing you to put on your ‘judgy’-goggles and restricting their persona according to your own perspective. Not everybody you dislike is a “psychopath”, when you judge people so soon, it stops them from opening up about their struggles. They tend to internalize the fact that they are probably a ‘psychopath’ and that’s when the cycle of harm begins.

While the Instagram age has opened up more avenues to have open and honest conversations about mental health and but this has also opened doors to an influx of armchair-psychologists. Taking it upon yourself to speculate other people’s mental health can be damaging. Hushed conversations like “Your ex-boyfriend is a total narcissist” or calling out celebrities on twitter, the age of armchair therapists is troublesome nevertheless.

Armchair psychology can even go beyond labelling, it may seem like – diagnosing someone with a mental health condition (“You definitely have borderline personality disorder, all the symptoms are there!”), offering psychological advice (“The only way to get over your triggers is to face them head on”) or making judgement about someone’s personal psychology (“She had a traumatic childhood so she trusts nobody around her”). This pretension of being experts trivialises the heavy weight of being diagnosed with mental health conditions and also propels stereotypes- not everyone who is socially-awkward falls on the autism spectrum and not every selfish person is a narcissist.

Moreover, armchair psychology can even lead to stigmatizing mental-health issues. Associating people’s controversial or abusive behaviour with mental health issues, perpetuates a harmful and inaccurate image of how people with mental issues behave. You tend to pathologize normal behaviour. Sometimes your roommate is just having a bad day and we do not need a diagnosis or a deeper psychological motivation as to why your friend is behaving the way she is.

But this pseudo-psychology, cuts down on ways to get proper treatment. If your loved one is truly struggling with a mental health issue, providing unqualified opinion to them might lead them down the wrong path for their recovery or even hinder them from reaching out towards professional resources or the help they need. On most days, they don’t need their friends to act like experts; they just need encouragement, support and someone who will listen.

While the well-intentioned therapist friend, often takes on the role of a ‘fixer’ with their ‘I can fix all your problems and you’ attitude, it’s time we start calling out this armchair-psychology. If you’re being targeted by an armchair psychologist, try to acknowledge their concerns, set boundaries and call out the harms. It’s absolutely okay to say, “I’m coming to you as a friend. I don’t need you to act like my therapist.” Or if you notice someone targeting someone else, be courageous enough to say,” As friends, our job is to support them, not judge them”.

Often times, we tend to act as armchair psychiatrists ourselves, unconsciously or consciously. Ending on a note of advice for all those therapist friends, if you are concerned about someone’s mental health, reach out and check in with their condition, and instead of passing labels and stereotypes, listen without judgement and connect them to proper resources, so that they can heal the right way.

Even though you might have an overwhelming urge to give advice and fix their issues, sometimes the best thing you can do is show them the right mental health resources, and be the friend they need you to be 🙂

Featured Image Credits: Google Images (IMDb)

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Priyanka Mukherjee

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