We Asked Experts: Are We Using Therapy-Speak Too Much?

I protected my peace a little too much. Two years ago, I would have described myself (using therapy-speak) as someone who had extremely healthy relationships. I had friends, but I didn’t rely on them for emotional validation. I had a boyfriend who I liked spending time with. I called each member of my family once a week to catch up, and that seemed like enough, so I could spend more time repairing “traumatic cycles.” I wasn’t afraid to cut “toxic” people off if I felt like they were getting in my way.

From a therapy-speak standpoint, I was doing everything right in my relationships—but deep down, I was lonely. I had friends, but I held them all at arm’s length under the guise of boundary setting. I thought my ability to easily cut people out of my life with the deft use of a few psychological terms was a sign of my own independence. In reality, it was just a defense mechanism keeping me from experiencing love to the fullest. And I’m not the only one—I can hardly sit down to brunch without hearing one of my friends call a recent ex “toxic.”

Recently, people have started asking some big questions about therapy. If we’re all so lonely right now, is therapy really helping us as much as we think it is? Is the fact that we’re throwing around a lot of therapeutic language a good or bad thing? Is it actually positive for us to always be boundary-setting, identifying narcissists, and attempting to dodge love-bombing? To find out whether the overuse of these terms are preventing us from experiencing the community we deserve, I chatted with a few experts. Here’s what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

Madison McCullough, LCSW

Madison McCullough is a queer therapist who works with folks who have been marginalized because of their sexuality and gender identity. Her therapeutic style is collaborative and anti-oppressive, integrating tools from a variety of modalities including psychodynamic, relational, narrative, CBT, and more.

brooke sprowl the everygirl

Meet the Expert

Brooke Sprowl, LCSW

Brooke Sprowl is a licensed social worker with over a decade of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. She specializes in treating anxiety and codependency, with a focus on couples and family therapy.

What is therapy-speak?

Put simply, therapy-speak is using therapeutic language in our daily lives. Words like “gaslighting,” “narcissist,” and “boundaries” have very specific meanings in the field of psychology, and are used by experts and professionals in their work. Therapy-speak happens when we take those words and ascribe them a broader meaning, using them in everyday interactions and relationships.

In our modern world, therapy-speak comes up all the time. For example, say you have plans with friends but you’re feeling low: You can tell them you’re bailing last-minute in favor of maintaining your own “boundaries.” If you’re in a disagreement with your significant other or a family member, you may tell them they’re “gaslighting” you. You might be comforting a friend and saying, “Your feelings are valid.” These are all instances of therapy-speak, with varying degrees of helpfulness. Parsing when therapy-speak is proper to use and when it’s best kept out of a conversation is challenging, which is why I consulted two experts on the pros and cons.

How does therapy-speak affect our relationships?

It can de-value therapy itself.

Anyone who’s sat in a room with a good therapist knows that therapy is a learning process. From seeking out help to having a breakthrough, psychological work involves gaining new knowledge. Often, we can deploy that knowledge in our real lives. For instance, you might learn that you have a tendency to overwork when you’re avoiding hard feelings, and then take steps IRL to drop that pattern. However, sometimes, the things we learn in therapy need to stay in therapy.

Brooke Sprowl, LSCW, has conflicting feelings about the proliferation of therapy-speak online. “It is empowering for people to understand and use these terms when they are applied in good faith,” she said. However, she noted that “…misuse can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, undermining the true purpose of these concepts, which is to foster healthier relationships and personal growth.” When we don’t understand the true point of a psychological term, like the word “triggered,” then tossing it out in casual conversation (or tweets) dilutes its actual therapeutic power.

It can over-complicate simple misunderstandings.

According to Madison McCullough, LCSW, overusing therapy-speak outside of actual therapy can bring a level of seriousness to our relationships that might not always be necessary. “There is danger in [therapy speak] being weaponized in relationships in a way that excuses hurtful behavior, or mischaracterizes other behavior as something it’s not,” she said. “Accusing someone of gaslighting you when there has just been a simple misunderstanding between you immediately intensifies the conversation, and undermines the seriousness that the word ‘gaslighting’ holds.”

Words have weight, and using therapeutic words in heated moments can make them even more heated. Even if you have the best of intentions when you tell your friend that you think she and her boyfriend are “codependent,” it’s possible that she might find that to be a knock on her character rather than a kind critique. We should not use therapy-speak lightly, especially during disagreements.

It can prevent us from making meaningful connections.

The point of psychological language is to improve our relationships, which is great. However, psychology can’t be the only tool in our toolbox for creating great connections. When we rely too heavily on one system, like therapy, to solve all of our social problems—including feeling lonely—it will start to crack. The tools that we learn in therapy for resilience and independence can also be turned around to divide us further from the people who care about us.

…the goal of therapy shouldn’t be to end your relationships in pursuit of their optimization.

Better relationships and personal growth should grow from the seeds you plant in therapy. The second we start applying that therapy-speak as a defense mechanism, we lose that purpose of growth. Accusing your friend of being a narcissist in the middle of an argument likely isn’t going to improve that relationship. Instead, it will probably end it, and the goal of therapy shouldn’t be to end your relationships in pursuit of their optimization.

When therapy-speak can help our relationships

Chances are, if you’ve felt like going to therapy has generated a net improvement in your relationships, the idea of questioning therapy-speak is daunting. Never fear: It’s unlikely that a few weeks of internet discourse will undo decades of mental health research. There are plenty of instances in which mental health work is essential for improving our friendships and romantic relationships.

“Therapy helps you get to know yourself better, and to reflect on how to make choices that are more consistent with your values and goals,” said McCullough. “It can help you get clearer about what you’re looking for in relationships, challenge your defensiveness, and listen better.” In other words, therapy is really helpful if you’re struggling to know what you want out of your relationships. It can help you figure out how much energy you want to give others, and how much energy you expect to receive in return. Therapy-speak in the context of therapy can be especially helpful. When you and a professional are in a safe space talking through some of these words and how they apply to your life—that’s when therapy-speak is best used.

Therapy-speak can also destigmatize mental health. If you’ve found a word that makes you feel like you finally have an answer for something you’ve been experiencing your whole life, you can feel empowered to use that language. “I think it’s so important that people are speaking openly about their mental health challenges, and connecting to other people with similar experiences,” McCullough said. Bottom line: When we use it carefully and in context, therapeutic language is definitely useful.

So, are we using therapy-speak too much?

If you, like me, have protected your peace a little too hard in the name of relationship optimization, you’re not alone. In that context, it might seem like therapy-speak is being overused—but that’s too easy. My interviews with McCullough and Sprowl revealed that it’s not therapy-speak that’s driving us apart. In fact, therapy-speak can be helpful in certain scenarios. It’s the careless misuse of these terms that can endanger relationships and fuel miscommunication.

We all need to be careful when we use the words and tools we learn in therapy in everyday conversation. According to McCullough, using therapy-speak is a choice—one that ought to be reserved for situations where words like “gaslighting,” “boundaries,” and “narcissist” truly apply. “Therapy speak is not necessary to improve interpersonal relationships. Relationships are improved through true listening, direct communication, and investment in others’ wellbeing,” she said.

If you find yourself falling back on therapy-speak as a crutch in your relationships, try to think bigger. Be more present in the time you spend with loved ones to prevent misunderstandings, be honest when a friend has hurt your feelings, and allow yourself to care for the well-being of your loved ones. Sometimes, the solution to problems in our relationships isn’t adding a new term or throwing around psychological lingo. Often, it’s as simple as sitting down and having a blunt conversation about how we feel.

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