With its prominence on social media, therapy-speak might be part of your vocabulary, too. Terms that used to be reserved for professional mental health conversations have made their way into everyday speech. Although the use of therapy-speak may stem from good intentions such as normalizing the act of going to therapy, misuse and abuse of these terms can actually do more harm than good.
What is therapy-speak?
Using terms such as “boundaries,” “trauma,” “gaslighting,” and other mental health-related words must be done with caution and care. With the rise of therapy-speak, these terms are being thrown around carelessly without regard to their actual definition – potentially hurting the person you are speaking to.
Self-check! Are you using these words wrong?
This term is usually used when someone feels offended or attacked. Clinically, however, it means experiencing heightened emotions that may lead to panic or anxiety attacks. These emotions are usually connected to a past trauma which can lead to feeling fear or other intense sensations.
The term boundaries, on the other hand, is usually misused to be the opposite of what it actually means. Boundaries is a term that is used to describe how you want to be treated or spoken to. Think of it as a two-way street. Instead of only accounting for or thinking about yourself, you are meant to take into account the other people around you as well.
OCD (or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)
We often hear “You’re so OCD” when someone likes symmetry, intense cleaning, or anything along these lines. But actually, OCD is a clinical diagnosis. It is a chronic condition that causes someone to have recurring thoughts and behaviors that are uncontrollable. The careless use of this term may lead to a stigma of those who are actually diagnosed with this disorder – furthering its misunderstanding.
Gaslighting is one of the most popular terms on the internet. It is more often used to describe toxic relationships wherein your partner may be lying to or manipulating you. However, gaslighting is actually a type of psychological manipulation that occurs when your relationship is abusive. Gaslighting will have you questioning your own reality and sanity. Although it may sound similar to how it is used in everyday conversation, the term gaslighting becomes misused when a person accuses someone of gaslighting them but does not look at their own actions.
The term narcissist is usually used to describe someone who is vain or rude. However, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is also an actual diagnosis. It is characterized by an individual’s lack of care and empathy for those around them and the constant need for admiration. This disorder is a very pervasive and long-term pattern of narcissistic behavior.
Trauma is often misused as a word that entails stressful situations or something that you wouldn’t do again. However, it is possible for you to feel stressed without experiencing trauma. Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident or a natural disaster, among other things. It is valid for you to feel upset about certain situations, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are suffering from something traumatizing.
On social media, this is commonly used as an act of avoiding something that you want to do. However, repression is actually a type of defense mechanism that someone may use to cope with trauma. It is a conscious or unconscious blocking of memories.
Or more famously known as “delulu” this term is commonly used to describe people who like to fantasize about things that are not necessarily real or present in their lives. This is often used to refer to a crush or any other fantasy that may seem unattainable. However, Delusional disorder is a real type of mental health condition wherein an individual is unable to tell reality from imagination. As a type of psychotic disorder, it can make someone have an unshakable belief in something that’s untrue. This should not be taken lightly as it can also be a symptom of Schizophrenia, Bipolar 1, and others.
Where and how should these terms be used instead?
Therapy-speak should be reserved for therapy. A professional can help give context to the use of these terms and can correct your misinterpretations. You are also able to ask a professional to elaborate further and ensure that you use the right terms in the proper settings.
Overusing these terms can actually minimize their meaning and significance, which can invalidate those who are diagnosed with these conditions and disorders. For example, gaslighting may not be a day-to-day experience for everyone, but it is for those actually in an abusive relationship. Going to therapy is the best way to know more about these terms and to understand what belies your own personal experiences.
When explaining how you feel – whether to a therapist, or anyone else – be as descriptive as possible instead of jumping to the default of using therapy-speak. What you’re feeling is real and valid, and a professional can help you put the proper names to these feelings, emotions, and conditions.
Last medically reviewed on September 14, 2023.