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Finding the words for a tough world: the growth of therapy-speak

In August 2023, the Guardian reported that ‘#narcissism’ had 3.8bn views on TikTok. Out of the therapy room and into 30-second reels, terms like gaslighting, attachment styles and boundaries have continued to grow in use. We try to cut out toxic people and ‘sit with difficult emotions’, psychologist Susie Orbach describes this language - labelled ‘therapy-speak’ - as ‘common currency’ now (2023). 

Some may see the rise of therapy-speak as part of a pattern of increasing mental health awareness, perhaps whilst shunning our culture of ‘over-diagnosis’ where ‘everybody has a label these days’ (by the way, I would suggest that teens and 20-somethings are just putting the work into what older generations probably should have addressed, not that that’s their fault either). Perhaps more understandably, others may look on therapy-speak as ‘snobbish’ or ‘woke’, a by-product of the fact the realm of mental health and healthcare is mostly accessible to the wealthy and white (Katy Waldman 2021). 

Despite opinion, therapy-speak has been around for a long time. Freud coined terms such as ‘inner child’, ‘repression’ and ‘denial’ in a psychological context (Waldman 2021). So, is it that now we simply have access to instant communal spaces on social media and are yearning for connectivity, visibility and understanding? Eleanor Morgan from The Guardian reports that, while young people’s mental health is declining, ‘social media has provided a compelling language with which to navigate their lives’ (2023). Are young people trying to find ways to connect when systems - including mental health support - are inaccessible and failing? 

But does therapy-speak actually connect us to each other and provide validation for difficult emotions? Does having these terms brought into our everyday vernacular give more amplification to important topics, like mental illnesses, or gaslighting? Or does it overgeneralise serious topics? Does saying ‘stop gaslighting me’ or ‘I was so triggered by that’ in casual conversation dilute the seriousness of people who are in coercive relationships, or have PTSD and need legitimate trigger warnings? 

Writing for the New Yorker in 2021, Katy Waldman addressed this concern that ‘mass adoption of psychological speech might disserve people with severe mental illness’, that it might be ‘disrespectful to toss around terms—trauma, depression—that can imply so much suffering’ and questioned where the line was ‘between unravelling a taboo and draining a word of its value’. However, they reported that psychologists they spoke to ‘could not bring themselves…to worry about this particular aspect of therapy-speak’s rise.’ Following a past of silence and shame, they preferred a potential overuse, if it means we are talking about it, and note that ‘most of us are still more likely to minimise mental-health challenges than to exaggerate them’. Not that either are particularly helpful of course, and although it may be preferable to overuse it than to say nothing, it still has the potential to do damage. 

Firstly, in overuse there are inevitable inaccuracies. Writing for lifestyle and wellbeing magazine Happiful, Bonnie Evie Gifford suggests that ‘when words get misused or misconstrued over time, it can be a problem – for us, and for those whom the original language was intended to help’ (2023). Orbach agrees that therapy-speak terms are used inaccurately, citing the over-use of narcissism as an example (2023). We may also think of people claiming they have ‘seasonal depression’ when they are tired of the rain, or who say they have ‘OCD’ if they like to organise their stationary.

Furthermore, the inner workings of the brain are incredibly nuanced and there is a loss of meaning in cliche. These words present quite a black-and-white view of complex situations, and the more they are used, the more meaning they lose over time. Orbach states that, for example, ‘everyone has a different notion of boundaries’, calling these terms ‘synthetic’ (2023). Also, she describes words as ‘liquid feelings’, drawing on the importance of the way something is said, not just what is said. We all know that non-verbal communication is just as much, if not more of an indicator on how someone feels, than verbal communication is. We can only say so much with words, let alone cliched ones.

On a deeper level, perhaps this loss of nuance serves us, in our avoidant ways, to function and survive. Psychologist Dr Jonathan Schedler suggests that when people use therapy-speak, they are trying to - consciously or not - distance themselves from their own experience, to protect themselves (2023). We are not very good at sitting with uncomfortable emotions (yes, I know that’s therapy-speak), or saying ‘I’m scared’, ‘I’m ashamed’, or ‘I’m in pain’. And then we return to this idea that ‘people are still more likely to minimise their distress than embellish it’ (Morgan 2023). What occurs to me is that playing it out with humour, in already-established and easily-consumable language, is a way for us to express our suffering in a casual way. Isn’t it easier to send a meme of childhood trauma, in a world where we similarly cannot say ‘I’m really struggling at the moment’, without following it with ‘but I’ll be alright’?

So, what’s the verdict - or diagnosis, if you will?

Firstly, I’m of the belief that it’s okay - and very human - to like labels. I don’t believe we should blame and shame for this - I think it makes perfect sense. Are we simply trying to find the words for a tough world? We’re living in a time full of pain and suffering, worry and grief. Conflict, climate change, social injustice, and uncertain technological advances plague our daily life. This kind of climate makes it understandable, inevitable, that we’re trying to connect, to express how we feel. We don’t have a very good vocabulary to talk about the nuance of mental health, our limited language can only get us so far. I think we’re trying to grasp for terms to feel seen and understood, even though hidden underneath this, it might be we’re more scared to say how we really feel. But it’s a start.



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