Why it’s so appealing to use pop psychology terms — and when to stop.
By Allie Volpe @allieevolpe Jun 25,2023 8:00am
Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.
In the therapy room, licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown has recently been in the business of definitions. A client might say “I have the worst relationship with my mother. She’s a total narcissist,” to which Brown would invite the client to elaborate on what the term “narcissist” means to them. Usually, the client describes a person who may be selfish or self-involved, but not someone who demonstrates the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder, marked by “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Brown then emphasizes the differences between a difficult family member and using a mental health diagnosis in order to judge someone, encouraging the client to instead use more specific language to describe the relationship.
“Narcissist” is just one term clients are using colloquially with friends and therapists. Mental health professionals recoil at the incorrect usage of “trauma,” “gaslighting,” “boundaries,” “trigger” — and even manufactured labels, like “mother wound,” says Jacquelyn Tenaglia, a licensed mental health counselor. (“It’s referring to trauma from one’s mother, is my understanding,” she says. “Pop psychology sometimes lacks a clear definition.”)
Terms ordinarily confined to psychological settings have increasingly made their way into the mainstream. As more people sought out mental health treatment, especially during the height of the pandemic, and more therapists shared psychological concepts on social media, a greater portion of society writ large was introduced to therapy vernacular. Dubbed therapy-speak, the phenomenon has introduced new vocabulary to the masses, but many definitions have become muddled in the process. While these terms can prove validating for people who can now put a name to an experience, therapy-speak can eliminate all nuance from a conversation. In calling your mother a narcissist when she isn’t, for example, you might be inadvertently dismissing other important aspects of your relationship that don’t clearly map to that definition. As a result, your relationship may be at a standstill, with neither party knowing how to make progress to mend it.
Life is not as straightforward as therapy-speak purports. “There are gradations of the human experience,” says therapist Israa Nasir, and therapy-speak terms are often the most extreme ways of describing those experiences. A friend can be selfish and not a narcissist. You can feel stressed without experiencing trauma. A partner can lie without gaslighting. Instead, mental health professionals urge, you should embrace nuance and avoid pathologizing normal — albeit annoying or painful — behavior.
Why therapy-speak is so alluring
The prevalence of therapy terms has been a net positive in the normalization of mental health, Nasir says. As more mental health vocabulary became mainstream, people were able to name their experiences in concrete terms. However, the context of the vernacular has shifted. Like most terms that hit the cultural zeitgeist, the definitions of therapy-speak words morph as they’re passed through the lexicon.
Through an extended game of telephone, the word “trauma,” for example, has practically shifted from “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster” to an umbrella term for all things upsetting, according to Tenaglia. In reality, traumatic events are often severe, like abuse or mass shootings. People encounter stressful situations regularly — and those experiences shouldn’t be discounted — but there are other ways to describe a tense relationship with the in-laws instead of the word “trauma.” “I’ve given the example of arriving late to a job interview and feeling flustered because there was traffic,” Tenaglia says. “That is a stress response. It’s one that would affect you at a physiological level. But it’s not a trauma response unless you were having nightmares from it, flashbacks. So there is a difference there. We can have just normal bodily responses without it being considered trauma.”
Therapy-speak works as a shortcut for a word that can have a kaleidoscope of meanings, says Carolina Bandinelli, an associate professor in media and creative industries at the University of Warwick. However, tagging people as “toxic,” for instance, is not productive, she says, because there is no dialogue, no interrogation of what “toxic” means or how it presents in a person or situation. Beyond the initial naming and identification of a person or experience, it’s crucial to consider your motivations in utilizing that label.
Armed with a new vocabulary, people become attached to terms that encapsulate certain events and people, to varying degrees, in order to bolster an argument or justify an experience. Having common language to describe a difficult situation can help people more effectively communicate their concerns and garner support, but these terms can just as easily be weaponized. Did you accuse your partner of gaslighting because they manipulated facts, leading you to question your reality, or because you wanted to get the last word? “There’s the people who are weaponizing these terms within personal relationships,” Nasir says, “not necessarily always maliciously, but as a way to ‘win’ the argument, as a way to make their point.”
Consider your intention when using therapy-speak
In order to course-correct when it comes to therapy-speak, therapists say we need to reflect on our past uses of these terms. Think about a recent time you used therapy-speak. What was your intention? What message did you want to convey? Why are you drawn to intense emotional descriptors? Often, people use a word like “trauma” when they are having a stress response, Tenaglia says. Or “gaslighting” is used to describe a disagreement, Nasir says. Venture beyond the emotional shorthand these words provide to uncover the true source of your discomfort. “Being able to identify an emotion is a really important part of us being able to regulate it,” Nasir says. “There’s a difference between someone making a mistake and somebody intentionally doing wrong.”
Interrogate the behaviors you are inclined to deem “toxic” or “narcissistic,” Bandinelli says, to explain why you used that phrase and why you might use it again in the future. “Why am I saying that this is toxic?” she says. “Is it because it hurts me? And what kind of hurt is it?” Again, it’s possible to accept that a person inflicted emotional pain without pathologizing their actions.
If you’ve ever labeled another person with therapy-speak, think about whether you’ve ever acted in a similar way, Bandinelli says. Is canceling plans at the last minute boundary-setting when you do it but narcissistic when done by someone else?
Perhaps you are accustomed to receiving validation when describing disagreements or stressors in an extreme way, Tenaglia says. “If so, what does that say about our support system,” she says, “and our needs?” You may find therapy a more constructive place to seek emotional aid.
Use more words, not fewer, to describe a situation
While therapy-speak isn’t inherently bad, Tenaglia says, the vernacular is misused. We should take care to learn what certain words mean and utilize specific language for when these phrases don’t accurately apply. For example, “trauma bonding” does not mean bonding over a shared difficult experience; it is when a person who was abused feels an emotional connection to their abuser.
Instead of defaulting to therapy-speak, Brown suggests using more words to describe your experience. “A lot of times we’re using terms to summarize what we need to in order to have a global understanding of something,” he says, “so we’ll say gaslighting because we think everybody will get what that means.” In reality, your perception of gaslighting might differ from another’s. When clients use therapy-speak, Brown asks them to describe the event in detail. Instead of one or two words, explain the situation and how you feel in a few sentences. “If you’re wanting to call someone a narcissist,” Brown says, “what is it that I mean? I’m meaning that I experienced them as self-important and not really taking the time to notice other people’s needs. It’s okay to say that because that really clearly expresses what you’re thinking.”
Save therapy-speak for therapy
Therapy-speak is best reserved for the context of therapy where a professional can correct misinterpretations and ask for elaboration. Overuse of these terms can blunt their significance and minimize the experience of someone who has actually dealt with a person with narcissistic personality disorder, for example. For this reason, Brown suggests limiting your use of popular mental health terms outside of a counseling setting. “Most people are not experiencing gaslighting day-to-day, unless they’re in a relationship where that really is happening,” he says. “Again, therapy is a good context to really explore what’s happening there.”
Identify your emotions, take the space to adequately describe them, and validate your experience. What you’re feeling is real; it just might not necessarily be trauma.