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Why the overuse of 'therapy-speak' is proving to be problematic

Overusing therapy terms like "narcissist" and "gaslighting" in everyday language can be problematic, according to psychologists.
Posted at 5:55 PM, Nov 25, 2023

You may have heard these words in passing or seen them as you scrolled through social media.

From "narcissist" to "toxic" to "gaslighting," you name it. Clinical psychology terms, or "therapy-speak," are increasingly being used in conversation on social media.

So what's wrong with that? Well, experts say these words aren't just being overused but are often completely misused.

"People are willing to go to therapy and then talk about it, which is in one way wonderful and another way really problematic because we have not figured out how to navigate bringing what you learn in therapy, including different clinical terms, into your day-to-day life. And it's not been a transition that's been made well," Dr. Isabelle Morley said.

Dr. Isabelle Morley is a licensed clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, specializing in couples therapy. She says the use of "therapy-speak" has left people making assumptions about the mental health of themselves and others.

"I have to tell you, I have never seen so much self-diagnosis in my life, all from TikTok, not even Instagram. Everyone has self-diagnosed through TikTok," Morley said. "There's a reason why we don't self-diagnose, even why professionals can't and don't self-diagnose, and why you can't do it based on a video."

Morley says this is especially problematic considering how hard reaching a diagnosis can be.

"I've seen a lot of self-diagnoses of autism and ADHD and how it plays out because people are having a hard time at school, at work, or in the relationships. Those are both heavy diagnoses, in part because they have really specific treatment plans. So, you really have to get psychological testing to be sure that that's the right thing for you so that you pursue the right treatment plan," Morley said.

She adds that the use of a word shouldn't be used to justify your actions.

"I think the biggest concern is that it is for some and not everybody a get-out-of-jail-free card. Right. It's either an exemption for doing the work themselves of navigating a difficult time in a relationship with someone important because that person has OCD or that person is a narcissist, or it can be an explanation for themselves that then excuses behavior that perhaps they could work on and address," Morley said.

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And it's not just people on social media who are using this kind of language.

"I see it a lot with my younger clients, but I really see it with all generations," Kaytee Gillis, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, said.

Gillis says she often finds people using these words in an attempt to express themselves.

"You know, you're bringing in this word like narcissist, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or toxic. Like, where are you coming from? Like, what are you coming in with?" Gillis said. "And what I mean by that is there's something that's happening there. And a lot of times it's maybe a lack of having another word or a lack of having an explanation. And so, the word like toxic or the word trauma really defines what it is that they've gone through for them."

Gillis warns that when these words are overused or incorrectly used, it can add to the stigma that already surrounds mental health.

"If it's used in the wrong way, it can really minimize and demean people who really have either had these diagnoses or have really suffered at the hands of someone who either had them or displayed behaviors and things like that," Gillis said.

So should we be using these words and terms?

"This might be controversial, but I think the biggest thing for people to consider is these terms aren't necessarily supposed to be taken out of therapy. I talk to people about boundaries, but I'm not intending for them to say, 'These are my boundaries,'" Morley said. "I've never said that to my husband. 'These are my boundaries. Don't cross them.' What you do with that information is then how you behave with the people in your life, right?"

So remember, choose your words wisely. Just because you hear them doesn't mean you should use them.