6 ‘Therapy-Speak’ Terms You’re Probably Misusing

“Therapy-speak can be a way for someone to try and elevate themselves above others," Morin said.

Terminology from therapists’ offices and psychology books has increasingly made its way into everyday conversations, both in person and across the internet.

“Therapy-speak,” as it’s been dubbed, refers to “prescriptive language describing certain psychological concepts and behaviors,” according to a viral Bustle story journalist Rebecca Fishbein wrote on the topic. (While the term is new, the concept is not. You might also know it as “psychobabble.”)

Many of these therapy-speak terms have taken on a life of their own on TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms. Some folks apply the clinical jargon incorrectly because they don’t understand some of the complexities or nuances. Others weaponize these terms as a way to shut down thorny conversations, avoid responsibility or control others.

The fact that talking openly about mental health and therapy has been normalized to this degree is a good thing. However, misusing these terms can have negative implications that we’ll dive into more below.

We asked therapists to reveal some of the therapy-speak terms they often see misappropriated and why that can be a problem:

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is one of the most commonly misused terms, according to experts. It’s a manipulation tactic, often seen in abusive relationship dynamics, in which one person gradually makes the other question their own judgment, memories, emotions and reality in order to maintain the upper hand in the relationship.

“It’s a serious issue with significant psychological consequences, so it’s important for folks to understand its true meaning,” New York City therapist Keanu Jackson of The Expansive Group told HuffPost.

But these days, some people are far too quick to slap a “gaslighter” label on anyone who disagrees with their point of view.

“If one partner sees something from a different perspective, it doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting you,” Florida therapist Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” and the host of the “Mentally Stronger” podcast, told HuffPost.

Sometimes behaviors that are labeled gaslighting are actually “genuine disagreements, misunderstandings or typical relationship conflicts,” Jackson added.

2. Triggered

A trigger is something that “sets off a strong emotional reaction, often related to past trauma or distressing experiences,” Atlanta clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla told HuffPost.

“A trigger can take someone out of the present moment and transport their mind to the past, leading them to reexperience the trauma and its aftermath,” she said.

For example, someone who lived through a house fire might experience a flashback or panic attack when they smell smoke or hear a fire alarm beeping.

“If one partner sees something from a different perspective, it doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting you.””

– Amy Morin, therapist and author

But now people often use triggered in casual conversation as a way to “describe any situation that elicits a negative reaction, however mild,” Delawalla said, adding, “People tend to misuse the term and say they are ‘triggered’ by commonplace experiences that they simply do not like.”

Some folks may say they’re triggered as a tactic to end a conversation.

“It’s often used to get someone else to stop discussing a subject simply because you don’t want to address an issue,” Morin said.

3. Trauma

“In therapy, trauma refers to deeply distressing or disturbing experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, often involving harm or a threat of harm to ‘life or limb,’” Delawalla said. “It can lead to long-lasting emotional, psychological and physical effects.”

However, in therapy-speak, the word trauma is often applied more liberally “to describe any difficult or challenging situation,” she said.

Relatedly, the term “trauma bonding” is often used inaccurately. In reality, it refers to a phenomenon in which “deep emotional attachments form between a victim and abuser as a result of enduring cycles of intense, traumatic experiences or abuse followed by positive reinforcement,” Jackson said.

“This is a manipulation tactic resting on an imbalance of power within the relationship,” he said.

This is quite different from the way you typically see trauma bonding discussed on social media. Online, it’s often used to describe two people connecting over a shared difficult experience, like working for a challenging boss or going through a divorce.

4. Narcissist

Discussions about narcissism are everywhere these days — the topic has even been covered quite a bit on HuffPost. But there’s an important distinction to be made between possessing some narcissistic qualities (which we all do to varying degrees) and meeting the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

“Narcissist is often used to describe anyone who is assertive, confident, or someone who is disliked,” Morin said. “Someone might refer to their ex as a narcissist, citing it’s the reason they broke up, when in reality, they may have simply had a difference of opinions.”

Colloquially, narcissist has become a catchall to describe a person you don’t like, she added.

“Therapists don’t actually refer to people as narcissists,” Morin said. “Instead, they may talk about someone who has narcissistic personality disorder.”

5. Boundaries

Setting boundaries is about honoring your own needs; it’s not about controlling someone else’s behavior. You might recall the alleged text messages between actor Jonah Hill and his former girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, that she posted on Instagram last year. In them, he asked her to stop surfing with men and posting bathing suit pictures on social media — among other things — under the guise of respecting his “boundaries for romantic partnership.”

“Boundaries are setting limits to what you are personally willing to do or tolerate,” Toronto psychotherapist Britt Caron previously told HuffPost. “A boundary is something that you have to determine for yourself ― not something you can force someone else to comply with.”

“A boundary is something that you have to determine for yourself ― not something you can force someone else to comply with.”

– Britt Caron, therapist

Let’s say you’re an early riser who’s in a relationship with a night owl. Your boundary might be that you decline social plans that begin after 8 p.m. so you can get to bed on time. But telling your partner that they can’t go either? That’s more of a rule than a healthy boundary.

6. Validation

To validate someone’s emotions or experience involves hearing them and expressing that you understand their perspective. But that doesn’t mean you have to co-sign what they’re saying.

“Therapists validate clients’ feelings by making it clear they understand and accept that the client is feeling a certain way,” Delawalla said.

“Many people misuse the term to demand that others ‘validate’ their experiences or feelings by agreeing with them. This is a subtle but very powerful difference. Not all forms of disagreement are invalidating,” she added.

The Problem With Misusing Therapy-Speak

Carol Yepes via Getty Images

“Therapy-speak can be a way for someone to try and elevate themselves above others,” Morin said.

Part of the issue with throwing around these clinical terms is that it projects an air of superiority that puts you “above” someone who may not be as familiar with the language you’re using, Morin said.

“Therapy-speak can be a way for someone to try and elevate themselves above others by acting as if they have a better understanding of psychology, human behavior and social interactions,” she said.

As you might expect, this can be harmful to the health of the relationship.

“People might struggle to connect with you if they think you’re going to reply with therapy-speak or that you’re going to tell them that they’re communicating incorrectly or that their relationships are bad,” Morin added. “Most people don’t want to be analyzed, corrected repeatedly or given warnings about their behavior.”

Over time, this can create “misinformed relationship dynamics” with the people in your life, leading to increased conflict and even isolation, Jackson said.

Delawalla acknowledged that while adding these terms to our vernacular does help destigmatize mental health struggles, using them incorrectly is actually a “disservice to that goal.”

“It dilutes the true meaning of those terms and concepts,” she said. “This is especially problematic for terms like ‘trauma’ and ‘triggers’ as it hijacks the experiences of those who have actually experienced trauma and serves to minimize its true impact.”

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