The relationship was toxic. And her ex was such a narcissist! Yes, they were definitely co-dependent. She was totally triggered by the whole thing, but it probably had something to do with her anxious attachment style—she ignored the red flags. She was probably just projecting anyway. We live in the age of therapy, and our language is changing as a result. Writing in The New Yorker, Katie Walden calls it the “rise of therapy speak”.
But as complex humans, with equally complex relationships, living in an increasingly digital world, the ambiguity of language is too much for us. We want neat labels for bad behaviour; a clear outline of what should and shouldn’t be tolerated, before we move onto the next swipe.
Subsequently, therapeutic language is being used out of context, and more importantly out of clinic. We’re bypassing experts for proper diagnosis and instead quick to label relational dynamics, pathologising really quite run-of-the-mill behaviour. And it may actually be doing more harm than good.
Of course, therapy speak isn’t an actual thing. But the use of psychological concepts such as trauma, codependency and attachment styles, or mental health disorders like narcissism and OCD, are increasingly slipping into common parlance.
Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, calls this phenomenon “concept creep”. A concept has crept when it’s used to describe a wider range of experiences than it used to. “Harm-related concepts can creep when we start using them to refer to new kinds of experience or to less severe experiences,” Haslam explains. “In essence, concept creep leads to an increasing range of things being defined as harmful.” Examples of this include the use of phrases such as “toxic”, “traumatic”, “red flag” or even “narcissist” to describe people or circumstances which may be perceived as harmful.
Experiences which once may have been called “stresses”, “upsets” or “challenges” are increasingly called “traumas”, with trauma being a harm-related concept that has crept rapidly in recent decades. “Something ‘toxic’ which is merely unpleasant rather than genuinely poisonous—literally or metaphorically—is similar: it amounts to identifying something as very harmful when it may not be.”
This isn’t to say traumatic experiences and deeply unpleasant people and things don’t exist, but instead, in our current therapeutic climate, it could perhaps be that people have lowered their threshold for identifying experiences as traumatic and toxic, among other, what Haslam calls “harm-related concepts”.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the adoption of therapy speak and the rise of concept creep came from. “To some extent it may reflect a broader shift in social values away from material prosperity and towards emotional wellbeing,” says Haslam. A positive shift reflecting changing attitudes towards the adoption of therapy, curiosity for mental health and an increasing openness and comfortability in talking about, and expressing, emotions.
It may also reflect an even broader positive change; some might say that parts of society have become safer and less exposed to adversity and hardship, and less exposure to actual harm means we’re less resilient towards the slighted show of it. “Many people have become more concerned with suffering and maltreatment, and more preoccupied with minimising them,” says Haslam.
This can be seen with political movements focused on social justice such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter. Focused on the reduction of harm to marginalised people, these wide scale movements are necessarily challenging the way we relate to each other, and as a result may well reflect this shift towards the widespread adoption of therapeutic language. “This is a positive development: the world would be better if there was less pain and distress, less abuse and harassment, and less violence and trauma.”
But others have a more somber reading. The pathologising of relationships reflects how much we are collectively suffering, and necessarily wishing to avoid harm. “We are psychologically overwhelmed by the pandemic and world events in a way that has brought many of us to our knees,” explains Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist and author of the upcoming book What We Want. “Language feels like a way to rebuild and support a structure for a healthier approach to life.”
However, despite increased interest in, and awareness of, mental health in recent years, it’s problematic to think we are all experts. The flippant use of psychological concepts and wrong labelling of concepts, such as trauma and narcissism, could be doing more harm than good.
“We’ve overcorrected our historical avoidance of psychology by labelling everything,” suggests Fox Weber. “But the weaponisation of mental health terminology does the opposite of inviting honest discussion”. She suggests that the over-labelling of relational dynamics and use of mental health terms have become “cheap shops” in trying to win arguments. This is problematic because if we make mental health vocabulary dirty words, Fox Weber believes it will be “harder to admit to unsightly parts of ourselves.”
In her practice, Fox Weber explains that she likes to distinguish between two types of trauma. “Trauma with a capital T from trauma with a lowercase t.” Although these distinctions get lost conversationally, she believes it’s important to “distinguish a dangerous and violent situation from an awkward encounter”—so as not to dim the significance of situations which are truly dangerous and urgent. “A conflict in a relationship does not make it toxic. Sensing that someone has a different perspective is not necessarily a red flag.”
But like many social trends and shifts in semantics, despite this feeling like a very millennial phenomenon, this change in language isn’t entirely new. “For decades people have referred to sadness as depression, worry as paranoia, and uninhibited emotional expression as hysteria,” Haslam explains. Perhaps what feels distinct about now, is how focused the terms are on relational dynamics, rather than individual neurosis. The shifting use of language possibly reflects a larger cultural movement in the relational landscape and the way we are connecting with one another in the 21st century.
So, next time you’re dragged into a conversation about a friend’s ex or perhaps even disputing an issue with your own partner, what should you say? The first thing to do is pause before you try to label something one way or another. “Language helps us understand and misunderstand each other and ourselves,” says Fox Weber. “We should recognise the limitations of language, the harm of diagnoses that invalidate and devalue, and the fluidity of therapeutic descriptions.”
Avoiding oneupmanship or winning in conflicts by de-weaponising our language could be another useful approach. “We get it wrong when we use therapy terms to prove that we are right,” Fox Weber continues. Admitting the limits of what we know about each other actually brings us closer to real connection and insight—this is about acknowledging “the ineffable and ambiguous aspects of existence.”
And finally, stop assuming sickness is everywhere. It’s helpful to focus on what is good, healthy and okay in our relationships—rather than just using terms signalling problems. “We need to know what’s healthy in order to recognise illness.” By assuming sickness is everywhere, we cancel out distinctions.
The increased adoption of therapy is a brilliant thing. Therapy offers people support for crisis but also provides space for growth and discovery. People are more and more comfortable wanting to understand themselves and develop, for the better. The rise of therapy speak certainly reflects this positive social shift. But while language is cheap, therapy isn’t. If the former is all that’s available to you for now, be sure to use it wisely.
This story originally appeared on British Vogue.