What Is Therapy-Speak & How Can It Affect Our Relationships?

Over the past decade, awareness around mental health and therapy has exploded with the expansion of social media. This has generally been a much-needed and refreshing change in a society where such awareness tends to be seriously lacking — often with major consequences. With every social advancement, however, comes unforeseen side effects. As more people gain access to therapy and many mental health professionals take to the internet with generalized educational content, the lingo of the trade has invaded everyday mainstream vocabulary. The New Yorker has dubbed this phenomenon "therapy speak."


If you've ever walked away from what should have been an emotional conversation with a close friend with the same numb confusion that comes with an impersonal reprimand by an HR professional, you've likely experienced therapy talk. Perhaps you've even pulled out a term or two to avoid uncomfortable situations with friends or family members yourself. Below are the most common scenarios where you or the people in your life may try to rely on psychological jargon to sidestep blame or manipulate others. Here's what to watch out for. 

Ending relationships

Putting an end to a friendship or romantic relationship is difficult. For people who lack the skills necessary to be more assertive in their communication style, defaulting to therapy speak can be tempting in order to take some of the pressure off themselves. Telling your friend that you are no longer capable of holding the emotional space required to continue a friendship with her is easier than expressing that her level of constant emotional drama is exhausting. Labeling a romantic partner as a toxic narcissist and informing them that you're upholding a boundary they'll be crossing if they attempt to respond is easier than having a two-way interaction about their problematic behavior.


The issue with hiding behind therapy talk to end a relationship is that when it comes to human interactions, what is easy isn't necessarily what is genuine. You can't apply blanket language that you learned on TikTok or Instagram to a highly specific situation and expect a positive response. Ending a relationship of any kind is an emotional situation for both sides that deserves an honest, nuanced, and sincere conversation — one that honors both parties. 

Excusing inconsiderate behavior

The line between honoring your mental health needs and making excuses for your own poor behavior can become dangerously thin when you allow therapy speak to permeate your daily vocabulary. Sometimes, it's okay to admit that what you did was simply uncalled for or inconsiderate. You didn't get up and walk out of your friend's birthday party because you were triggered by the amount of attention she was being lavished with; you acted in a way that was rude and impulsive because you were envious. Emotions happen and taking real accountability for them speaks volumes.


A person may fail to follow through on their promises or hold up their end of a friendship and then refuse to discuss the problem by claiming to be upholding a healthy boundary. This is an excellent example of using language that is positively associated with self-help and therapy to avoid taking personal responsibility. If your loved one engages with you in this manner, call their behavior out as what it is — a form of manipulation. It's possible that they don't even realize they rely on this tactic to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes. 

Avoiding conflict (and growth)

Just as it can be used to avoid accountability, engaging in therapy talk can become an escape route for conflict. Respecting mental health as much as it deserves to be respected as a society can come with an unintended consequence: elevating some aspects of it to a level that feels unquestionable. When a person happens to be both fluent in therapy speak and fearful of conflict, misusing terms to shut down potential conflict can become all too tempting.


For example, if your friend who always shows up late refuses to engage in a conversation when you confront her about it, citing a personal boundary, what she is actually doing is shutting down to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, taking this route also avoids opportunities for growth. If your friend were to hear you out instead, she may be able to pinpoint why it is that she has formed a habit of being late and whether it's an issue specific to your friendship or one of time management. As her friend, you could then offer to help her work on it. Instead, a therapy term is tossed out and the discourse comes to a halt. 


The overall sensitization of society to the existence of mental health struggles and triggers — and the respect for healthy boundaries — is certainly a positive change. However, this doesn't mean that this awareness is beyond reproach or that aspects of pop psychology can't be taken out of context for personal gain. When a person continually uses therapy talk to shut down two-way communication and get their needs met at the detriment of other parties, they are abusing the progression of self-care culture to keep the focus on themselves.


You should absolutely take other people's mental health challenges into consideration. However, if your partner only becomes triggered when you attempt to respectfully discuss what bothers you about their behavior, but feels free to criticize yours, consider it a red flag. Creating "boundaries" around the tasks or conversations that are necessary to facilitate a healthy relationship between two equals is simply an excuse for self-centeredness. You don't have to tolerate it. 


Perhaps the worst use of therapy talk to come out of the widespread familiarization of psychological terms is the ease with which many people now hand out armchair diagnoses. If you've heard terms like "narcissist" or "sociopath" get pulled out when a serious disagreement was taking place, you're familiar with the phenomenon. Narcissism and sociopathy are real personality disorders with real clinical diagnostic criteria. Watching a few TikTok videos from TherapyJeff doesn't qualify you to make that type of call.


The same tactic can be used by partners or friends who insist that you are gaslighting or otherwise mentally abusing them every time you attempt to address an issue between you. Does gaslighting exist? Absolutely. Is it possible to weaponize the term against another person to dismiss their concerns and villainize them within the context of the relationship? Absolutely. By all means, continue to support the normalization of self-care and mental health struggles. Just be sure you don't sacrifice yourself in the name of someone else's well-being in the process.