Commonly Misused Therapy Terms, Corrected by Therapists
- Misused therapy terms, such as "boundaries" or "gaslighting," are permeating relationships.
- Using these terms incorrectly could lead to hurting a partner, whether by accident or on purpose.
- Here are the true definitions of these terms that you can take into your relationships to support someone rather than hurt them.
As therapy phrases continue to enter everyday conversation, some experts are raising concerns about misusing these terms.
While going to therapy can, of course, have beneficial outcomes on relationships, using therapy jargon can be detrimental when it's misused or has lost its original meaning.
What is therapy speak?
Therapy speak is the use of diagnostic language that originates from a therapy office and is carried over to day-to-day conversation and, more recently, the dating world. It provides diagnoses of disorders or personality types—without therapist credentials.
Using therapy speak can be kind of like the childhood game telephone—the more a term is used incorrectly in everyday conversation, the more its true definition becomes muddled.
A lot of harm can be done when people misuse psychological terms, as this can trivialize an experience or condition that is often stigmatizing, said Madison McCullough, L.C.S.W., a clinical social worker and therapist with an online practice in New York.
"It undermines the efforts of so many folks who have organized around mental health access and fought for people with mental illness to get the support they deserve," McCullough said.
How is therapy speak messing with our intimate relationships?
Therapy speak has infiltrated dating profiles; people now list criteria such as having "worked through your trauma" or "must know your attachment style." However, anyone without training can use these terms, and sometimes, this can be a manipulation tactic.
Text messages from actor Jonah Hill recently made headlines. They cited "boundaries" for his partnership rules but instead listed demands to his ex, such as not posting pictures in a bathing suit.
Some therapists labeled this behavior as controlling and an incorrect use of the term "boundaries."
What are commonly misused therapy terms?
"Boundaries" isn't the only term people misuse. Below are the correct meanings behind some of the most popular therapy terms.
Attachment theory is the notion that how we act in our adult relationships is the result of early childhood caregiving experiences.
The four attachment styles include the following:
These styles can change over time, contrary to how some people think of them.
Even if you identify with an attribute of one style, such as "anxious," it doesn't mean you might not have signs of other attachment styles simultaneously.
People can use someone's avoidant or disorganized attachment style as an excuse for emotionally abusive behavior, such as silent treatment.
Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness.
People misuse this diagnosis to describe someone they perceive to be hot and cold, said Lindsey Cooper, L.M.F.T., a marriage and family therapist with her own practice in Thousand Oaks, California.
"It is required to have at least one manic episode, which is more than excitement or hyper-focus, followed by a period of depression," Cooper said of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder can cause havoc and chaos in the life of the person living with it and their families.
One of the most significant misunderstandings about setting a boundary is that it's a rule someone else must follow. In reality, setting boundaries is an invitation for closer connection instead of a wall that controls someone's behavior.
Navigating the concept of boundaries can be complex, said Caroline Fenkel, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., an adolescent mental health provider at Charlie Health in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
"When employed appropriately, it [boundaries] aids individuals in effectively expressing their needs. However, an increasing number of people are now sharing instances where this term is misused to manipulate others or justify unkind and unjust actions," Fenkel said.
Sometimes, people use boundaries as an excuse to forgo something they don't feel like doing, McCullough said.
"This is the opposite of what boundaries are designed for. Boundaries are all about communicating honestly and authentically about your emotional needs to facilitate the healthiest relationships possible with others," she said.
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Gaslighting is when a person distorts your understanding of reality to exert power or control over you, McCullough said. People use gaslighting synonymously with lying, which isn't quite the same thing.
"Improper usage of the term 'gaslight' can disrupt otherwise fruitful discussions. Often, the accusation of gaslighting is haphazardly employed, overlooking situations where someone might simply be firm in their beliefs or attempting to sway another's perspective," Fenkel said.
People use the word narcissist to describe anyone who is self-involved. However, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has more extensive criteria.
"While narcissism exists on a spectrum, it involves much more than egocentrism. Narcissists often struggle with relationships and treat others poorly because they have trouble with perspective-taking and a need to be right," McCullough said.
While it's tempting to point to someone displaying a bit of egotism, there is a difference.
People have narcissistic qualities because they are defensive responses, inherent personality characteristics or adaptive behaviors in an unfamiliar cultural context, not necessarily because they are a narcissist, Fenkel said.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Despite how people colloquially use the term, obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD) has absolutely nothing to do with being organized, washing hands or being type-A, Cooper said.
"OCD is defined by experiencing obsessive and intrusive thoughts followed by a compulsion," Cooper said. "The compulsion relieves the obsession, often briefly. Obsessive personality disorder, on the other hand, may be a more accurate descriptor of what is referred to."
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and triggers
Trauma seems to be everyone's favorite therapy term. It's a collective area of rising intrigue with books such as "The Body Keeps the Score" by trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, which has sold more than 2 million copies.
"Regrettably, this heightened awareness has led to the overuse and misapplication of trauma as a buzzword," Fenkel said.
While it's true that trauma is not just tsunamis and war, not every harmful situation can be defined as trauma.
"Trauma is the unique combination of an event and a person's individual psychology and how they are shaped by the way those things have combined into the future," McCullough said.
People are also incorrectly using the words 'trauma' and 'PTSD' interchangeably.
"PTSD necessitates a number of very specific symptoms to be met in order to be diagnosed," McCullough said.
While everyone with PTSD has trauma, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD.
People also use the term "trigger" to encapsulate anything that bothers them. For people with PTSD, a trigger isn't just bothersome; a trigger is distressing and creates the perception of danger.
Unlike how people casually use the term as a way to express something that causes them discomfort, triggers can cause flashbacks for those with PTSD, even if they are seemingly innocuous, such as a song, smell or image.
The bottom line
Every person has some traits of different personality disorders because they are the foundation of personality, Cooper said. This doesn't mean someone meets the criteria for a disorder.
"It shifts from traits to disorder when certain criteria are met, and it needs to be evaluated by a professional," Cooper said.
The therapeutic language you see on the internet and used conversationally has likely deviated from its original context. Know the terms before using them.
"Language is always changing and evolving, and it's important that people feel empowered to describe their experiences in ways that feel accurate, but we all need to be aware of whether the language we use is appropriative of someone else's experience," McCullough said.