Is It Healthy Therapy Speak, Or Is It Weaponized? Here's How To Tell The Difference
I've been seeing the meme, "Jonah Hill isn't the hill you want to die on" going around, as he wielded therapy speak in order to be emotionally manipulative. In case you missed it, he packaged disapproval of his ex-girlfriend's clothing and friends as "boundaries," in order to pressure her to change her lifestyle.
As someone with a psychopathic abusive ex-partner, and as a psychologist who works with victims of abuse, I hear these stories of weaponized therapy speak too often.
And as mental health awareness becomes normalized and acceptable, therapy speak has, indeed, crept into our daily vernacular. We're increasingly cognizant of viewing life through the mental health lens—but therapy speak comes with its own dangers.
Sometimes it's unintentional, and other times, it's weaponized.
What is therapy speak?
"Therapy speak" is when people use psychological, therapeutic, or mental health language in day-to-day conversations.
Terms like "boundaries," "abuse," "psychopath," and "trauma" are thrown around, and we're more likely to share about our mental health experiences, from anxiety to depression to bipolar disorder.
Sometimes it can feel like everyone is suddenly an expert in mental health—or trying to counsel each other.
This language creeps significantly into relationship dynamics and, unfortunately, is often used carelessly, excitedly, and with excessive conviction, while lacking depth of understanding.
Healthy therapy speak
Healthy therapy speak is open to reflection, review, and education and is thoughtfully used. Here, everyday language is more intentional, and the use of therapy speak may be done only when defined for the other party, or if there is an understanding that both parties understand the concept discussed. It can also be more tentative, instead of prescriptive.
- "How would you like me to show up for you?" (Versus popping in unannounced and insisting you are doing something for their own good.)
- "Do you need support to solve or a listening ear?" (Versus going for the jugular and giving unsolicited opinions starting with "You should...")
- "I have a suggestion/thought, would you like me to say it?" (Versus word-vomiting your ideas.)
- "Based on what you've been telling me, this person seems to be doing something bad." (Versus immediately proclaiming the person an abuser or narcissist.)
- "As an introvert, perhaps it's hard for you to do this." (Versus, "All you introverts are like this.")
- "It is OK if you'd like to be vulnerable and tell me more; you don't need to shoulder it alone." (Versus forcing someone to tell you everything.)
What is weaponized therapy speak?
Therapy speak can quickly and/or easily become yet another thing that is wielded to bolster your own stance in the current cultural zeitgeist. Or worse still, it's used to manipulate and hurt someone. In those cases, therapy speak becomes weaponized.
Here are examples of some of those instances:
Misusing the concepts of boundaries and trauma
Boundaries refer to your "hell no's," aka the things you are unwilling to accept about how people treat you. Boundaries do not refer to how you can package your dislikes and disapprovals into controlling someone's life.
And lately, I have been seeing everything blamed on trauma. Not everything leads to trauma, and not everyone develops trauma from the same event.
By definition, trauma is an event that is deeply disturbing or unsettling to the nervous system so that your brain and body keep reexperiencing the same situation/symptoms repeatedly, as if it is still stuck back at the first event. "Big-T" trauma often happens when we have been at risk of losing our lives, witnessed someone lose their life, or have been through abuse; repeated incidents often cause c-PTSD, where c refers to "complicated."
"Small-t" trauma develops from common life experiences like bereavements, job loss, and even seemingly-joyous ones like emigrating or job promotions.
Calling everyone an "abuser," every relationship "toxic," or everything "gaslighting"
While we should not have to ask someone to prove they've been abused or hurt, we similarly should not rush to brand everything abusive or toxic. We all have toxic behaviors, after all, and sometimes even the best and most mindful of us do hurtful things. What matters is that with awareness, we work to repair the damage and make the relationship stronger.
When someone is abusive, it means that they are consistently acting in ways that hurt you mentally, physically, sexually, financially, emotionally, and/or spiritually. Further, there is little attempt to repair that, but rather you are told you're crazy or sensitive. Any repair is piecemeal and transient, and you will pay for it. And chances are, this person is doing it deliberately and gets sadistic kicks out of it.
Similarly, when a relationship is toxic, it means that it is consistently bad for you; this person doesn't need to check off some or all of the dark personality traits.
And when someone gaslights you, they are intentionally screwing with your take on reality, so you stop trusting yourself and trust them instead. So, someone accidentally giving you the wrong information, or one-off lies, is not necessarily gaslighting you.
Gaslighting you to put you in place
There are people who might use therapy speak to appear intellectually or morally superior or foist mental health diagnoses upon you in order to put you in place.
For instance, "This is your anxiety talking; you are an anxious person and therefore ____." That is gaslighting.
"You have to help me stay accountable"
Accountability is a great thing—when the party in question is actually interested in staying accountable and has enough integrity and responsibility to live up to it. Dark personality types, however, love to wield it to their own ends. They aren't actually interested in changing, nor is it possible for them to change.
However, by telling you that you have to help them stay accountable to be a better person (i.e., fewer questionable behaviors or abusing you less), that only hooks you in more.
You think that because decent people are committed to accountability, they would be too. But when a dark personality type commits another transgression and you call them out on it (the way they asked you to!), they'll just tell you things like, "You know I can't help it," or, "I can't promise you I can change because I don't know if I can." Then, it feels like Groundhog Day all over again, except you have the memory of how horrible it all feels as it compounds.
Forcing authenticity, emotional health, or expression
There is so much buzz about being authentic and expressing everything we are, do, and feel—but we are many different selves dependent on the roles we play, our mood, and our chapter in life.
When you are enraged, for instance, those feelings of hatred are just as authentic as the adoration you feel when you're loved up. However, expressing those feelings when you're not in control of your emotions will give you more messes to clean up. Authenticity must be dispensed responsibly.
Similarly, there's pressure to be "emotionally healthy" by sharing everything that's happened to you because some people might tell you, "I know you keep your feelings to yourself, so you must process them with me," or, "We need to talk about your issues; I need to help you." Worse still, some might say, "I tell you everything that goes on; you'd better tell me here."
First off, there is no quid-pro-quo here. You may not have even asked for the other person to share things with you in the first place. Plus, we process things differently; Some people like to share things with others before deciding to take action, or while they're taking action. Others only share when it is long over. There is no right or wrong here.
Diagnosing or psychoanalyzing someone and then being sanctimonious or displaying them like a circus freak
The last thing you should do is diagnose someone. If they suspect they have a condition, or have been officially diagnosed, that is one thing. You still should be mindful of how often you make references to that or ask too many details as if they are a zoo exhibit, much less tell others all about it so they can ask even more.
Just because you are aware of their shortcomings or lack of abilities as a result of this condition, doesn't mean you have to keep citing that or making fun of it. For example, having dyspraxia means I am clumsy and sometimes get my shoelaces knotted up; that isn't something I mean to do or am proud of. But I have been mocked and "displayed" for that lack of common ability, and I often think to myself, "But I don't laugh at you for being unable to count." There is no need to fuel unkindness.
Using personality as an excuse
Your wiring or current state of mind might make you request certain provisions, such as, "I am easily overwhelmed by noisy places; can we go somewhere a little quieter and still with great coffee?" or, "I will pay extra for the aisle seat because the window seat makes me feel more uncomfortable," or, "Today I am feeling jumpier, so I might be distracted at times; please understand."
These are not a free pass to get away with poor behavior.
Saying things like "We're all a little autistic/ADHD" or "Everyone is a narcissist, so we're all toxic people"
You either are neurodiverse, or you are not. Saying, "We are all a little autistic/ADHD" casually dismisses and undermines the experiences of those who struggle with them every day, because their wiring makes it difficult to function in the ways neurotypical people take for granted.
And yes, some neurodiverse people are better adapted to daily living, often as a result of hard work and luck, but that doesn't mean you should be asking them to prove their conditions. Beneath seemingly calm waters is a person paddling furiously and burning out regularly from that.
Similarly, we may have some narcissistic or psychopathic traits—which can be useful—but it does not spill over to qualifying for a personality disorder. A personality disorder is when this pervades every area of your functioning, from your self-image to career to relationships.
Comparing your conditions
I've noticed two obvious forms of comparisons when it comes to mental health conditions. One camp likes to play the "I don't experience [symptom/thought/action]," almost to pity or mock another person, even if they have the same broad condition.
But symptoms manifest differently. For instance, one person's primary panic attack experiences could be palpitations and thinking they're having a heart attack. Another's could be feeling intense heat or choking and thinking they need to escape.
The other camp is what I call "The Race To The Bottom." This is when people start invalidating others by talking about how much worse they have it as if it's a competition—or dismissing someone else's lived experiences because they have more resources. The common refrain, "What do you have to be depressed about? You have so much in life," springs to mind.
Episodes of bad mental health do not discriminate based on your resources, sex, color, or education.
Self-care is a great thing to do because if we don't support our brains and bodies, we can't take care of our other responsibilities. However, pressuring someone to drink, shop, or stay up excessively for the sake of self-care is completely erroneous. I've seen people offer substances to recovering drug addicts under the guise of "self-care" or "rewarding yourself for your hard work." That is escapism and self-soothing.
Self-care isn't done reactively to stress, and it's not bubble baths or unicorn lattes—unless they really do help you feel better. Instead, self-care refers to the unsexiest, most boring things you do to keep your life and head in order—grooming, finances, deep breathing, moving, eating relatively well, drinking water, etc.
Turning the therapy room into an arena for abuse
Toxic personality types can be so charming and great at acting that when they go for couple's counseling, they present their abused partners in a bad light. Having had their spirit broken already, and with the compounded damage from constantly retriggered trauma, the abused partner can easily look like the bad person. Moreover, mental health professionals who are trained to spot dark personality types or treat trauma may completely miss out on these dynamics.
And so these abused partners erroneously believe that therapy will save the relationship, and the toxic partner is stepping up by going to therapy, all while being subjected to more abuse in a new setting.
Expecting your mental health professional friend to be your free therapist
"How are your active listening skills?" someone once made a dig at me. We were strolling, I had listened enough, and I'd expressed that I didn't have the bandwidth to talk about this topic they were repeating. More importantly, I wasn't in the position of coach or psychologist—I was plain ol' human me.
I knew that dig was designed to cut. And so I said, "Sure, shall I invoice you right now? And we will talk about it." They stopped.
You see, just because someone does something professionally doesn't mean they have the same obligation to perform that role with you when off-duty. Just because they can see things through their professional lens (such as immediately spotting mental health patterns) doesn't mean they should voice them.
What to do if someone is using weaponized therapy speak
If you feel something is off, then it is off. Trust your gut. Victims of toxic people always tell me they felt something was wrong from the start but they rationalized it away, so don't do that.
Next, know you have permission to say no gracefully—most people who are afraid to say no tend to believe otherwise.
When people pressure me to be a free therapist, for instance, I tell them this is a privilege I reserve for my clients. To respect my energy and their investment, I do not step into therapist mode when off-duty. I sometimes give the analogy that if I were dating a dentist, I would not expect him to give me a root canal while we're having dinner at a 3-Michelin-Star restaurant. Anyone arguing with that has got to be a little over-entitled.
If you think this person might be weaponizing therapy speak unintentionally, you could educate them. Start with, "From what I understand, [concept] refers to ___. Therefore, this does not apply here. What do you think?"
If you think they are being deliberate, you can say:
- "This isn't something I’d like to discuss with you." (You can also add, "When I do, I will let you know.")
- "You can ask me questions, and if I don't want to answer, I will tell you."
- "I already have professionals I pay to deal with these things. Let's spend our time together talking about something we'd both enjoy." (My personal favorite.)
If need be, with a toxic person, just disengage altogether. You do not owe them anything.
How to avoid using weaponized therapy speak yourself
A one-off statement that someone might be acting differently due to something going on in their life is empathy and awareness based on patterns of human experience. Nonstop analysis of what someone is or isn't doing/thinking/feeling due to childhood issues or some other traumatic event is patronizing and unnecessarily intrusive.
There's a reason mental health professionals go to school for a long time and continue education throughout their careers—because we should neither be making assumptions nor force-fitting people into certain models or theories. More importantly, you are not a therapist or counselor. It is not your job to therapize or solve someone's problems.
Consider the big constellations of therapy speak that you use, if any. Are they about communication, relationships, or mental health diagnoses? Get educated correctly about them and know that a viral TikTok won't always tell you the truth.
Speak in everyday language as simply as possible. And don't assume you're on the same page when someone uses a particular term—ask what they think it means.
If you'd like to mention your diagnosis, use it in a supportive way. For instance, as someone with ADHD, I might invite someone to walk and talk with me because it helps my brain focus better. I also might tell them that if they catch me doodling, I am actually listening; the physical action keeps my brain focused, and I am not being rude.
This way, I focus on making it a win-win-win for me, them, and the relationship. I always end with, "What do you think?" so we can find the middle ground. If you're currently experiencing higher levels of anxiety, you could say, "I am feeling crappy today, so please don't take it personally. If you see me distracted, you can call me back to Earth."
Always make it a two-way street. How much information someone wants to give you, or how much they want to reflect about a situation, is up to them. You can state that the terms of your engagement are always up for review or discussion so that you both don't feel trapped in the dynamic you've created.
What does it mean to weaponize therapy?
When people use their experience of therapy, and the language associated with therapy and mental health, in order to benefit themselves and harm others.
What are the buzzwords for therapy speak?
Therapy speak buzzwords include boundaries, trauma, gaslighting, abuse, authentic, self-care, introvert, and empath.
What is weaponizing mental health language?
Weaponizing mental health language is when people use psychological, therapeutic, or mental health language in day-to-day conversations in a way that attacks or hurts you, and benefits them.
As a psychologist, I'm heartened that more people are aware of mental health because psychology applies to all facets of our lives. Using therapy speak is a sign of more awareness and acceptability, as opposed to old stigma where mental health was a dirty little secret. Nowadays, we're instead seeing that mental health isn't just about ill health, it's also about thriving, and people are able to identify what's going wrong and right in their lives.
Consequently, this allows people to receive support, and this is especially helpful as victims of abuse step up and make safety plans to escape for good and heal their trauma.
However, shallow knowledge of therapy speak when wielded unreflectively and with too much conviction can be dangerous—especially so if the sources of knowledge are unvalidated or erroneous.
It is my deepest hope that our next stage of evolution is to educate ourselves better because only then can we thrive together instead of unintentionally harming each other.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.