LAST MONTH JONAH HILL copped flack online when his former partner, Sarah Brady, shared messages he’d sent her about his “boundaries” (no “surfing with men”, no friendships with “women who are in unstable places” and no swimsuit selfies). Many argued that Hill was using therapy-speak to coercively control Brady.
Similarly, though far more positively, a few years ago when Gwyneth Paltrow and Cold Play’s Chris Martin split, the end of the relationship was notable more for the detached language, in this case, one particular phrase—“conscious uncoupling”—than the split itself.
Eleanor Morgan, author of Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard, recently explored the increasing pervasiveness of therapy speak in a piece for The Guardian.
“If the language used on the internet is a reliable indicator, we’re more psychologically enlightened than ever. We discuss attachment styles like the weather. We joke about our coping mechanisms. We project, or are projected on to. We shun “toxic” people. We catastrophise and ruminate. We diagnose, or are diagnosed: OCD, depression, anxiety, ADHD, narcissism. We make, break or struggle to “hold” boundaries. We practise self-care. We know how to spot gaslighting. We’re tuned into our emotional labour. We’re triggered. We’re processing our trauma. We’re doing the work,” Morgan writes.
While so-called “therapy-speak” has long permeated everyday conversations, it’s become endemic in the last decade as platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok become de facto psychologists’ couches for many people—the #narcissism hashtag has 3.8bn views on TikTok, the irony of searching for this word on a platform that promotes this very trait seemingly lost on most people. It’s not surprising, then, that these terms are cropping up, not just among Hollywood celebrities who have shrinks on speed dial but among the wider populace.
While greater awareness of terms originally used to describe psychological states, often distressing ones, could have potential benefits in reducing taboos around mental health issues, you do have to wonder if the terms are always appropriate for the situations they’re increasingly being used to describe. These days we use words such as ‘triggered’ ironically but as you’ve probably observed, irony is often a gateway to pervasiveness. Saying you’re “triggered”, a term that originates in PTSD treatment, to describe your feelings toward your cat for turning its nose up at a plate of dry biscuits, is not only hyperbolic but unfair to ‘Mogs’.
With the understanding that mental health is a serious matter and semantics are inherently fraught, we’ve compiled a guide to help you deploy couch-speak with greater clarity and precision. A warning: using weighted terms in a casually ironic fashion will become more difficult; feel free to gaslight us.
You have a phobia of spiders and discover a Huntsman staring at you as you emerge from the shower. Fair play, you were triggered. You turn on the radio in the car and Kyle Sandilands is blustering his way through a diatribe about a MAFS contestant, while certainly annoying, isn’t cause to deploy the T word unless Sandilands’ voice was the one you heard for 72 hours straight while blind-folded and gagged in an insurgent’s lair in Mosul. No? Then a simple ‘I was annoyed’ is more than sufficient to describe your feelings here.
A fun word to say, which perhaps explains its pervasiveness. But you do have to wonder if every person who’s been on the end of a bad break-up has a ‘toxic ex’ or if many of these relationships just ran their course and one party came to that realisation sooner than the other did? Similarly, to describe the workplace culture at your last job as ‘toxic’, when in reality you were once given a warning for repeated lateness, further erodes the meaning and power of the word.
A favourite among MAFS judges, this is actually a tricky term to clearly define. According to Medical News Today, “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves”. Obviously, this is a particularly pernicious form of behaviour but to use it to describe your relationship with ‘Mogs’ is stretching the limits of the word and the boundaries of irony to breaking point. If you use it in this fashion, then everyone is a potential gas-lighter: your PT said you were holding back during your back-squat, gas-lighter. Your yoga teacher asks if you practised your downward dog during the holidays, gas lighter (you actually did but not every day, does that count? Should you have done more? Shit, maybe you should have? Maybe Bruno’s right? What else does he know about me?)
Sometimes used interchangeably with ‘textbook narcissist’. I once stayed at a lodging in a Hungarian lakeside town where the host had a 3m x 5m painting of himself with aviators on posing in front of a sportscar. He caught me gaping at it and asked what I thought. At the time, not well-versed in therapy-speak, I lacked the vocabulary to call him a textbook narcissist (and wouldn’t have done so to his face, anyway). Instead, an extremely versatile, though far more downmarket pejorative bubbled to the fore: wanker. In most cases, you’ll probably find that does the job.
The thing about boundaries is that you need to erect them in the right places. They’re particularly suited to workplaces, the military, even sporting clubs. They may sound somewhat antithetical to a healthy relationship built on trust and intimacy, but remember that the therapy-speak term of ‘boundaries’ aren’t the brick wall they’re often made out to be—they can be as simple as reinforcing that your morning walks need to be embarked upon solo for some no thoughts, head empty time. The main thing to remember about setting up these boundaries in relationships is that it’s a give and take situation, and that to keep all that trust and intimacy, you try to be honest about your needs, and open to your partner’s too. Meanwhile, it’s up to you whether you use the term with Mogs—if he’s a Siamese, then yes, those impertinent creatures won’t think twice about walking in on you in the shower.
The other day I let my daughter play a memory game on my iPad, then worried that I was inculcating her with a susceptibility to gaming algorithms that would manifest in adulthood as a pokies addiction. But here’s the thing about ‘catastrophising’. It’s perfectly fine for you to cop to this behaviour, but if someone else accuses you of it, it can feel both extremely patronising and incredibly irritating. That’s because invariably the person will (innocently) seek to allay your anxiety by diminishing the gravity of the behaviour in question, hitting you with a devastating, “it’s just a…You’re just catastrophising”. Note well: anyone who uses the word ‘just’ twice in the same sentence is a toxic gaslighter.
The term that launched a thousand memes is something of a heritage artefact in therapy-speak these days. It’s also unlikely to have ever been used in non-ironic fashion outside of the Hollywood Hills.