During the pandemic, Katherine Sorensen, 28, scored a copywriting gig at a tech company. The role was remote, so there were no cushy couches or team happy hours. Instead, the most striking part of Sorensen’s new job was what her new workplace sounded like. On her first day, she noticed a glossary of mental health-themed terms that seemed to pop up over and over in conversations, like self-care, toxic, and boundaries. In lieu of in-person introductions, a day full of virtual one-on-one welcome meetings with people from different departments was arranged for Sorensen. During one of them, she could see in the video that a co-worker’s home office had a poster that read, “Having feelings is cool.” She very quickly got the memo that to thrive at the company, she was going to need to become fluent in its dialect of therapy-speak.
Over the past decade, language derived from the mental health field has surged in mainstream usage. In 2018, toxic was named the Oxford word of the year. (Gaslighting made the shortlist as well.) According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows graphically how often terms and phrases appear in a select corpus of books and publications, use of the word trauma in printed text has steadily swelled since 1900, peaking in around 2015. Usage of the phrase setting boundaries began to rise around 1980 and appears to be still climbing.
Earlier this year, therapy-speak made headlines after surfer Sarah Brady shared a series of screenshots on Instagram of alleged texts from her ex-boyfriend, the actor and director, Jonah Hill, in which, Brady claimed, Hill had tried to puppeteer her social life during their relationship, using words like boundaries and triggering. The public response included a range of armchair analyses, with some tagging Hill as “manipulative” and “a narcissist” for his perceived weaponisation of these terms and others praising him for what they viewed as self-knowledge and emotional clarity.
Linguistic change is reflective of social change, and the succession of reckonings and collective experiences we’ve all endured in recent years—#MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol among them—has helped ignite both an unprecedented mental health crisis in the United States and greater demand for a way to talk about it all.
“Simply put, therapy-speak is currently prominent because therapy is currently prominent,” says Kelly Elizabeth Wright, an experimental sociolinguist and lexicographer at VirginiaTech in Blacksburg, Virginia. As of this August, the hashtag #mentalhealth had accrued more than 49 million posts on Instagram and more than 101 billion views on TikTok.
The declining state of our collective morale has also been well documented. This year, a global survey by Deloitte found that 46 per cent of Gen Z and 39 per cent of millennials felt stressed or anxious “all or most of the time”. Reported stress levels were even higher among women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ respondents, and those with disabilities. Experts agree that the intensifying psychological struggles of younger generations are likely connected to a mix of heightened awareness about mental health and also the possibility that they may be legitimately having a harder time due to factors like loneliness, which was exacerbated during the pandemic, and the “compare and despair” culture of social media.
Where work is concerned, the long-standing romance surrounding the American dream has faded. While previous generations may have considered their jobs and workplaces in more transactional terms—as jobs and places one goes to work and make money—younger people today are often told to seek a more personal kind of affirmation and fulfilment, with work framed as a deeper reflection of who they are, what they stand for, and their sense of self.
As the stigma of seeking therapy has fallen away, so has stigmatisation of the language around it
“Success these days can seem equal parts arbitrary and hard to come by,” says Linda Sanderville, a New Mexico-based psychotherapist. “With the questionable relevance of work—e.g., will AI soon replace all of our jobs?—the importance of a traditional work identity feels shaky at best.” It’s no wonder, then, that therapy-speak, with its focus on the individual, would “rise in proportion to our somewhat decreased focus on group identity,” Sanderville adds.
Indeed, the euphemistic corporatese that dominated office discourse a decade ago—“Let’s align on the mission”, “We’re not a company, we’re a community”—has fallen out of favour. Language that acknowledges an employee’s distinct humanity—“validating identities”, “holding space”—has poured in to replace it.
Therapy-speak is much more likely in organisations with smaller teams and thus tighter interpersonal dynamics—think: start-ups, non-profits, educational environments—especially those with a substantial number of Gen Z and millennial employees.
A March 2023 survey conducted by SHRM, a professional human-resources membership association, found that nearly half of American workers held higher expectations for their employers’ mental health support compared with what they wanted last year. Amid the Great Resignation, companies learned that if they sought to attract and retain talent, they’d have to find ways to accommodate. “It’s clear to me that (younger workers) expect more in terms of overall employer attention to mental health and work-life balance,” says Dena DiNardo, a clinical psychologist based in Philadelphia.
As a response, many companies started relaxing their mental health leave policies, hiring in-house counsellors, organising seminars on burnout, and hanging more “fauxspirational” posters. A recent survey conducted by Fidelity Investments and the non-profit Business Group on Health found that 35 per cent of American organisations offered or were planning to offer on-site therapy or counseling this year—up from 18 percent in 2022. As the stigma of seeking therapy has fallen away, so has stigmatisation of the language around it. “Talking about mental health at work has become more normalised, including trauma, when we factor in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and workplace oppression,” says Minaa B, a mental-health educator based in New York City.
“When employees said things like ‘I’m regulating my feelings...’ it showed, ‘I work on myself.’”
Therapy-speak can be an empowering tool. “I do think it’s important that people start adopting ‘self-care’ and ‘setting boundaries’ for the sake of not working 70 hours a week,” says Sorensen. These terms can bring legitimacy to once overlooked concerns, providing a medium through which employees can bond over shared experiences and express needs to higher-ups.
“Now, people in the workplace can identify where, how, and why they are feeling overwhelmed and overburdened,” says DiNardo.
But as with all specialised lingo, once the jargon moves out of an in-group and becomes recontextualised, the risk of misunderstanding increases. Wielding it in other environments can make room for both intentional and unintentional manipulation.
The tech industry, with its focus on rallying people around grand visions and self-actualisation, has been particularly susceptible. Hayley Leibson was 22 when she nabbed her dream job in product marketing at a small, buzzy Silicon Valley start-up back in 2016. The company was female founded and operated. It was also a place where it seemed like quoting your therapist and talking openly about the progress you were making in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) was a way to signal a kind of ambition. “It was an example of the constant self-optimisation you find in Silicon Valley,” says Leibson. “When employees said things like ‘I’m regulating my feelings to reach my goals,’ it showed, ‘I work on myself.’ ”
At Sorensen’s company, some executives used verbiage that suggested that they themselves were “a safe space” for employees, who could approach them with their troubles. But the juxtaposition of that kind of mental-health phrase and profit-driven corporate-speak about “KPIs” doesn’t always jibe. How can you trust people with your vulnerability when they could let you go tomorrow if the bottom line depended on it?
The misuse of diagnostic terminology can lead to what therapists call “catastrophizing.”
“One issue with the use or overuse of these terms in the workplace is that employers may use them to pay lip service,” says Suraji Wagage, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. Phrases like honoring needs and attachment styles may allow managers to appear concerned about the well-being of their employees, but too often those words aren’t accompanied by any action to support them or, worse, are used to cover for workplace cultures that are actually hostile.
For Shannon, 26, who worked as a middle school social-studies teacher in Arizona during the pandemic, “self-care” messaging can feel empty when people are doing jobs in which they risk their health every day for no increase in pay, benefits, or flexibility. “How are people able to practice ‘self-care’ if they are systematically marginalised and low-income?” she says.
Leibson now runs her own start-up. As a founder herself, she says she has become particularly attuned to the way that some of her peers occasionally use therapy-speak in an attempt to reframe power dynamics and avoid accountability, taking to Instagram after layoffs to express how “triggering” or “depressing” it was for them. “In some cases, these founders are using this language to try to signal they have empathy, their company cares about mental health, and their employees are valued,” she says. “But they are completely missing the mark.”
Therapy-speak can sometimes be used to advocate for the well-being of the corporation, as if the business itself is a living, breathing organism with feelings. “They might say the competition ‘did something triggering’ so that employees would work over the weekend to get ahead,” says Leibson.
The consequences of inaccurate mental-health rhetoric are also real. Practicing therapists have detected an uptick in patients self-diagnosing psychological disorders based on ideas gleaned from TikTok and Instagram, which has made their clinical work more challenging. Wagage explains that diagnosing and treating people with OCD, PTSD, depression, and other disorders has been harder as clients often arrive with only “inaccurate, sometimes insulting stereotypes” about what those terms mean. The misuse of diagnostic terminology can lead to what therapists call “catastrophising”—that is, “imagining yourself having more or worse problems than you actually do,” says David Ludden, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Word usages evolve all the time, including mental-health terms—dozens of which have gone on “mainstreaming” journeys before. Even the word stress, as it relates to human physiology and psychology, appeared almost exclusively in academic literature for several decades before it seeped into popular vernacular in the 1970s. No matter what the dictionary, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or employee handbook might say, according to linguists like Wright, everyone’s intuitions about words are valid. “There is no ‘right’ way to use language,” she says. And, thus, no wrong way. If a coworker feels like “dissociative” is the best way to sum up an experience at work, no one can really say otherwise.
However, as individuals, we can choose to be more mindful of our own approach to therapy-speak—to pause and ask ourselves what our goals are when using it. If a situation feels toxic, might finding more specific language to articulate why help you organise your thoughts and strategise a path forward (or out)? Describing things with more straightforward nouns and verbs—and less buzzwordy adjectives—may offer more genuine clarity.
Many scholars are optimistic about what rises in therapy-speak say about the future of mental-health attitudes in the U.S. There are growing pains, certainly, but the mainstreaming of therapy-speak may be a sign overall of more human times.
As Wright puts it, “The world may be on fire, but we’re finally talking about how that makes us feel.”