Picture the scene: you’re messaging an old friend to hang out after not seeing them for a few months, when, in response to your enquiry about plans, you’re met with a carefully crafted message. Your relationship is requiring more ‘emotional labour’ than she can ‘hold space for’ right now. The friendship is no longer ‘serving her’. And in response, she’s ‘setting a boundary’. If you’re remotely online, then this HRification of language colloquially known as therapy-speak will be all too familiar. Perhaps you’ve even been the friend deploying it with good intentions. But for those who haven’t yet fallen down the rabbit hole on TikTok known as ‘TherapyTok’, therapy-speak is an unofficial term used to describe language you might learn in therapy that illustrates psychological ideas and actions, says Arianna Brandolini, a clinical psychologist and content creator. Think: ‘trauma dumping’ or ‘gaslighting’.
The recent popularisation of therapy-speak isn’t necessarily bad; it’s more an accidental side effect of positive societal evolution. As the stigma around therapy dissipates, people feel more comfortable sharing the therapeutic phrases in peer-to-peer conversations that they’ve learned during sessions, says Jessi Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University. The tricky part comes when therapy-goers attempt to use this language without the guidance of a trained mental health professional.
Thanks to social media, even those who don’t have access to therapy can reap some of its benefits by simply engaging with content that discusses these psychological concepts, says Shadeen Francis, a sex and relationship therapist specialising in emotional intelligence. When you look at TherapyTok, for example, it’s made up largely of licensed professionals sharing therapeutic concepts and helpful scripts online. While their intention is to equip a wide audience with free tools, they can’t control how those insights are applied when, instead of speaking to an individual patient, they’re communicating with thousands of video viewers.
And this self-help shorthand has the potential to do harm. "A lot of people use it to justify bad behaviour or for their own selfish desires," says Dr Brandolini. "Slapping official words on things, especially if people don’t really understand what the word means, can be destabilising for the other person as well as your relationship with them." Plus, employing therapy-speak improperly can backfire.
By tossing around these terms, "we can incorrectly pathologise ourselves, our relationships and our interactions in ways that can be hurtful to the other person, could be unhelpful in our getting better and can even worsen our feelings", says Dr Gold. Take gaslighting, for instance. People often misunderstand the term and, as a result, misuse it in tense situations where they just don’t agree with another person’s perspective. By wrongly labelling someone’s actions as gaslighting, you may automatically shut down the conversation, which prevents resolution, says Dr Brandolini.
All things considered, experts do agree that the adoption of this language–both online and off has mostly been positive. Going to therapy offers a healthy way of understanding our lived experiences in order to better our relationship with ourselves and other people, so it’s difficult to argue against its expanded accessibility and usage. The goal of language has always been to bring people together and therapy-speak is no exception. But it’s all about using this language in the correct way. With that in mind, experts share the right ways to talk the talk.
"If you can’t explain a word, you shouldn’t be using it, plain and simple," says Dr Gold. Before having a conversation with a friend about how you feel you’re engaging in an unfair amount of ‘emotional labour’, which, FYI, means managing your feelings to fulfil the emotional requirements of a situation, you first need to understand that concept yourself. Do your own research, especially if you picked this term up on the internet, says Francis. Read a few studies or articles, or even a book or two on the concept (chances are you’ll learn the proper definition for even more therapy-speak in the process). Ultimately, you want to feel confident not only in your comprehension of the concept itself, but in your ability to explain how it applies to your own experiences, says Dr Brandolini.
BE CLEAR ON YOUR GOALS
Think about what you want to get out of a heavy discussion that addresses an issue in the relationship before you enter into it, says Dr Brandolini. Perhaps you were hurt by certain words or behaviours and want the other person to acknowledge that hurt before moving forwards, or you need clarity on where you stand. After establishing your ‘why’, it’ll be easier for you to decide what you’d like to do differently, how the other person could adapt their behaviour to support you and how you want things to change in the future, says Francis.
DURING THE CONVERSATION EXPLAIN THE CONCEPT TO THE OTHER PERSON
People assume everyone knows what they’re talking about when they’re using terms they know, but just like how you might translate modern slang or internet-speak for your parents, you have to define these psychological concepts for people who aren’t in therapy, says Dr Gold. And in the same way you might use a pop-culture reference to explain what a ‘slay’ is, an easy way to begin this conversation is by mentioning something you read or saw that strongly resonated with you. For example, you could say, 'I was reading this article and it made me think about our relationship. Can you read this and let me know what you think about it?’ or, ‘This term cameup in a conversation with a friend and I really related to it. I’d like to talk about it at some point, if you’d be happy to?’
This stands for fact, feeling, and fair request, and it can help you let go of your defences. Dr Brandolini uses it to help people point out what happened, how it made them feel and how to communicate their feelings. Rather than vilifying your partner for leaving dishes in the sink, you may say, ‘I’m feeling dismissed about the dishes. When you don’t make an effort in our household, it makes me feel like you don’t view me as an equal. Can you try to do the dishes from time to time?’
AS YOU END THE CONVERSATION DO A CHECK-IN
The goal of communication is finding common ground, so "after you’ve said your piece, ask if they understand what you’re trying to communicate", says Dr Brandolini. You want to make sure the other person can understand where you’re coming from. Simply ask, ‘Does this make sense to you?’ If they say yes, then follow up with, ‘What do you think about it?’ But if they respond with ‘no’, try sharing ‘real-life examples that directly relate to both of your experiences’, says Dr Brandolini. Translating complex ideas into familiar scenarios makes them much easier to grasp than just repeating a textbook definition. But beware of examples drawn from the other person’s actions if you come off as blaming or shaming, it can make the chat unproductive, says Dr Brandolini.
REITERATE YOUR REASON
Unless you’re completely cutting this person out of your life, it’s a good idea to reinforce why you’re having this talk with them in the first place. "A lot of times, people say, 'I want to tell you how I feel', but they don’t think to say, 'This isn’t about blaming you. I care about this relationship more than anything and want to hear how you feel, too'," says Dr Brandolini. Often, these discussions arise because one (or both) of you feel slightly disconnected, so reminding the other person of your love for them makes hard conversations easier to bear. That way, they know you’re not trying to cut them out, you’re hoping to lift the relationship up.
The trick that works for any charged chat
Everyone brings their emotional baggage to tough conversations, but practising mutuality—which means recognising that the baggage exists and tapping into empathy—can help you carry the load together. Get curious about each other’s lived experiences and be willing to negotiate a more mutually satisfying relationship, says Francis. That’s when the magic happens. Suddenly, ‘this person’s wants and needs become as important as your own—you become a team,’ says Dr Brandolini. So remind yourself to focus on mutuality when the chat gets intense; it’s another way of trying your best not to get defensive or close yourself off to bridging this connection.
What it means to ‘hold space’
When someone asks you to ‘hold space’ for them, they want you to engage with their experience without input or judgment, says Dr Brandolini. It’s not about problem-solving, it’s about just listening. "It’s what a therapist is really doing," adds Dr Gold. If you want to request space be held, say, ‘I’m going to tell you something. I don’t want you to try to fix it. I just want you to be there’.
This piece originally appeared in the November 2023 print edition of Women's Health UK.