Collage: Natalie Moreno
Hearing people spouting off about ‘toxic’ this and ‘narcissistic’ that makes me feel trapped in my own private metaverse, like a pixellated perpetual adolescence ruled over by ‘wellbeing coaches’ trained solely through their For You pages. Yes, it’s also annoying to complain. Worse, I'm often guilty of the same toxic trait. ‘Therapy speak’: terrible, unless I’m doing it.
Self-help jargon is quite simply addictive, and it seems to be everywhere. Complex topics such as trauma, coercive control, mental health diagnosis and sobriety trend on social media amongst experts and laypersons alike. The news covers psychedelic-assisted therapy and Jonah Hill’s leaked texts. But is this rapid mainstreaming of clinical terminology actually helping anyone? What are people really trying to say? I found some very un-online therapists to give me advice on my ick for therapy speak, the difference between boundaries and control, and which way to swipe on ‘in therapy’ honeys on Hinge.
When we use terms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to talk about everyday emotions, it’s often hugely lacking in nuance – hence, clangers like someone calling themselves “a little bit OCD”. According to Stephen Joseph, a psychotherapist and the author of Think Like A Therapist, people often use these labels as if the problems are ‘within’ the person, overlooking the impact of their social environment. But he actually looks on the bright side: If you know someone is using labels in good faith and happens to have made a rookie error, he says, it’s fine to let it go. “Whenever you start learning a new thing, such as riding a bicycle or driving a car, you do it clumsily at first. So it's worth being patient if someone is genuinely beginning to learn some of this language.”
How to respond when friends misuse labels like 'toxic' and 'narcissistic'
Julia Coakes is a clinical psychologist in Leeds, and when she hears therapy speak like ‘toxic’, she, too, takes a soft approach. “I would start with curiosity,” she says. “The best way to be warm and empathetic is to say something like, ‘That's really interesting. I wonder what makes you say that?’ The important thing in this conversation is not whether someone meets the criteria for whatever label or not, but how is this person making your friend feel?”Still, that’s not to say these terms don’t matter, and Coakes warns against using language without knowing its history. She gives an example from Unmasking Autism in which the author explains that part of the reason the ‘Asperger’s’ diagnosis is now no longer used is because of revelations about its namesake’s connections to Nazi eugenics programs.Unlike his colleagues, Rotimi Akinsete, a therapist and the author of This Book Could Help, tends to be more direct. Because of his job, he’s used to people seeking validation for using psychological (and pseudo-psychological) jargon about people they know. “I would always be asking questions, like, ‘What do you mean by that? What are you looking for when you ask me to confirm or clarify what this person might be like in my own eyes?’ And that's not just in my client work but also in my personal relationships.”
So he’s upfront about it. “If I’m not willing to validate them, then I will say so,” he says. “Validating someone else’s view when I don’t understand or agree with them is not fair on them or on the person they're trying to get me to comment on – certainly not.”
In Jonah Hill’s much-discussed texts to his ex about ‘boundaries’, it was clear that his overreach into her life was in fact an attempt at control. Joseph and Coakes are clear that boundaries can only really cover your own shit. “People can only set boundaries around themselves,” he explains.Boundaries may be flexible, Coakes adds, as long as both parties can recognise that flexibility as a gift. “Healthy boundaries should be noticed when crossed,” she says, “and crossed with an acknowledgement that we won't be doing this regularly. If you ask someone else to do something, it becomes a request rather than a boundary. And if you ask someone to do something and it's not a request, we're moving into controlling behaviour.” Any kind of boundary is fine with both therapists – Joseph even goes as far as to clarify that it extends to going no-contact. “So long as you can give a reasonable authentic justification for the boundary, I would say it is probably healthy,” Coakes adds.
What to do when someone weaponises their 'boundaries'
On the flip side, she acknowledges that respecting boundaries can feel particularly difficult for people who’ve experienced major rejections or abandonment. “If you've had a history, somebody setting a line and saying, say, ‘Please don't call me after 10 PM’ can feel like another abandonment.” If this is you or someone you know, one solution is just plenty of communication (i.e., why, when, and whether it’s OK to break into their house instead).
In case it needs to be spelled out, being ‘in therapy’ says absolutely nothing about your worth as a partner. On its own, it's neither good nor bad for the relationship. Some people may even be using it as date bait. For Akinsete, you should judge potential partners on actions, not words. “If somebody is embarking on a relationship (or in one already), green flags are that the person will be taking some good care of their own physical and mental health and have some concern for the person that they're in relationship with, too,” he says. “You don't have to be in therapy to have a good relationship.” He says work-life balance is obviously another good one to watch for (something his book covers). Joseph agrees. “What really matters is kindness and compassion – that's what we want,” he says. “And if we want to get it, we've got to keep being one of the people in the world who gives it to others.” Sounds codependent, but OK.