The trouble with ‘therapy speak’.
Looking for a “safe space”? Feeling “triggered”? Need to “work on your boundaries”?
In this era of widespread therapy, it's evident that therapeutic language has transcended the therapist's couch and entered our everyday conversations.
This comes as no surprise when I consider what a whirlwind the past few years have been. We’ve endured a global pandemic, witnessed scenes of unconscionable pain and heartbreak, all while trying to keep our heads above water in a climate of colossal price hikes, political hubris, and widespread ecological emergency. Despite our best efforts to “keep calm and carry on”, it has been an unsettling and overwhelming experience.
More and more of us are turning to therapy as a means to make sense of all this .In 2021, record numbers of people in the UK were referred to the NHS talking therapy program, with roughly 1 in 8 adults seeking some form of mental health treatment. However, it's essential to acknowledge that accessing these services isn't always straightforward. NHS waiting lists for mental health care have reached unprecedented lengths, as our healthcare system, which is barely holding on, grapples with the overwhelming demand.
As multifaceted individuals navigating increasingly digital lives, we find ourselves seeking clear-cut labels for problematic behaviours. Consequently, the language of therapy is being employed out of its original context, often in non-clinical settings online, before swiping right to the next experience. This seems to have inculcated a culture of therapy click bait, where we're too quick to diagnose relational dynamics as “toxic” and pathologise behaviours that might actually be quite commonplace. Indeed, this trend might inadvertently cause more harm than good.
Psychological concepts such as trauma, co-dependency, attachment styles, and mental health disorders like narcissism and OCD are seeping into everyday conversation. What were once referred to as "stresses," "upsets," or "challenges" are increasingly labelled as "traumas," a term that has expanded rapidly in recent decades. Similarly, we often describe something as "toxic" when it's merely unpleasant rather than genuinely harmful, thus exaggerating its negative impact.
This doesn't mean that traumatic experiences and genuinely unpleasant individuals or situations don't exist. Instead, in this current therapeutic climate, people might have lowered their threshold for identifying experiences as traumatic or toxic. Pinpointing the exact origins of this adoption of therapy language is challenging. Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, calls this phenomenon “concept creep”. A concept has crept when it’s used to describe a wider range of experiences than it used to.
This linguistic shift may partly reflect a broader shift in societal values, moving away from material prosperity toward emotional well-being. This shift signifies changing attitudes toward therapy, increased curiosity about mental health, and a growing willingness to openly discuss and express emotions. And this may be linked to broader societal changes. Some argue that as parts of society become safer and less exposed to adversity, our resilience toward even minor instances of harm diminishes.
People are increasingly concerned with minimising suffering and maltreatment. This trend is evident in movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which aim to reduce harm to marginalised communities and challenge the way we relate to one another. While these shifts represent positive developments, they also reveal the collective suffering we wish to avoid.
The growing embrace of therapy, therefore, marks a commendable, perhaps even vital trend. Therapy not only serves as a lifeline during difficult times but also carves out a sanctuary for personal evolution and self-discovery. Increasing numbers of people are becoming comfortable with the idea of exploring themselves and striving for self-improvement.
The surge in the use of therapeutic language mirrors this encouraging societal transformation. However, it's important to note that while words may come cheap, therapy itself is not. If access to professional therapy remains out of reach for the moment, it's vital to make the most of the linguistic tools available to you.
And yet, it's crucial to recognise that not everyone is an expert. The casual use of psychological concepts and the misapplication of terms like trauma and narcissism may have unintended negative consequences. Accordingly, I wish to see the use of therapeutic language in everyday conversations approached with greater care and responsibility.