Annabele Charles and a close friend were chatting about an upcoming birthday party, for which Charles had offered to cook. The friend dismissed the idea, feeling it would be stressful for Charles. Later, a text message arrived about an increase in the party guests, which Charles mentioned to her friend. “She misinterpreted this as me complaining about the party after agreeing to cook for it,” says Thrissur-based Charles. An ordinary discussion became heated, Charles emphasizing that she had not originally agreed to cook for this larger group. “My friend said that I was always gaslighting her into believing that she was misreading or mishearing my situation.”
Taken aback, Charles later looked up the definition of ‘gaslighting’ – a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group manipulates someone into doubting their own sanity or perception of reality. “It made me feel terrible about myself and whether I was guilty of gaslighting her. This incident brought my self-respect down, lower than usual,” says the 31-year-old contracts and budget analyst at a clinical research firm. Discussing it later, her friend apologized as she had been having a bad day and regretted saying something that “had such deep meaning.” While their friendship is intact, Charles is still hurting. “I absorb negative comments about myself, more than the positive, and it takes me a long time to heal.”
Her recent experience reflects the abundance of therapy-speak – authoritative language that describes psychological behaviour and concepts – used regularly around us. The internet provides easy access to mental health information. Terms like ‘narcissism’, ‘trauma’, ‘gaslighting’, and ‘toxic relationships’ crop up regularly in conversation. Also easily available is a glut of advice and scripted language to help in self-assertion, sometimes offered by mental health professionals, but often by non-experts on social media. However, non-professionals have a limited understanding of this vocabulary, sometimes misusing therapy-speak and incorrectly diagnosing behaviour, causing hurt and misunderstanding in the process.
The need to label everything
Arguably the main problem with using therapy-speak so casually is the fact that these terms describe complex behaviours with a range of symptoms, which mental health professionals are trained to diagnose. Using these out of context or without fully comprehending them, can hurt the receiver deeply and diminish those who are professionally diagnosed with these conditions.
“Thanks to technology, there is increased access to professional help and psychological literature on various mental health problems,” says Bengaluru-based psychologist and psychotherapist Lalpeki Ralte. But the problem with pop psychology is that there is often only a shallow grasp of these behaviours.
“Clients come for sessions stating these terms. While it is great that there is awareness, hopefully it is not watered down as these have psychological connotations.” Ralte cautions against casually throwing this language around, without completely understanding it. In a recent Instagram post, she highlights some terms – ‘narcissistic’, ‘toxic/trauma’, ‘obsessed’ and ‘narcissism’ – which have become “vapid with overuse.” Her post explains narcissism as a serious mental illness, trauma causing years of behavioural disorders, toxicity altering the way one functions in relationships, and being “obsessed” with something meaning going to any lengths to obtain it. “Calling someone a psychopath is a big no! If you’re not a qualified medical practitioner, this is a serious diagnosis for you to spread!” says Ralte in her post.
Dr. Madhura Samudra, psychiatrist and sex educator, in Pune agrees that labeling behaviour based on scant understanding of a condition is problematic. “Being aware of toxic traits in people can help you escape abusive patterns, traits and situations, but also make you paranoid about red flags,” she explains. “I would suggest assessing each situation individually. Give the benefit of the doubt when required, take a step back, and evaluate if this ‘toxic’ behaviour that you notice has always been there or is a sporadic occurrence based on valid reasons.”
Charles feels people resort to therapy-speak in stimulated situations, where the intention is to share opinions, but aggression thins out the patience to explain ourselves. “Then there is a tendency to hide behind this jargon, because we may be too afraid or angry to walk each other through the details of the incident, even though one knows that this labelling could be hurtful.” she says adding. “I feel therapy-speak should remain within the confines of therapy because therapists know the full diagnostic definition of these terms.”
Mind your language
Along with therapy-speak, you’ve probably read or heard examples of scripted messages of self-assertion. “I need to feel safe and valued and our friendship no longer offers me this, so I need to step away.” “I need to honour my needs and our relationship does not fit within this framework.” The problem with these rather cold and often clunkily worded templates is that the language and intention is often self-centred; insensitive to the other person; and dismisses discussion or opportunity to work through the issue.
But human relationships are messy, complicated and hard. They require work, open communication and more compassionate language, which a template often lacks. An approach which allows for discussion, and is sensitive to the other person, may be a kinder way of navigating challenging relationship dynamics. “Conflicts are natural in any relationship. To label each conflict or opposing behaviour as toxic is unfair to the other person,” says Samudra. “Boundary setting comes into the picture when behaviours are repeated, patterns are obvious, and the impact on your headspace is large. However, every single action cannot be dismissed as that will make your behaviour toxic under the pretext of self-care,” she notes.
Ditch the jargon
Therapy-speak can be useful in increasing awareness of various kinds of psychological behaviour, but it cannot be equated with comprehensive knowledge of these conditions. Using it indiscriminately, without a professional understanding, to label people can be insensitive and hurtful to them. Setting boundaries and asserting oneself when uncomfortable is good, but language couched in psychological terms and scripted from a template can lack consideration and dismiss the nuances of human relationships.
“I think we need to be aware that relationships will always be dynamic and fluid and they have to be worked on for sustainability and consistency,” says Ralte. There may certainly be displays of problematic behaviour that need to be addressed and harmful situations from which one needs to walk away. But it’s probably best to leave the actual diagnosis to the professionals.
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.