Convinced that the blind date you went on last week had all the signs of a classic narcissist? Wondering if your boss is gaslighting you, crossing boundaries or simply being a jerk?
With the amount of “therapy speak” tossed around every day on both the internet and in real life, it’s hard to figure out what exactly people mean when they use these terms.
First things first — therapy is absolutely an integral part of self-care and healthcare, so this is in no way meant to minimize or mock the admirable (and often difficult) process of bettering yourself. This is about getting a clearer understanding of terms that are commonly misused.
“I love that we're talking about psychology, and we're being more psychologically minded in pop culture,” says Dr. Tuesday Burns, psychiatrist and clinical associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine. “We want these terms and this kind of knowledge to be accessible to everyone — especially when it allows for conversation and curiosity.”
But, Burns notes, things can get problematic when terms are used as a way of shutting others down, manipulating them or to dodge the actual self-work that therapy is meant to encourage.
Popular mental health terms that are being misused
So, what are some of these terms that people are throwing around? Here are some common ones:
"One that stands out to me and really causes my hackles to go up is when folks use the term manic — like, 'I was so manic the other day’,” says Burns.
The term is sometimes used by people to describe feelings of agitation or anxiety — or even just high energy.
“A true manic episode is related to bipolar illness,” explains Burns. “People who experience an episode can have periods of time where they're acting out of character, not sleeping, taking risks and doing impulsive things that lead to outcomes that trigger guilt and shame.”
Which is quite a bit different (and much more disabling) than just having a day when you get a lot done or are more irritable.
On the spectrum
People declaring themselves “on the spectrum,” or putting that label on others as a way of being disparaging, is also on Burns’ list. With this reference, folks are usually referring to autism spectrum disorder and the specific behaviors that go along with that.
It’s true that people can feel a real connection with some elements of neurodivergence — feeling different than people around you, misunderstanding social cues or having sensory differences. But it’s a big leap to go from feeling a kinship with a group of people to diagnosing yourself with an actual disorder.
And when others try to label people as “on the spectrum” to be offensive, that can be seen as trivializing the real disorder.
Burns says that while she’s supportive of finding explanations for actions or feelings that are grounded in science and that make people feel empowered — that’s only the first step. She encourages folks to not stop doing the work just because they feel like they’ve discovered an “answer.”
When it comes to personality disorders, such as narcissism and borderline, Burns has similar reservations.
“Technically speaking, to really diagnose a personality disorder, a person must demonstrate long-standing character traits and certain ways of navigating the world and relationships — things that aren’t clear after just having a brief interaction, like a bad date.”
True Cluster B disorders — the specific group that narcissistic and borderline personality disorders fall into — come with functional impairment, difficulty managing emotions, impulsive behaviors and lack of empathy. They also come with a lot of pain and hurt for the person and their loved ones, plus the need for treatment. So, they’re not something you should casually call a selfish friend or a terrible boss.
One of the more common terms you’ll see on social media is gaslighting — when someone tries to manipulate and control another person by making them feel like they can’t trust their own memory, perception or even their own mental stability. For example: someone trying to convince you that you’re remembering an event wrong, that they never said that thing you know they said or downplaying your feelings about something important.
Though gaslighting is not necessarily a clinical term, it has become a favorite pop culture buzzword that refers to mental health. It’s also a form of abuse and should be treated as such and not used for more benign interactions.
For Patrick Raue, PhD, a professor and clinical psychologist at UW Medical Center — Roosevelt, “trauma” is a word that often gets used for many adverse life experiences or difficult situations instead of a truly traumatic experience.
“These distinctions are very important from a mental health and treatment perspective. Life stresses and adverse events can certainly be challenging and can lead to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety,” says Raue, “but trauma refers to life-threatening experiences and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.”
When someone with PTSD is “triggered” by a certain sound, sight or smell, they may vividly relive an actual life-threatening experience through flashbacks or nightmares. But people also commonly use the word “trigger” for less intense situations or stresses that bring back emotions from the past.
Raue explains that sometimes people use this word to blame others for their reactions versus taking personal responsibility and doing the work to better themselves.
Though being toxic isn’t exactly a mental disorder, there are often underlying mental problems that can contribute to toxic behaviors in people. A toxic individual usually refers to someone who is self-centered, emotionally draining to those around them and demanding of attention.
Toxic is often also used as a descriptor for someone who is being mildly unpleasant or annoying, which is problematic if the term is simply used as an excuse or a label that allows you to cut someone off and not deal with the actual problem.
Boundaries is another term being used more and more. Boundaries are the guidelines for what you consider acceptable behaviors, and they help others understand how to interact with you.
However, this term can get weaponized when people use “boundaries” as a way to control others. For example: a man telling his female partner that it would be “disrespecting his boundaries“ for her to have male friends. In those situations, the concept of setting boundaries is actually a way of infringing on someone else’s life and decisions — which is not cool.
Why are people throwing these terms around so much?
The use (and overuse) of these terms seems to come down to the desire to have clear answers to the messiness that’s experienced in day-to-day life.
Burns explains that there is some validation that comes from figuring out just why your life may feel so hard. But she emphasizes that you have to take the next step and not stop the conversation.
“I’m all for the validation, and I’m all for accessibility to this terminology, but let’s be accurate and let’s be ready to do something about it, so that we can really see improvements in our quality of life and give more to the world,” she says.