therapy terms

Terminology from psychology books or therapists’ offices has increasingly made its way into everyday conversations, both across the internet and in person. “Therapy-speak,” as it’s being called, refers to prescriptive language describing psychological behaviors and concepts. The term is new, but the concept isn’t. You might also know it as “psychobabble.” Many of these therapy-speak terms have taken on a life of their own on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Some people apply the clinical jargon incorrectly because they don’t understand some of the nuances or complexities.

Others weaponize these words as a way to avoid responsibility, shut down thorny conversations, or control others. The fact that talking openly about therapy and mental health has been normalized to this degree is good. However, misusing these terms can have negative effects. Here are some therapy terms that most people misuse.


According to experts, gaslighting is one of the most commonly misused therapy terms. It’s a manipulative tactic, typically seen in abusive relationship dynamics, where one person gradually makes the other question their memories, emotions, judgment, and reality to maintain the upper hand in the relationship. According to New York City therapist Keanu Jackson, it’s a serious issue with major psychological consequences, so people should understand its true meaning. Still, these days, some people are too quick to put a “gaslighter” label on anyone who disagrees with their perspective.

If one partner sees something from a different point of view, that doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting you. Sometimes, behaviors that are labeled gaslighting are genuine misunderstandings, disagreements, or typical relationship conflicts.


In therapy, trauma describes the deeply disturbing or distressing experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, typically involving a threat of harm to life and limb or harm. It can lead to long-lasting psychological, emotional and physical effects. However, in therapy-speak, trauma is usually applied more liberally to describe any challenging situation. Relatedly, the term trauma bonding is used inaccurately. In reality, it refers to a phenomenon where deep emotional attachments form between an abuser and a victim as a result of enduring cycles of traumatic, intense abuse or experiences followed by positive reinforcement.

This manipulation tactic rests on an imbalance of power within the relationship. This is quite different from the way you typically see trauma bonding discussed on social media. On the internet, it’s used to describe two people connecting over a shared challenging experience, like going through a divorce or working for a tough boss.


According to clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla, a trigger is something that sets off a robust emotional reaction, typically related to distressing experiences or past trauma. A trigger can take someone out of the present moment and take their mind to the past, leading them to reexperience the trauma and its aftermath. For example, someone who lived through a house fire could experience a panic attack or flashback when they hear a fire alarm beeping or smell smoke. Now, people often use triggered in everyday conversations as a way to describe a situation that provokes a negative reaction, however mild. People typically misuse the term and say they’re triggered by ordinary experiences that they simply don’t like. Some people might say they’re triggered as a tactic to finish a conversation. It’s often used to get someone else to stop talking about a subject simply because they don’t want to address the issue.


Setting boundaries is about honoring your needs, not about controlling someone else’s behavior. You might remember the alleged text messages between Jonah Hill and his ex-girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, that she posted on Instagram. In the messages, he asked her to stop surfing with men and posting bathing suit pictures online, among other things, under the guise of respecting his boundaries for romantic relationships.

Boundaries are meant to set limits on what you’re personally willing to tolerate or do. It’s something that you have to figure out for yourself, not something you can force others to comply with. For example, let’s say you’re an early riser who’s in a relationship with a night owl. Your boundary could be that you decline social plans that start after 8 p.m. so you can go to bed at a decent time, but telling your partner they can’t either is more of a rule than a healthy boundary.


You can find discussions about narcissism everywhere these days, but there’s an essential distinction to be made between having narcissistic qualities, which everyone does to varying degrees, and meeting the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissism is typically used to describe anyone who is confident, assertive, or disliked. Someone might refer to their ex as a narcissist, citing it as why they broke up, when in reality, they may have simply had a difference of opinions. Colloquially, narcissism has become a catchall to describe someone you don’t like. Therapists don’t refer to people as narcissists. Instead, they discuss someone who has narcissistic personality disorder.

The problem with using therapy speak.

Part of the issue with using these clinical terms casually is that it projects an air of superiority that puts you above someone who might not be as familiar with the language you’re using. Therapy-speak can be a way for someone to try and elevate themselves above others by acting like they have a better understanding of psychology, social interactions, and human behavior, which can be harmful to the health of the relationship. People may struggle to connect with you if they think you’re going to respond with therapy speak or that you’re going to tell them that they’re communicating incorrectly.

Most people don’t want to be corrected repeatedly, analyzed or given a warning about their behavior. Over time, this can create misinformed relationship dynamics with the people in your life, leading to increased conflict or isolation. When talking to your friends or loved ones, try not to use therapy speak, but if you feel you need to, do so appropriately.

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