Therapy-speak is our collective emotional language
Boundaries, narcissism, trauma, anxious, manic, neurotic, so OCD—it seems impossible to escape therapy-speak these days. Earlier this year, The New Yorker dedicated an issue to therapy, observing, “The language of the therapist’s office percolates in our everyday conversations.” They’re right—therapy-speak is our collective emotional language. Though it can be used in problematic ways, our goal should be to use the language of therapy as a way to give expression to our values rather than avoid the language of emotionality and growth.
Academic and clinical psychology have always impacted how we communicate emotional experiences
If we look a bit closer at the so-called “everyday language” of our emotional lives, we discover that academic and clinical psychology have always impacted how we speak about our lives. Psychological language actually predates psychology—we’ve always wanted to talk about emotions and relationships. The earliest Greek philosophers (an assignation used much more broadly at the time to describe those who pondered the big questions of existence and the universe) were as consumed with psychology as they were with ontology or epistemology.
In the contemporary era, psychology has long been among the most popular college majors (and not nearly all with that major go on to become psychologists). Notably, psychology is the most common undergraduate major for people who work in advertising. In this way, psychology simultaneously influences and is influenced by popular culture. Like art, it both describes and informs culture.
The language of therapy and culture exist together in a feedback loop
The language of therapy both borrows from and transforms everyday language in a continual feedback loop. Of course, this language shifts and evolves over time. We can forget that there was a time when people didn’t describe themselves as “anxious” or “stressed.” There was also a period when “manic” was an obscure term and not a way people would refer to themselves when feeling nervous and rushing out the door. “I’m so OCD” would never have been said before the 1990s, nor would, “Don’t be so hyper” be a put-down before the 1980s.
Likewise, there are instances where the culture influences therapy such as with trauma. The language of trauma existed with prominence in psychiatry in the aftermath of the Vietnam War but grew dramatically in usage following 9/11 (and perpetuated by the escalation of the American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq). 9/11 was the most significant loss of life on US soil in modern history and took place at the center of American capitalism. Neoliberalism ruled the day, informing not only our cultural response to the World Trade Center attacks but also how the US government chose to lay out a plan for compensating victims. Trauma quickly became a commodity and psychotherapy followed suit with a vast expansion of the scope of what was defined as trauma, an increase in “trauma therapies,” and a reinforcement of the language of trauma in culture.
Therapy-speak can be a way of evoking (moral) authority
Therapy has trended in and out of favor since its inception. Through COVID, therapy has been having an upswing that is accompanied by a kind of moralism about therapy itself. Going to therapy is related to, in many social contexts, in the manner that attending church was in the post-war period (and still is in much of the United States). It has been, not surprisingly, also accompanied by the moral framing of the church: Going to therapy isn’t just something one does to improve oneself or work through pain or underdevelopment; it’s about becoming a better person for others.
Quoting therapy-speak has become the equivalent of quoting scripture. Moral authority can be used as a substitute for the difficult work of building relationships where values are co-created or discovered to be misaligned.
We should see therapy-speak as a tool to help us give expression to our values
Rather than deciding that therapy-speak is to be avoided altogether, we should consider exactly how we’re making use of this language. We should ask ourselves: What are we using it for? Is it helping us to communicate, deepen relationships, and express our emotional experiences? Or does it perpetuate harmful habits, excuses, or denial?
The same language can be used for both. For instance, the language of boundaries can both help someone see and express limits, as well as grapple with and then, articulate their desire for autonomy and independence. However, employed dogmatically, the very same language can indulge a desire to skip over the hard parts of working through challenging moments in intimate relationships.
The key here is to start by examining values: What kind of life do we want to live? What kind of world do we want to bring into being? How do we value intimacy versus autonomy? Judgment versus acceptance? Fixed categories of understanding versus flexible and creative ways of receiving one another? The questions that follow ought to be thinking about language as a set of tools: What tools help us give expression to our values?