Discover more from The Shoulds by Francesca Specter
Issue #24: Everyone's talking about Therapy Speak, but what is it?
When he's fluent in attachment theory, but dumps you via text. Plus, why thought-stopping words are toxic, and the best jargon-free emotional education resources.
Sometimes I yearn for a simpler time. When relationships ended in person, via an awkward conversation in which you or they admitted to fancying someone else. When you and your school friend gradually stopped calling each other on your landlines, only to become close again when your life stages converged or you moved onto the same street. When your older relatives made tactless comments – but you just ignored it, rather than scheduling an intervention.
Now there’s a new way of navigating the world: and if you can’t keep up, you’re probably toxic. Enter: Therapy Speak, the language escaping the psychoanalyst’s sofa and making its way into mainstream culture. ‘Prescriptive language describing certain psychological concepts and behaviours’ has now become mainstream, according to a viral article published on Bustle, emerging ‘everywhere from group chats to dating apps’. It isn’t just an online phenomenon of course; you’ve no doubt heard at least one friend or younger cousin bring up attachment theory, or heard the discourse around gaslighting and The Ick on Love Island.
It’s about cutting out toxic friends and partners; navigating our anxious attachment styles; declaring burn-out. It’s getting triggered; doing the work; being in alignment. Therapy Speak has been the subject of several comment pieces over the past month, including the aforementioned Bustle piece; Refinery 29; and the New York Times. Granted, the discourse is being led by the US (two steps ahead of us in the therapy stakes), but its concerns could just as easily be posed on this side of the Atlantic: is Therapy Speak making us selfish/taking over dating/infecting the millennials & Gen Z (OK, that last one’s from the Daily Mail).
A double-edged sword
The thing is, I like Therapy Speak – the useful shorthand it provides for relationships, with myself and others. It feels good to practise a few hours of self-care at the weekend, and to have the words to justify it to myself and others. It’s empowering to communicate my boundaries if I don’t want to drink alcohol on a weeknight. As Angela Carter wrote, language is power.
However, that power can be wielded in multiple directions – and sometimes weaponised. Medicalised language has a tendency to ‘lift up the speaker’, observes Katy Waldman for the New Yorker (the same way, I guess, passionately listing a date’s ‘red flags’ or ‘icks’ to a friend might blindside us to our own flaws). This turns a ‘deeply relational, nuanced, contextual process’ into an ‘ego-directed’ interpretation, Lori Gottlieb tells the publication. In other words, you forget about the other person, disregarding their feelings.
Such was the criticism of a viral TikTok video shared this January by psychologist Dr Arianna Brandolini, captioned ‘Here is how you break up with a friend’, littered with phrases like, ‘season of friendship’ and ‘I don’t have capacity’. It reminds me of the time I got dumped via a meticulously-crafted text message, by a trainee psychotherapist. Rupert Murdoch’s recently-surfaced break-up email (!) to his unsuspecting fourth wife, Jerry Hall, is blissfully straightforward in comparison: ‘Jerry, sadly I’ve decided to call an end to our marriage. We have certainly had some good times, but I have much to do…’ See also the film The Banshees of Inisherin, in which (spoiler alert) Brendan Gleeson’s character, Colm, cuts off four of his own fingers to illustrate to Colin Farrell’s Pádraic how passionately he wants to end their ‘season of friendship’, because he finds him ‘dull’.
Like Colm, I dislike boring conversations. One-line text messages make me feel empty; performative chit-chat makes me want to cut off at least a toe or two; but the worst by far is the kind of reductive language that makes the world at large feel small. Therapy Speak, for all its conversation starter credentials, can fall into that category. Triggering, trauma, toxic – these all have the potential to be ‘thought-stopping words’, a term coined by Louis Theroux on his podcast Grounded, in the episode featuring Rose McGowan. The phrase emerges in relation to the word ‘cult’, which Louis considers:
‘A blunt instrument…a tabloid word that stops you from teasing out anything interesting. Once you’ve defined something as a cult how are you ever going to see anything good in it’.
It’s hard to argue with a ‘toxic friend’ verdict; equally, when someone diagnoses their dad with ‘textbook narcissism’, it renders it basically impossible to point out their more redeeming qualities (even if you secretly suspect the problem is more that they’re ‘triggering’ to your friend). If less black and white language were used, you might consider it your role as the interlocutor to give a balanced response – rather than fall mute.
The law of ‘Don’t be a dick’
I wonder if some of these words are not only thought-stopping, but empathy-blocking too. Like the ugly sister of people-pleasing, Therapy Speak offers a self-justifying means to disappoint & dump at will, without consideration for the other person. And besides the moral implications of that (because one trap of Therapy Speak is to fall into ‘moral righteousness’, observes writer), it surely can’t be all that good for us. Much like how Tinkerbell dies when you say you don’t believe in fairies, perhaps a little part of our faith – in dating, love, friendship – erodes when we write off another member of the human race.
Cancelling last minute on a friend; dehumanising a romantic interest we once liked very much; casually diagnosing Mum or Dad with a psychological disorder often feels bad because, as my own mother might say, it isn’t very nice. While we do need to think of ourselves, and obviously in specific scenarios our actions might be justified, a healthy emotional outlook involves weighing up the feelings of others, too. It’s not enough to be emotionally-literate in your own emotions if you can’t do the same for others. Marisa G. Franco (a past Alonement podcast guest) suggests considering the role of ‘mutuality’ when it comes to Therapy Speak, which involves ‘thinking about the other person’s needs and your needs at the same time, and deciding which are more urgent to prioritise at the moment.’
Mutuality seems like a useful policy. To take one example, social arrangements. If we all said no to each other, or flaked at last minute because it’s raining, etc – as those memes about the joy of cancelling plans would lead you to believe is a genius idea – then the world would be a lonely place indeed. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta show up.
Very Online People
On a side note, it’s worth acknowledging that the Therapy Speak discourse is strongest amongst Chronically Online people, defined as those who spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet, their worldview shaped by it as a natural consequence. Perhaps, rather than asserting our boundaries most firmly via text (and trading viral templates on how to do it), we need to apply to Therapy Speak the same safeguarding we do around cyber-trolling: if you wouldn’t say it to my face, don’t say it online.
I imagine this would create a more natural, less dogmatic justification (who could enumerate a date’s ‘red flags’ in person without adding the inevitable caveats?). Secondly, because an in-person interaction at least acknowledges the existence of another person – moving away from the ‘ego-centric’ trap, and enabling a two-way discourse. While journalism isn’t always celebrated for its ethics, my early training taught me that subjects should always be given the right to reply. Should we not extend the same courtesy in our interpersonal interactions (accounting for obvious exceptions where it might not feel safe to do so)? We’re able to accept online conversations are a poor simulacrum for the real deal, so why treat it as an appropriate space to fire out our psychobabble missives?
‘Holding space’ for Therapy Speak
I am, somewhat, playing the Devil’s Advocate. I mean, I wrote a self-help book. I interview psychologists on a regular basis. I coined a whole word to describe the self-actualising, healing process that is alonement – something I factor into every single day of my life. I welcome the normalisation of therapeutic language into mainstream culture; the democratisation of a vocabulary once reserved to a select few at £100 a session. I celebrate the intersection of two of my favourite things – emotional intelligence and language – that Therapy Speak represents.
I also recognise the ignorance of tarring this vocabulary with the same brush, just because it’s challenging or unfamiliar (Author Ashley C. Ford writes, ‘Some of y’all use “therapy speak” like conservatives use “woke”. You know how it’s clear that word is an umbrella term for whatever they don’t like? Yeah like that.’). I’m aware of the scientific literature backing emotional discourse: the 2007 study that found ‘naming’ our negative emotions (sadness, anger, pain) makes them feel less intense; that broadening your vocabulary of positive emotional expression can improve your wellbeing.
So, do I get to criticise Therapy Speak at the same time? Of course I do! It’s my fucking newsletter. Beyond that – I believe that to value something is to be its critic, too. Which is why I’ve proposed, in writing this week’s newsletter, my ‘Middle Way’ – a boundary for asserting our emotional boundaries in moderation.
As a writer, I know all too well the temptation to hide our gross human feelings – vulnerability, fear of rejection, the confrontation of one’s own faults – behind language; in fact, it’s my drug of choice. Yet, in a world where we’re fluent in attachment theory, childhood trauma and co-dependency, I fear the rule of ‘just don’t be a dickhead’ has fallen to the wayside. The bounty of words could be replaced by a more simple phrase: Am I being kind? Or even the wordless feedback you get, deep down in your gut (does this feel good?)
Let me stress: emotional literacy is great. In fact, if my close friends have one thing in common, it’s that very quality. But I also value experiencing other humans in their clumsy, putting-their-foot-in-it, self-contradictory wholeness - their imperfections permitting and excusing my own. It’s messier, scarier, and there are no online templates for how to behave. But it’s also, to borrow a preferred term from Therapy Speak, authentic – and the only real route to intimacy.
Looking for a jargon-free emotional education? Step right this way for my recommended links, podcasts & literature…
📺 The School of Life’s YouTube channel: Written & narrated by founder Alain de Botton and boasting 905 videos, this channel offers a soothing emotional education grounded in the theories of the likes of Donald Winnicott, together with Classical insights from Plato & the Stoics, in refreshingly Therapy Speak free language.
🎧 Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel: Besides the fact I could listen to this Belgian-American psychotherapist’s voice forever, I’m also a fan of the no-BS advice she gives to the real-life couples during this series of one-off, anonymous counselling sessions.
🔗 ‘When does self-awareness become unhelpful?’ by Haley Nahman: As ever, I adored this wise answer to a reader prompt from the Maybe Baby newsletter writer (who also published a weekly agony aunt column).
‘The outcome matters. The point at which self-awareness becomes less helpful, in my opinion, is when it ceases to concern what you actually do. In the same way thinking can spiral into rumination, self-awareness can spiral into self-destructive neuroticism.’ - Haley Nahman
🎶 All My Days by Alexi Murdoch: Musical therapy.
Until next week!