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Lost in Translation: Decoding the Misuse of Therapy Terms

Terms like “gaslighting” and “narcissist” are trendy accessories to our everyday conversations—mental health is finally having its time in the spotlight! But there’s an increasing pattern of misuse of therapy terms, and people are throwing words around without proper education or knowledge behind them. 

Conversations about mental health happen more often these days—and we are here for it! But we want to clarify what some of these overused mental health terms mean. 

We don’t want to silence the conversation. We just want to provide a bit more context, decode the misuse and its potential harms, and give you some alternative language. So, let’s get to it.

Why Does it Matter?

We assume people have good intentions, but inaccurate use of mental health terms can further perpetuate harm, add to the stigma, and give people the wrong idea about therapy. 

Understanding how to use therapy terms properly helps us understand what’s happening inside our minds, support others, and communicate better with mental health professionals.

But when the definitions get mixed up or misused, it can mess up how we understand mental health, making it harder to get the help we need. 

It’s essential to understand what therapy terms mean, how to use them, and do so carefully and appropriately. Using the correct language helps everyone understand each other and removes the confusion that might be in the way of someone seeking help.

It’s confusing

If you wanted to learn more about your thoughts and emotions, you’d want support from a properly trained therapist or find a book written by an expert on the topic, right? That’s precisely why understanding proper terminology is essential.

When words like “anxiety” or “depression” are thrown around without people really knowing what they mean, they might be misunderstood. It’s kind of like making up your own rules instead of using the terms for what they are: mental health diagnoses. 

Using different words can be helpful to make mental health topics easier to understand. Instead of saying, “I have anxiety today,” you can say, “I’m feeling very stressed today.” Describe your feelings without labeling or self-diagnosing to give a more precise idea of what’s happening.

It minimizes people’s experiences

Using mental health terms in casual conversation can make it seem like they’re no big deal, which minimizes how someone who is struggling with the diagnosis feels and makes them feel like they don’t matter or that their struggle is less important. It’s downplaying symptoms of a serious condition many people face every day. 

These words carry a lot of weight for those who are experiencing mental health challenges. Using appropriate language shows you care and respect what others are going through and that you’re willing to understand and support their feelings.

It adds to the mental health stigma 

When we misuse specific therapy terms as a joke or to describe how we’re feeling, it adds to the already hefty stigma surrounding mental health. When “I’m so depressed today” is a casual comment, people start not to take depression seriously. It feels like making fun of something that is a big part of another person’s daily life and can lose its true meaning. 

Treating these terms lightly or using them inaccurately sends the message that people’s experiences aren’t as serious as they are. 

Mental health and addiction stigma is a barrier for many people who need help. We know that stigma can reduce a person’s willingness to seek treatment, too. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help or don’t want to be made fun of.

It gives inaccurate expectations about therapy

When we hear words misused, it’s like getting a wrong idea about what therapy is like, and it can impact our expectations and make us feel surprised or disappointed when therapy doesn’t match what we thought it would be. 

It hinders communication and understanding

Using therapy terms in clearer or more accurate ways can avoid blocking the understanding between a therapist and their client. Misusing these words makes it harder for a person in therapy to explain what’s going on, which can get in the way of getting the proper help. 

For therapists, clear communication is crucial to a successful session. If terms are misused, it can make it challenging to understand what their client is going through and at what level they are struggling. 

Additionally, this can hinder a therapist’s ability to help their clients adequately and wastes everyone’s time. This barrier also makes it harder for therapists to connect with clients and help them navigate their emotions and experiences effectively in the future. 

Decoding Commonly Misused Terms 

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is when someone makes others doubt their thoughts, feelings, or reality. It invalidates, undermines, and dismisses someone’s genuine concerns and can make people feel like their thoughts and feelings don’t matter, causing them to question their ideas. 

Misusing “gaslighting” might look like accusing someone of lying because they have a different perspective. In therapy, it goes beyond simple disagreements, and it’s about intentionally making someone doubt themselves.

Instead of saying someone is “gaslighting” you, try describing their actions and how they make you feel more clearly. For example, “They’re not listening or understanding how I feel.”

Triggered

In trauma therapy, the term “triggered” means being reminded of an experience that was tough or scary. People feel triggered by many different things, like people or situations that bring up bad memories. 

Misusing the term can look like getting upset over something minor and may make people feel like their severe triggers aren’t a big deal when they’re a considerable part of their story and why they react the way they do.  

Using “triggered” in casual conversation may cause people working through their triggers to feel judged or that they’re overreacting. It may also cause people to hold back severe trauma or feel that they shouldn’t express their feelings.

Instead of saying, “I’m triggered,” describe how the situation makes you feel. For example, “That reminds me of ….” or “That makes me upset because it brings back some memories.” 

Remember, we shouldn’t assume we know someone else’s thoughts or feelings; it’s best just to ask. We also want to be careful when talking about how others feel. If necessary, you can say, “They’re reacting strongly to something that seems small to me.” When in doubt, don’t say anything at all. 

Toxic

“Toxic” is another term thrown around very casually. Toxic relationships or toxic environments are very harmful and unhealthy. Instead of feeling safe, the toxic thing makes us feel uncomfortable, scared, or even sick. 

Many times, “toxic” is oversimplified and, as a therapy term, is a lot more complex. In therapy, it’s a deeper understanding of dynamics in someone’s life and can help a therapist unpack a person’s behaviors, interactions, and patterns.

Instead of using “toxic” to describe what you’re going through, you can say something is unhealthy, harmful, or not good for you. For example, “This isn’t working for me,” or “This situation is unhealthy for everyone involved.” 

Codependent

Codependency in the context of unhealthy relationships is when people rely too much on each other, and the union becomes terrible for both people. Codependent relationships can cause two people to lose their individuality. 

Misusing “codependency” can mislabel normal, healthy relationships and make them seem worse than they are. Often, people use “I’m so codependent” as a joke for needing a little extra attention from their partner or wanting to be around their partner all the time. 

Using it wrong can also make people feel like caring about each other is a problem when that‘s what a healthy relationship is all about. 

Instead of labeling a relationship as codependent, you can say something like, “We care a lot about each other but in a healthy way,” or “We’re close, but we both have our own lives.” And remember, it’s best to avoid labeling other people’s relationships. 

Narcissist

The word “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot, but in terms of mental health and therapy, it doesn’t only mean someone who thinks very highly of themselves. 

“Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance,” according to Mayo Clinic. People with NPD may not be able to care for others, are often unsure of their worth, and become upset quickly from criticism. 

Calling someone a narcissist has harmful implications for people who might be a bit self-centered but who do not have NPD. It’s also unfair to use the term for those who have narcissistic traits because not all of those traits are bad or negatively affect the person’s life. 

Instead of calling someone a narcissist, describe what they are doing more specifically. For example, “They’re focused on themselves right now,” or “They can be self-centered sometimes, but they’re not always like that.”

It’s imperative to use accurate and responsible language. Be mindful of what you say, and keep learning about mental health. 

Understanding therapy terms helps us communicate better, support each other more effectively, and create a more inclusive and empathetic environment. 

We all play a part in shaping the mental health conversation. And together, we can create a more compassionate and informed community.



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