What is therapy speak (and is it doing more harm than good)?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford, updated on May 3, 2023

Is the language we use around mental health becoming diluted and starting to lose all meaning? Or are we misusing helpful terms without realising it?

We’re at a point where it’s hard to deny that talking about mental health and wellbeing is good for us – and often, those around us. Research has shown that sharing our experiences makes us more willing to seek help when we are struggling, more aware of where we should look for that help, and more likely to encourage others to seek support when we see than struggling. But what happens when we start adopting terms used in therapy as part of our collective vocabulary? Shouldn’t having specific words we all know, understand, and can use, be beneficial all around?

What is therapy speak?

Therapy speak, also referred to as therapy dialogue, is a term used for the language previously reserved for the therapy room, that’s seeped into our everyday lives. Talking about setting healthy boundaries, joking about coping mechanisms, calling out toxic, trauma-dumping behaviours, or highlighting when we're left to do all the emotional labour can all be examples of ways therapy-related terms have made it into the mainstream.

But...isn’t that a good thing? Just like we’ve all learned a little more about mental health and wellbeing, isn’t knowing the right language to talk about these things, well, great?

That can really depend. When everything starts being called a red flag, every friend’s bad day is seen as ignoring our boundaries or being toxic, slightly differing memories of an event get called out as gaslighting, and everyone who doesn’t put our needs first is called a narcissist, it can be a sign that – just maybe – we aren’t all fully understanding the phrases we’re using. And over time? This can lead to certain words, phrases, and explanations feeling like they are losing their meaning.

Why has therapy speak become more mainstream?

Talking about our mental health has become more common over recent years. While many of us still struggle to do so, research has shown that we’re more likely to reach out for help, encourage others to seek help, experience an improved sense of wellbeing and feel less stigmatised when we share our stories of living with mental illness.

Therapy is no longer seen as just something reserved for those who can afford it, or as a last resort when you hit rock bottom. More young people and men have begun seeking therapy, while NHS England saw 1.24 million referrals for ITAP (Improved Access to Psychological Therapies) services in 2021-22 – an increase from 1.02 million in 2020-21. Counselling Directory alone saw nearly 21.8 million users accessing information about mental health and wellbeing between 2017-21 – suggesting more and more of us are ready to start looking for more information on how we can put our mental health first.

As we start to feel more comfortable talking about our mental health, it should come as no surprise that more and more of us are encountering words previously reserved for the therapy room. With our rising shared interest in all things wellbeing, more mainstream sources of entertainment and news are starting to include these kinds of terms to draw us in and keep our eyes focused firmly on what they have to say about the latest industry buzzwords.  

Our increased use of therapy-related terms can also be seen as more of us wanting to better understand ourselves, our experiences, and our situations, through shared language and terms we can (almost) all understand. But sometimes, that language can get a little bit lost in translation. We can start to take hyperbole literally. And, despite our well-meaning intentions, we can unintentionally start to see words losing some of their impact.

Can using therapy speak be problematic?

Therapy speak itself isn’t a bad thing. It can give us a shared language to better understand ourselves, our life experiences, and our situations. But sometimes, when words get misused or misconstrued over time, it can be a problem – for us, and for those whom the original language was intended to help.

For example, we’ve all come to learn the phrase ‘Everyone’s a little bit OCD’ isn’t acceptable – or helpful. It’s something that people used to like to say jokingly, or as a way to relate to each other, or even to excuse what they saw as ‘quirks’. But thanks to people with lived experiences with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), as well as mental health experts and leading mental health charities speaking out, we’ve collectively come to understand why using the diagnosis – and people’s experiences – with OCD can be reductive, unhelpful at best, and outright harmful for those living with OCD. Misusing the term can lead to misinformation (people misunderstanding what OCD is, how serious it can be, or normalising behaviours that are actually signs that they need help). It can also lead to a general perception that ‘it isn’t that bad’ if everyone has some level of experience with it.

Woman stands on empty train station platform as train passes
Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

We’re seeing similar conversations around neurodivergence right now, with many people struggling to see the problems it can cause when we think of ‘everyone as a little bit neurodivergent’. This can end up leading to people who need extra help or support being refused accommodations, facing a lack of understanding, and having to put in additional time and effort into educating others about neurodivergence and neurotypicality. While people may try and relate from a well-meaning place, or in a way that is intended to be comforting by saying we’re all not that different, it ends up ignoring or minimising the negative impact of everyday systems - built for the majority of people, who aren’t neurodivergent, or who aren’t experiencing ill mental health – can have.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t ever use therapy speak. If you find it helpful to apply to yourself, your lived experiences, or to explain how you are feeling, it can be a great starting point to find out more about where you can get the right kind of help and support, as well as what kinds of coping mechanisms or strategies could be good to try. But it’s also important to remember that there’s a difference between a diagnosis and an opinion.

Can therapy speak be helpful?

Keeping therapy terms in our everyday conversations (both on and offline) can still be really helpful for us, and for others. The more we talk about therapy and our lived experiences, the more people can understand and (hopefully) be helped by accessing and using this language themselves, too. The more we talk about things, the better chance we have of collectively understanding them. We just need to be sure that the terms we’re using are being used in the right way, in the right situations, without being reductive of others’ experiences.

Finding the right help for you

Using therapy speak can help us to start getting a better understanding of ourselves and our situations, but it isn’t enough. Reading up about these concepts, understanding them, and using them in our day-to-day lives might be helpful for some of us – but it isn’t a replacement for a clinical diagnosis, nor for support from a qualified, trained, experienced therapist, counsellor, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist.

Different mental health professionals can help with a wide variety of concerns and experiences. Counselling Directory explains more about the different types of mental health professionals, what they can help with, and how you can find the right kind of support for you.

Happiful’s Kat chats to counsellor and educational psychologist Nadia Wilkinson to learn more about the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and psychotherapists.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t need a specific problem to start therapy. Working with a therapist can be, well, a therapeutic experience in and of itself. Counselling provides a safe, judgement-free, confidential space where you can open up, and explore general feelings of worry, discontent, concerns, or even life goals. There doesn’t have to be one ‘big problem’ or catalyst event to ‘justify’ you going to therapy. Happy people also go to therapy. Not everyone knows exactly what they want to talk to a therapist about, or have a clear pathway towards what they want to ‘get out of therapy’ – and that’s OK.

Join 100,000+ subscribers

Stay in the loop with everything Happiful

We care about your data, read our privacy policy
Our Vision

We’re on a mission to create a healthier, happier, more sustainable society.