From the highest levels of government to our daily social media statuses, our everyday language is *literally* peppered with imprecision and hyperbole. Everything is toxic. We’re getting triggered. And for those struggling with legitimate interpersonal and mental health crises, it’s only adding to the trauma.
“Therapy words” have entered our everyday language, for better or for worse. On one hand, those who need them now have the language to express their experiences. And those who don’t… are only adding to the problem. The less accurately we use these terms, the more we undermine the experiences of those who are actually coping with these conditions and seeking help.
We can do better. We need to do better.
It’s past time to get clear about the words we’ve been using wrong- and we should start with these five “therapy words” that are most commonly misused and abused.
The Word You’re Using Wrong: Boundaries
What People Think It Means: Rules and restrictions imposed on others in order for the boundary-setter to get their way.
Used (Incorrectly) in a Sentence: “You know Saturdays are always our date night. How could you agree to ‘going out with the guys’ for the second weekend in a row? You’re violating my boundaries in this relationship!”
What It Actually Means: “Boundaries,” in a physical or figurative sense, allow us to differentiate what is ours and what is not. Personal boundaries do not focus on controlling the behavior of others. Rather, they center on our own responses to interpersonal situations. Boundaries allow us to protect what is valuable to us, while allowing others to make their own choices and assume responsibility for those decisions.
Used (Correctly) in a Sentence: “It’s great that you want to spend time with your friends, and I would like to plan intentional time with my friends, too. At the same time, I want us to continue making our date nights a priority. It’s important to honor our commitments to our friends and to each other. Let’s set some boundaries around our time together by scheduling our date nights in advance.”
The Word You’re Using Wrong: Gaslight
What People Think It Means: Someone-- anyone, really-- disagreeing with your perspective or version of events.
Used (Incorrectly) in a Sentence: “Whenever they get in a fight, he just gaslights her and says she’s crazy.”
What It Actually Means: To “gaslight” someone is to manipulate them into questioning their own sanity or ability to use logic and reason. It is an intentional act, usually over a long period of time. The person being gaslit may come to doubt their own memories or perception of reality. Gaslighting is a tactic of emotional abuse designed to increase the victim’s dependence on the abuser.
Used (Correctly) in a Sentence: “I’m worried about you, because I’ve observed your partner regularly starting arguments and belittling you, but then convincing you that it was your fault. I’ve never known you to start an argument in the past, or do anything that could warrant that type of response. It seems like you really believe your partner’s version of things, but as your friend, I’m concerned that they are gaslighting you.”
The Word You’re Using Wrong: Trauma
What People Think It Means: Anything bad that has happened to you, ever.
Used (Incorrectly) in a Sentence: “Turn it off! That song was on the radio all the time when I went through my breakup in college. Every time it plays, I remember that trauma. Anyway, what’s for lunch?”
What It Actually Means: “Trauma” refers to the challenging emotional consequences in the aftermath of a distressing event. What is traumatizing to one person may not be for another; individual responses and presenting symptoms vary. Common traumatic events include natural disasters, witnessing violence, abuse, sexual assault, unexpected loss, etc. The psychological and emotional responses to such occurrences may be evident immediately, or they may surface after many months or years have passed.
Used (Correctly) in a Sentence: “I know you may not understand why it affects me so badly, but that emotionally abusive relationship all those years ago destroyed my self-esteem. It was such a messy breakup, and it’s taken me years of therapy to work through the psychological impacts of it. You may bounce back pretty easily after a breakup, but for me, it was real trauma.”
The Word You’re Using Wrong: Narcissist
What People Think It Means: A person who never admits wrongdoing, has a huge ego, and criticizes others like it’s their job.
Used (Incorrectly) in a Sentence: “My ex-husband was such a narcissist. It was always all about him and he just thought he was right all the time!”
What It Actually Means: A “narcissist” is someone who has narcissistic personality disorder, a mental health condition in which an individual has an unreasonably inflated sense of their own importance. They may expect special treatment, even when it isn’t warranted, and they are especially sensitive to criticism. These individuals struggle with hidden shame, envy, and emotional dysregulation, often presenting itself as rage. Narcissism is not to be confused with individual, less-extreme personality traits, such as stubbornness or confidence.
Used (Correctly) in a Sentence: “I had to end the marriage with him once I realized he was a narcissist. Every time I disagreed with him, even lovingly, he became extremely angry and iced me out. He would only talk to me again if he wanted my attention. I tried to discuss the issue with him, but he wasn’t receptive, and it would only upset him more.”
The Word You’re Using Wrong: Triggered
What People Think It Means: Being reminded of some negative event or experience; being offended.
Used (Incorrectly) in a Sentence: “I saw a picture of a cute puppy and it looked just like my childhood dog that died when I was twelve. I was instantly triggered and had a full-blown emotional breakdown.”
What It Actually Means: In mental health terms, a “trigger,” or stressor, refers to something that impacts your emotional state and causes distress or overwhelm. Someone who has been triggered is experiencing the emotional consequences of such a stressor. Due to the different traumas in each of our experiences, what triggers one person may not have the same effect on another.
Used (Correctly) in a Sentence: “My dad has been triggered by loud noises ever since coming home from the war. It causes him to panic and makes him very upset. We don’t take him to see fireworks on the Fourth of July; we have an indoor celebration, instead.”
By throwing around these words in common vernacular, we take away from the experience of those legitimately struggling with these issues. We need to care about the language we’re using, be clear and specific about what we mean, and understand the underpinnings behind each of these terms.
If you or a loved one is struggling, you are not alone. There are ways to self-manage your mental health, as well as professional resources available. The words we use hold tremendous power to harm and to heal. Choose yours with wisdom and kindness.