Trauma, gaslighting, borders: the limits of therapeutic discourse

In the therapy room, licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown has recently been busy with definitions. A client might say, “I have the worst relationship with my mother. She’s totally narcissistic,” to which Brown would invite the client to elaborate on what the term “narcissistic” means to him. Usually, the client describes someone who may be selfish or self-involved, but not someone who demonstrates the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder, marked by “a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of ’empathy’, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Brown then points out the differences between a difficult family member and using a mental health diagnosis to judge someone, encouraging the client to use more specific language to describe the relationship instead.

“Narcissist” is just a term that clients use colloquially with their friends and therapists. Mental health professionals cringe at the incorrect use of ‘trauma’, ‘gaslighting’, ‘limits’, ‘trigger’ – and even fabricated labels, like ‘maternal injury’, says health counselor Jacquelyn Tenaglia approved mind. (“It refers to the trauma of his mother, if I understood correctly,” she says. “Pop psychology sometimes lacks a clear definition.”)

Terms usually confined to psychological contexts have increasingly made their way into the mainstream. As more people sought mental health treatment, especially during the height of the pandemic, and as more therapists shared psychological concepts on social media, more of society in the sense broad was introduced to vernacular therapy. Dubbed talk-therapy, the phenomenon has introduced new vocabulary to the masses, but many definitions have become muddled in the process. While these terms may prove valid for people who can now put a name to an experience, therapeutic language can remove nuance from a conversation. By calling your mother a narcissist when she isn’t, for example, you might inadvertently dismiss other important aspects of your relationship that don’t clearly fit that definition. As a result, your relationship may be at a standstill, with neither party knowing how to move forward to fix it.

Life is not as simple as therapy claims. “There are gradations in human experience,” says therapist Israa Nasir, and therapeutic terms are often the most extreme ways to describe these experiences. A friend can be selfish and not narcissistic. You can feel stressed without experiencing trauma. A partner can lie without gaslighting. Instead, mental health professionals urge you to embrace nuance and avoid pathologizing normal, albeit annoying or painful, behavior.

Why Therapeutic Talk Is So Seductive

The prevalence of therapy terms has been a net positive in normalizing mental health, Nasir says. As mental health vocabulary became mainstream, people could name their experiences in concrete terms. However, the context of the vernacular has changed. Like most terms that touch the cultural zeitgeist, the definitions of therapeutic words change as they pass through the lexicon.

Thanks to a long phone game, the word “trauma”, for example, has practically changed from “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster” to a generic term for all things upsetting, according to Tenaglia. In reality, traumatic events are often serious, such as abuse or mass shootings. People encounter stressful situations on a regular basis – and these experiences shouldn’t be ignored – but there are other ways to describe a strained relationship with in-laws instead of the word “trauma.” “I set the example of showing up late to a job interview and feeling pissed off because there was traffic,” Tenaglia says. “It’s a stress response. It’s the one that would affect you on a physiological level. But it’s not a traumatic reaction unless you have nightmares, flashbacks about it. So there’s a difference We can have normal bodily responses without it being considered a trauma.

Therapeutic language works like shorthand for a word that can have a kaleidoscope of meanings, says Carolina Bandinelli, associate professor of media and creative industries at the University of Warwick. However, labeling people as “toxic,” for example, isn’t productive, she says, because there’s no dialogue, no questioning about what “toxic” means or how it comes across in a person or a situation. Beyond the initial naming and identification of a person or experience, it is crucial to consider your motivations for using this label.

Armed with new vocabulary, people attach themselves to terms that encapsulate certain events and people, to varying degrees, in order to support an argument or justify an experience. Having a common language to describe a difficult situation can help people communicate their concerns more effectively and gain support, but these terms can just as easily be weaponized. Did you accuse your partner of gaslighting because he manipulated facts, causing you to question your reality, or because you wanted to have the last word? “There are people who weaponize these terms in personal relationships,” Nasir says, “not necessarily always out of malice, but as a way to ‘win’ the argument, as a way to get their point across.”

Consider your intention when using therapeutic language

In order to correct the course when it comes to therapeutic language, therapists say we need to reflect on our past uses of these terms. Think of a recent time when you used therapeutic language. What was your intention? What message did you want to convey? Why are you attracted to intense emotional descriptors? Often people use a word like “trauma” when they’re having a stress reaction, Tenaglia says. Or “gaslighting” is used to describe disagreement, Nasir says. Venture beyond the emotional shorthand these words provide to uncover the true source of your discomfort. “Being able to identify an emotion is a very important part of our ability to regulate it,” says Nasir. “There is a difference between someone who makes a mistake and someone who intentionally makes a mistake.”

Question behaviors that you’re prone to deem “toxic” or “narcissistic,” says Bandinelli, to explain why you used that phrase and why you might use it again in the future. “Why do I say it’s toxic? ” she says. “Is it because it hurts me? And what kind of injury is it? Again, it is possible to accept that a person has inflicted emotional pain without pathologizing their actions.

If you’ve ever labeled another person with therapeutic language, ask yourself if you’ve ever acted in the same way, Bandinelli says. Is canceling plans at the last minute borderline when you do it, but narcissistic when it’s done by someone else?

Maybe you’re used to receiving validation when you portray disagreements or stressors in an extreme way, Tenaglia says. “If so, what does that say about our support system,” she says, “and our needs?” You may find that therapy is a more constructive place to seek emotional help.

Use more words, not fewer, to describe a situation

While therapeutic language isn’t inherently bad, Tenaglia says, the vernacular is misused. We must take care to learn the meaning of certain words and use specific language when these expressions do not apply correctly. For example, “traumatic connection” does not mean connection around a shared difficult experience; it is when a person who has been abused feels an emotional connection to their abuser.

Instead of defaulting to therapy, Brown suggests using more words to describe your experience. “Often we use terms to sum up what we need to have an overall understanding of something,” he says, “so we’ll say gaslighting because we think everyone will understand what it means.” In reality, your perception of gaslighting may differ from someone else’s. When clients use therapeutic language, Brown asks them to describe the event in detail. Instead of one or two words, explain the situation and how you feel in a few sentences. “If you want to call someone a narcissist,” Brown says, “what do I mean? I mean I experienced them as important and didn’t really take the time to notice the needs of others. It’s good to say that because it expresses very clearly what you think.

Record therapy – talk for therapy

Therapeutic talk is best reserved for the context of therapy where a professional can correct misinterpretations and ask for clarification. Overuse of these terms can blunt their meaning and minimize the experience of someone who has actually dealt with someone with narcissistic personality disorder, for example. For this reason, Brown suggests limiting your use of popular mental health terms outside of a counseling setting. “Most people don’t experience gaslighting on a daily basis, unless they’re in a relationship where it’s really happening,” he says. “Again, therapy is a good context to really explore what’s going on there.”

Identify your emotions, take the space to describe them adequately and validate your experience. What you feel is real; it may not necessarily be a trauma.

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