Making Sense of Therapy Lingo

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Mental Health - Therapy - Counselling - Psychology - Terms in Mainstream Language
Words and phrases that used to be spoken only in therapy have become mainstream in the way we describe our relationships and each other.

Making Sense of Therapy Lingo

As our collective consciousness shifts towards acknowledging and understanding mental health, it seems that our language is getting an upgrade too. Words and phrases that once exclusively belonged to therapists’ offices are now part of our everyday conversations. But with this newfound vocabulary comes a bit of confusion, misunderstanding, and, at times, misuse. So let’s roll up our sleeves and clear up the fog surrounding some of these therapy buzzwords.

Gaslighting: An Invisible Mind Game

Therapy Terms - Gaslighting
Like the dimming gas lamp that subtly changes the room’s atmosphere without being noticed, ‘gaslighting’—a term coined from the 1944 film ‘Gaslight’—refers to the psychological manipulation that causes someone to question their reality. In the movie, a husband manipulates his wife into believing she’s losing her mind by subtly dimming the gaslight, then denying the light has changed when his wife notices. Today, the term encapsulates the deceptive tactics used by manipulators to seed doubt and confusion.

Gaslighting refers to a covert type of psychological manipulation. It’s like a magic trick where, through consistent lying, denial, or distorting the truth, the ‘gaslighter’ makes you question your own reality. Picture a partner cheating on you and then skillfully shifting the blame towards you—making you feel like you’re losing your grip on the truth. That’s gaslighting.

Misunderstanding: Hold up, though. Not every disagreement or forgotten chore equates to gaslighting. Mislabelling simple misunderstandings can diminish the severity of actual gaslighting, which is a serious form of emotional abuse.

Narcissism: Beyond Self-love

Therapy Terms - Narcissism

‘Narcissism’, in the world of therapy, describes a condition where one exhibits an extreme sense of self-importance, lacks empathy, and has a constant thirst for admiration. It’s the label for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)—a recognized mental health condition.

Misunderstanding: But wait. Before you tag your selfie-loving friend as a narcissist, remember that not all seemingly self-centered behaviors denote NPD or narcissism. Using ‘narcissism’ casually to describe someone as selfish or rude might hurt more than it informs.

Manipulation: The Power Play

Therapy Terms - Manipulative Behavior- Antisocial Personality Disorder -ASPD

The word ‘manipulative’ describes individuals who subtly control or influence others, often using deception, guilt, or coercion. It may also point towards Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), a mental health condition marked by blatant disregard for others’ feelings or rights.

Misunderstanding: That said, let’s not be too quick to slap the ‘manipulative’ tag on someone just because they don’t see eye to eye with us. It’s not always a case of ASPD or manipulative behavior. Differing opinions, goals, or communication styles can sometimes be mistaken for manipulation.

Boundaries: The Personal Borderlines

Therapy Terms - Boundaries

Boundaries refer to the limits we set to protect our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. Setting boundaries might look like telling a friend you need some alone time or expressing your needs in a relationship.

Misunderstanding: Yet, boundaries can be misused. If someone uses ‘boundary-setting’ to dodge responsibility for their actions or validate harmful behavior, that’s a red flag. For instance, cheating on a partner and then claiming it’s a ‘boundary’ when they confront you isn’t about boundaries—it’s a breach of trust.

Coping Mechanisms: Our Personal Stress Shields

Therapy Terms - Coping Mechanisms
There are healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, and non-healthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol abuse. Both can lead to major life changes — positive or negative.

‘Coping mechanism’ is the term we use for the strategies or behaviors we use to manage stress, trauma, or negative emotions. Some coping mechanisms, like meditation or talking with a friend, can be healthy, while others, like substance abuse or denial, are harmful.

Misunderstanding: Remember, not every action should be excused as a coping mechanism. Some may lead to more harm than relief, and not all coping strategies work for everyone. Using ‘coping mechanism’ as a blanket justification can often dismiss the need for seeking alternative, healthier responses.

Projection: The Emotional Deflection

Therapy Terms - Projecting

Projection is a psychological phenomenon where a person attributes their feelings or thoughts to someone else. For instance, if you’re upset with your boss but can’t admit it, you might channel that anger towards a co-worker instead.

Misunderstanding: Keep in mind, everyone projects to some degree. But, using this term to dismiss or invalidate someone’s feelings is not healthy. If a partner voices concerns about your relationship, brushing it off as them ‘projecting’ their issues onto you isn’t fair—it’s disregarding their feelings.

Anxiety: More Than Just Nerves


Anxiety, in the context of mental health, describes a state of constant worry, nervousness, or fear that can interfere with everyday life. It’s more than a fleeting feeling—it can be a crippling constant.

Misunderstanding: But, it’s essential to differentiate between situational anxiety and an anxiety disorder. The former is a normal response to stress, while the latter is a long-term, often debilitating condition that requires professional help. Using ‘anxiety’ to describe everyday stress can trivialize the experiences of those living with anxiety disorders.

Depression: Beyond Feeling Blue

Depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest, and low energy. It’s not just having a ‘bad day’ or feeling down—it’s a long-term condition that can affect every aspect of one’s life.

Misunderstanding: Labeling any bout of sadness or grief as ‘depression’ isn’t accurate. While these feelings are painful, they are usually temporary and situational. Actual depression is a clinical disorder that requires diagnosis and treatment.

I’ll pause here and wait for your feedback before proceeding to the next set of terms.

PTSD: More Than Just Memories

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that stems from experiencing a traumatic event. It can cause flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety, making it much more than just unpleasant memories.

Misunderstanding: However, not all traumatic experiences lead to PTSD. It’s a specific disorder with diagnostic criteria. Misusing the term PTSD to refer to any form of distress from past experiences minimizes the reality for those living with this disorder.

OCD: Beyond the Quirks

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that involves unwanted and repeated thoughts, urges, or behaviors that cause distress or impairment. It’s not just about being overly tidy or having specific ways of doing things.

Misunderstanding: Too often, people misuse OCD to describe quirks or preferences. However, actual OCD is a debilitating condition that can profoundly impact someone’s life, far beyond a preference for symmetry or cleanliness.

ADHD: More Than Just Restlessness

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition involving difficulty paying attention, staying focused, or controlling impulses. It’s not just about being fidgety or easily distracted.

Misunderstanding: It’s not helpful or accurate to label every energetic or unfocused person as having ADHD. The disorder is a long-term condition that requires a professional diagnosis and can cause significant challenges in various life areas.

Bipolar Disorder: Not Just Mood Swings

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition involving extreme mood swings that cycle between mania and depression. It’s more than just emotional ups and downs—it’s a serious, long-term condition.

Misunderstanding: People sometimes casually label mood fluctuations as ‘bipolar’. This misuse of the term oversimplifies the condition and fails to represent the complexity and severity of bipolar disorder.

Schizophrenia: Beyond Delusions

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, often involving hallucinations or delusions. It’s much more than just ‘hearing voices’ or having strange beliefs.

Misunderstanding: Using the term ‘schizophrenic’ to describe someone with erratic behavior or beliefs is incorrect and contributes to the stigma surrounding this disorder. Schizophrenia is a complex condition requiring professional diagnosis and treatment.

Autism: More Than Just Social Difficulty

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting communication and interaction with others. However, it’s not just about being socially awkward or having a unique hobby.

Misunderstanding: Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it presents differently in everyone. Labeling someone as ‘autistic’ simply because they struggle socially or have particular interests can foster misunderstanding about what autism truly entails.

Dyslexia: Not Simply Reading Backwards

Dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting how someone reads and processes written information. It’s more than just reading words backwards or having difficulties with spelling.

Misunderstanding: Dyslexia is a complex condition with a wide range of symptoms, which may vary greatly between individuals. Labeling any reading or spelling difficulty as ‘dyslexia’ without a proper diagnosis can lead to misperceptions about the disorder.

Mental Health - More Accepting Society - Diversity is Beautiful

To wrap up this enlightening journey through mental health jargon, we must remember: these terms hold specific meanings based on clinical practice and scientific research. Using them casually to describe personality quirks or fleeting emotions minimizes the reality of these disorders and their impact on those living with them.

For a deeper dive into these and other therapy terms, check out these resources:

Being mindful of how we use mental health terms can help shape a more accurate, empathetic understanding of these conditions, ultimately fostering a more accepting society.