Coping, emotional labor, ‘gaslighting’: Why do we talk as if we were psychologists?

In a more or less conscious way, words that were previously reserved for psychology and psychiatry have been incorporated into everyday vocabulary

A teenager in a session with a psychologist.StockRocket (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There are 17-year-olds who express themselves with the hermeticism of a Lacanian psychoanalyst and 50-year-olds who have just discovered that all their lives they have been victims of narcissistic triangulation in their romantic relationships. Last weekend, over dinner, Maria F. (not her real name), 16, informed her parents that they were “a dysfunctional family.” “Since you guys didn’t go to therapy, you haven’t overcome your traumas and have transferred them to us,” she said to them before devouring the last piece of sandwich.

In a more or less conscious way, words that were previously reserved for the realm of psychology and psychiatry have been incorporated into everyday vocabulary. Thanks to Instagram and TikTok, very young people are fluent in terms like love bombing (a form of psychological and emotional abuse that involves a person going above and beyond for you in an effort to manipulate you into a relationship with them) or gaslighting (psychological abuse that makes someone question their own reality). Because of that, they are proactive in noticing red flags (danger signs) and issues (problems) in their relationships.

Everyone seems to be immersed in doing some kind of “emotional labor.” We diagnose and receive unsolicited diagnoses. We train in “attachment avoidance” and try out new “coping” mechanisms. When it comes to our traumas, we tend to project and “transfer” (the psychoanalytic kind, not the ones you do at the bank). We all seem to be hiding a wound, some kind of damage, and we like to say that we are working “on it.”

It is not the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that we fall into the exalted therapization of common speech. Psychotherapist Isabel Larraburu recalls that during the new age boom in California, the concept of psychobabble emerged, defined as “a way of speaking or writing that mixed psychological jargon, buzzwords and esoteric language to create an impression of truth or plausibility.”

Larraburu explains that the speaker often lacked the experience and understanding necessary to use the terms in an appropriate way. That said, the expert is very much in favor of popularizing concepts that help identify, for example, narcissistic mistreatment on dating platforms. “This information helps to moderate behaviors that lead to the objectification and commodification of people,” she says. However, what doesn’t seem too good to the professional is to abuse diagnoses. That is to say, to assign the label of bipolar, narcissistic or neurotic to anyone who does not coincide with our way of seeing the world. “It is excessive and, on many occasions, erroneous. It trivializes conditions that for some people are incapacitating and painful,” she criticizes.

Carolina Bandinelli, associate professor of Creative Industries and Media at the University of Warwick, believes that every word that becomes a buzzword on the Internet loses its potential as a thinking tool and ends up becoming a label. “The danger of abusing this vocabulary is to turn it into a pathologizing tool that feeds anxiety in romantic and sexual encounters,” she warns via email.

Ruining relationships

Other experts believe that the ease with which words and concepts of psychology and psychiatry are handled generates an overanalysis of each interaction that can in turn ruin personal relationships. If a friend distances herself and when you ask why, she blurts out: “Until today I have treasured our friendship, but we are evolving in opposite directions and I am no longer in a position to continue investing in this relationship,” you should know that such a speech is not of her own making. She is just reciting one of the many TikToks that tell you how to break off a relationship or friendship. All these viral videos have one thing in common: therapeutic jargon — the dismissive and professional tone, the condescension and a minimum of empathy.

But this type of content — which coach us on how to end a personal relationship — is not exclusive to TikTok. You can also find it on Twitter, where users post manuals for dispatching unpleasant conversations in the shortest possible time, with coldness and an abundance of psychological terminology that leaves the other party unarmed.

The power of therapeutic jargon lies in the fact that it places us on the objective plane of the analyst we are not, above the complexity of real emotions. It allows us to exercise our egoism with a technical argument: I am not canceling an appointment at the last minute, I am just setting my boundaries; I am not ending our friendship abruptly, but reevaluating my ability to invest in this bond.

The danger of abusing this vocabulary is to turn it into a pathologizing tool that feeds anxiety in romantic and sexual encounters.
Carolina Bandinelli, University of Warwick

We learn the language of the places where we spend time. And like it or not, we spend a lot of time on social media, so it’s only natural that we learn new ways of speaking from these sites. Scholars of the codes of online life note that therapeutic jargon is used as a tool of distinction, especially on dating apps, where addressing mental health issues confers status and a prestigious aura of emotional maturity.

“There is no doubt that therapeutic terms have become widespread in the dating scene and in the dominant digital culture,” says Bandinelli, who notes the appropriation of many technical words to define relationships: love bombing, traumatic bonding, narcissistic abuse, and so on. “In my opinion, it is the effort of the younger generations, especially women, to rewrite the ethical codes of love to escape the heteronormative and patriarchal paradigm. The language of therapy serves them to name certain behaviors and, therefore, to identify them,” she explains. And she emphasizes: “Until a few years ago, abusive and toxic masculinities were considered part of heterosexual romance. For many women, feeling diminished and inadequate was a sign of love rather than a red flag.”

Paul Eastwick is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, and his field of research is how romantic relationships are initiated. In his work he has observed that people no longer sell themselves by saying how tall they are or how much they earn, but by introducing into their conversations phrases like: “My psychologist says...” According to Eastwick, talking about your experiences in therapy is equivalent to showing “your best cards” to a potential partner, because these days acknowledging that you go to therapy says something broader about your social group and your values.

Sociologist Jess Carbino, who worked for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble, has also observed that dating apps now address emotionally complex issues and make explicit references to mental health. In her opinion, this is a double tactic that serves, on the one hand, to position values, and, on the other hand, to clean up, that is, to filter out unwanted matches. For her, boasting about going to therapy sends several messages: emotional capital and investment in mental health, cultural cachet and economic solvency.

Carbino recalls that in 2010, when dating apps were just starting out, users used to give “generic, mundane and harmless information” to get as many matches as possible. They would say, for example: I like movies, I love dogs and I do brunch on Sundays. “But now the values that matter in dating have changed, younger people are very concerned about emotional stability and reflect that in their profiles by using therapeutic jargon or saying ‘As my therapist would say’ to make it clear that their own and their partner’s mental health is a priority,” she says.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has been interviewing U.S. singles for 15 years for her study of singles in the United States, explained in an interview with this newspaper that in her 2022 surveys, physical attractiveness or good sex had disappeared for the first time from the most desired attributes in a couple. What was on the rise was stability and emotional maturity. Fisher calls millennials and centennials (born after 2000) “the new Victorians,” and she does it as a compliment: “They are the smart ones.”

For Bandinelli, the ubiquity of therapeutic jargon in our dating and relationships heralds the advent of what she calls the post-romantic era — something she studies in her latest research. “In post-romanticism, the codes of the heterosexual couple are subverted in an attempt to recode love in the light of a new ethic that arises from the recognition of the discomfort produced by romantic love as we have known it up to now,” she explains. At the same time, total analgesia is aspired to because, together with power dynamics, it seeks to annul all the risks of relating to other people: getting hurt, or losing time or money. “The aim is to erase pain, which is why negative emotions are immediately pathologized; it is a way of suppressing them and ignoring where they come from,” she says.

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