Say something enough times and it begins to lose all meaning.
On the evening of July 5, American sweetheart and national treasure Keke Palmer went to an Usher concert. Considering the popularity of Usher’s Las Vegas residency among celebrities, this alone wasn’t exactly enough to make national news. However, the disparaging comments about the stunning black dress she wore by her boyfriend Darius Dalton sure were.
What commenced was a public dragging the likes of which have been seen only a few times in human history (one of which I’m sure took place in the days when stoning was an acceptable form of punishment). Amid the insults, name-calling and memes, some people became legitimately confused and angered on behalf of Dalton. Should he have taken his relationship issues to Twitter? Probably not, they said, but what was the problem with the actual issues themselves? The conversation quickly shifted to his right to assert “boundaries” in his relationship, and whether or not the people’s princess violated those “boundaries” during her night out.
A couple of days and one temporarily deleted Twitter account later, the peak of the discourse seemed to have passed. All was right with the world. That is, until actor Jonah Hill’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady went public with a series of screenshots depicting texts where we saw Hill attempt to enforce “boundaries.” Among those was Brady being given a laundry list of things not to do (many of which interfered with the ability to do her job as a surfing influencer).
So the cycle began again. Half of the internet called these behaviors controlling at best and abusive at worst, while the other half lauded Hill as being open and communicative. While the situations themselves might be different, both provide examples of a growing trend of what many call “therapy-speak”.
Defining The Language
In one of my favorite TikToks of all time, creator Sabrina Brier portrays a character called “that therapy-speak friend.” When invited to a housewarming, rather than say she doesn’t want to go because she thinks her friend’s friends suck, she describes herself as beginning to practice “radical honesty” and choosing to remove herself from a situation where she’d be forced to consort with “toxic” people. All spoken in the measured and relaxed tone of someone reading from a teleprompter.
The term “therapy-speak” has been thrown around more and more as a way to classify language that has moved beyond the psychologist’s office and into the public consciousness. This is far from a new phenomenon, as a large portion of our lexicon today is made up of words and phrases historically used in tandem with mental health. “Clips from Beyonce’s Renaissance tour send me into hysterics” and “this Barbie movie is going to heal my inner child” acting as just a few of the ways in which I’ve utilized therapy-speak in the past week alone. The age of the internet has made it so everyone, not just psychology majors, have access to new and shiny ways to speak their mind.
It would be disingenuous of me to sit here and pretend as if “therapy-speak” in and of itself is without merit. The point of communication, after all, is to be as clear and explanatory as possible. Therapy-speak is often just that: a tool used to better explain your emotions.
Just like a hammer, however, it’s a tool until it becomes a weapon.
Weaponizing The Language
As much as Brier’s character cushions her rejection through soft and mature-sounding words, it doesn’t change the fact that she calls her friend’s friends “insufferable” for no other reason besides the fact that “the vibes were off.” Therein lies the issue.
Therapy-speak becomes a problem when we take these words used traditionally in professional, clinical settings and apply them in situations where you’re speaking to someone on a personal level. The therapist-client relationship and friendships and romantic relationships are on two vastly different scales. Affecting this corporate, detached attitude of social analysis (often improperly) in personal relationships comes across as lacking empathy. You cannot end friendships spanning multiple years with only a vocab list from the pamphlet in your therapist’s office.
Boundaries are parameters set for yourself, not means of controlling someone else.
The situations with Hill and Dalton highlight the extended dangers of when therapy-speak is used to intellectualize the illogical and legitimize the illegitimate. As much as defenders of their behavior can cry “boundaries” and “protecting your mental health,” a clear pattern of behavior remains when reading the receipts.
Revisiting Dalton’s tweets carefully, we see a reduction of Palmer to someone showcasing “booty cheeks to please others.” In the middle of pages and pages of text messages of Brady and Hill trying to find some form of resolution in which Hill is appeased and Brady doesn’t have to give up her job, Hill writes “I love how your therapist thinks I suck. I literally am the best boyfriend. On earth.”
These are textbook cases of manipulation and emotionally abusive behaviors, but because they’re justified under the blanket of “setting boundaries,” it allows them to commit heinous activities under the guise of emotional maturity. It’s a facade so convincing that even I second-guessed myself at least 20 times while writing this article.
It becomes particularly insidious when considering the role of therapy-speak in the maintenance of gender disparities.
Let’s circle back for a moment to the word hysteria. In its checkered past, it was often used to rationalize the subjugation of women. Dubbed a “female disease” originally thought to be brought on by a “lack of conception,” it presented men with a convenient means to dismiss valid problems women at the time were experiencing with a catch-all.
A woman is unhappy? Hysteria. A woman hasn’t spoken in four days? Also hysteria.
What we see is a repeat of this 19th-century way of thinking. In the cases of Hill and Dalton, not only is therapy-speak used to emotionally detach one party from another, it merges into a larger act by men to portray moral and intellectual superiority over the irrational woman. Come one, come all, and witness me best the overemotional woman in a match of wits! Look at how they try to explain their emotions with monosyllabic words! Clearly, I have the high ground with my pitch-perfect Spock imitation and heavy condescension.
It’s only when we dim the lights and strip away the costumes that we can look behind the curtain, allowing us to see people like Hill and Dalton for who they truly are: gaslighting and emotionally abusive bastions of toxic masculinity blinded by their Id, slaves to their inner child.
Sorry, let me translate. Insecure man-children.
Samantha Lowe is a second-year student and online writer for Rowdy. When she isn’t doing her daily scroll through Twitter, she can be found doing any type of word puzzle, inhaling boba, and (of course) contemplating therapy.