Watch Your Words

Why Using “Therapy Speak” With Your Partner Is Doomed To Fail

The recent discourse surrounding Jonah Hill’s leaked text messages confirms that therapy is still important for men — but not if they’re going to use it to manipulate others.

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Jonah Hill arrives at the Tonight Show on Monday, December 6, 2021
Rosalind OConnor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Last week, Jonah Hill’s ex, surfer Sarah Brady, posted a variety of text messages she claimed to have received from him on her Instagram stories. They revealed a barrage of demands the 39-year-old actor and director allegedly sent regarding “boundaries” for Brady, such as not surfing with other men, refraining from posting photos in bathing suits, and avoiding friendships with women who are in “unstable places.”

Brady and a variety of experts have since pointed out that this isn’t how you create boundaries, which are essentially a reasonable limit set internally about how others can treat you and how you can protect yourself if that bar is not cleared, rather than a rule, ultimatum, or threat imposed upon someone else. Some have even gone on to call Hill’s behavior abusive. And yet alleged follow-up texts from Hill, who recently became a father, argued that sharing his private texts with the world was a “huge triggering violation” and “breach of trust” and inferred that she was jealous of his new relationship. (Brady later admitted that she violated her ex’s privacy, but claimed that exposing emotional abuse trumped his anonymity.)

While a few people have come to Hill’s defense on social media, the overall saga highlighted how harmful the misuse of therapeutic language can be in romantic relationships. Hill, who made the documentary Stutz in 2022 about how psychotherapist Phil Stutz changed his life, is not new to therapy or the terminology. Up until last week, he was more of a positive example for men trying to improve their mental health. Men in particular have been strongly encouraged to go to therapy in recent years, for good reasons — they are four times more likely to die by suicide compared women, and less likely to seek support for psychological distress.

But as the stereotype that men who talk about their feelings are weak falls away, psychotherapists like Brent Metcalf worry that reports like this will give way to a new stigma — one that suggests men will go to therapy, but only to learn how to control and manipulate others. “Stories like this definitely have a negative impact on that stigma,” Metcalf says.

To be fair, Gallup survey data shows that the number of adults who said they’ve seen a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional in the past year increased from 13% in 2004 to 23% in 2022. So it’s not entirely surprising that an uptick in therapy language would follow, or that some people might unfortunately weaponize it.

That said, there is a fine line between misusing this vocabulary out of ignorance and incorrectly using it to hurt someone, explains psychotherapist Tracy Pryce. “It's important to note that to use therapy jargon abusively requires power in the relationship,” she says. Historically, this is “usually in the hands of men, or the breadwinner in same-sex partnerships.”

Metcalf agrees that when most therapy newbies misuse words, they aren’t trying to be controlling, “but more so trying to gain some type of control over their own lives.” But like boundaries, words such as “narcissism” and “trauma” have made their way into more casual conversations over the years, and like a bad game of telephone, the accuracy in the message can get lost along the way.

Another example is the term “gaslighting,” which was named Merriam-Webster’s 2022 word of the year, and yet also notoriously misused. “Disagreeing with someone is not gaslighting,” Pryce says. Rather, gaslighting is a form of mental abuse that involves intentionally manipulating someone’s perception of reality in order to cast doubt on it.

Still, unless you’re misusing these words to have power over another person, Pryce doesn’t consider it abusive. However, it is counterproductive to throw therapeutic words around in the heat of conflict, especially when you’re not in the right frame of mind and definitely not a therapist.

If you’re worried about someone misusing therapy jargon in a harmful way, gently correcting them may be an informative step to take, Metcalf says. If they are “willing to learn and improve their language and actions,” then it was likely a mistake. “Whereas people using it to manipulate or control others typically want to do just that, manipulate and control by any means necessary,” he warns. In other words, someone using therapy speak with the intention of manipulation will continue to use words the wrong way regardless of what the definition is. Hell, they might even accuse you of gaslighting them.

Instead of getting caught up in technical definition, Pryce recommends focusing on how you feel and trusting yourself. “If they're using it to make the other person feel confused, turned around, or shut down responses or discussion around the topic,” then you might be getting manipulated, he says. Likewise, if someone is always using therapeutic language to blame others, that can be a red flag as well.

And when it comes to how to set healthy boundaries in relationships, clinical psychologist Rubin Khoddam similarly recommends trusting your gut, knowing your limits, and using clear direct communication rather than over-explaining, or in this case, sending long texts about insecurities that could have been unpacked in person. In setting healthy boundaries you’re opting to feel “guilty for a short-time” to avoid being “resentful for a long-time,” Khoddam explains in Psychology Today. Taken this way, rejecting unreasonable rules from a partner would be an example of setting healthy boundaries.

Beyond following those guidelines and continuing to educate yourself, try not to scapegoat therapy anytime someone misuses the tools they got in it. People have been manipulating each other long before Freud came up with the “talking cure,” and therapy is not to blame for this. In fact, having a therapist to check in with about these words is a great way to avoid misinterpreting them.

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