“Therapy Speak” Has Invaded All Our Relationships

How “hey, are you around?” became “do you have the emotional capacity to take on my problems right now?”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: A woman looks at her phone while waiting on the platform at the Broadway Junction subway station on November 14, 2019 in New York City. The MTA, which oversees the New York City subway system, the largest in the United States, is reconsidering a plan to hire 500 new transit police officers as they face a $1 billion budget deficit. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Someone setting a boundary, probably. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

“Hey, are you around?” is the kind of text you’ve probably sent a friend when you need a shoulder to cry on. “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?” might be more appropriate, according to Melissa Fabello, a self-described “feminist wellness educator.”

She recently received just that text from a close friend and screenshotted it in a tweet expressing her approval—she liked the acknowledgment of her “limited time and emotional availability,” the baked-in content warning, and the “opportunity to say yes, no, or to counteroffer.” She concluded with a template for how to phrase such a counteroffer:

Some people applauded the directness. For others, it seemed less like something you’d say to a friend, and more like a response from an HR person, or maybe one concocted by the Microsoft paperclip.

The problem with the request and Fabello’s response isn’t really a matter of what they’re trying to communicate. Asking if someone can talk, and replying by basically saying “not right now, but maybe later,” is perfectly natural, and particularly appropriate given that we’re technically accessible at all times via our phones, and conversations no longer have a natural stopping point. What’s jarring is how formal Fabello’s language is. In fact, it’s just the kind of formal language one might pick up from a mental health professional. In 2019, it’s infiltrating our everyday interactions. Let’s call it “therapy speak.”

Therapy speak is telling someone in a fight that “it’s OK for you to express how you are feeling right now” but “it’s not OK for me if you yell” (a suggestion from the popular Instagram account the Holistic Psychologist in a post on how to set boundaries). It’s leaving your boyfriend by saying, “I am afraid we have different goals in life that make it difficult to continue as a couple” (a suggestion from a WikiHow article on how to break up that’s written by a social worker).

Therapy speak isn’t just dispelled by therapists, as Fabello demonstrates here; it comes from advice columnists, self-care advocates, and celebrities, too. When she divorced her husband, Gwyneth Paltrow used the therapy speak of “conscious uncoupling,” which, after lots of mocking, she put back through the translator to clarify: “’We just want to be nice to each other and stay a family.’”

Therapy speak sounds a little canned and prescriptive, because it is. Ideally, a therapist who is working with you (rather than dispensing advice to the masses) will help you to do the work of finding your own words to describe what you need, rather than handing you a template that sounds, well, like a template.

Turning to something a little formulaic can be good training wheels if you have trouble expressing your needs on the fly. It shouldn’t signal that you’re a jerk or a robot (though it doesn’t preclude you from being those things, either). What if a friend keeps coming at you with a bunch of therapy speak and you absolutely hate it? Well, you have the agency to set a boundary and seek out relationships that are more mutually fulfilling at this time.