Therapeutic language is proliferating on social media. No, that’s not a good thing.
There’s an epidemic of loneliness, haven’t you heard? The causes seem obvious: the pandemic, climate change, wars, so much more. But we’ve been here before as a species. This isn’t the first time Everything Happened Too Much All at Once.
What’s different is the way a lot of people are soothing themselves, via crowdsourced therapy on social media. Whether it’s people using therapeutic language to describe garden-variety social phenomena (“gaslighting,” for instance, has become a synonym for “lying” or “misleading”), or actual therapists dispensing advice through TikTok or retweet-ready articles about, say, how we’re surrounded by malignant narcissists, these practices can have perverse effects.
To be sure, articles excoriating the “weaponizing of therapy-speak” have multiplied in the past year or so. But the backlash often skirts the heart of the problem: social media’s cardinal sin. The platforms make us believe they’re collectivizing us when they’re actually atomizing us. (Think of how noxious it is to the development of genuine conflict resolution skills when a TikTok therapist teaches you how to “break up with your friend” through such redolent phrases as “I don’t have the capacity to invest in our friendship any longer.”)
Therapist Esther Perel recently told Vanity Fair that “there is such an emphasis on the ‘self-care’ aspect of [online interaction] that is actually making us more isolated and more alone, because the focus is just on the self.” In other words, in focusing so deeply on our distinctions, we lose sight of what we have in common—and, worse, stop doing the hard work of getting along with people different from ourselves. That last bit is not a euphemism for accepting, say, reactionary beliefs that should be beyond the pale in any decent society. Rather, the self-indulgence Perel criticizes is about teaching people who simply have a lot in common to privilege their own sense of identity and emotion above all others’.
Consider a viral post I recently encountered in a Facebook group, which suggested that anyone who says, “You’re difficult to work with,” is really saying, “You’re difficult to take advantage of.” But what if someone is difficult to work with? Well, they probably do have a responsibility to modify their behavior. Such memes, however, encourage the opposite: the belief that one is always right, always “valid.” You always come first. In a world where everyone shares that attitude, solidarity and community become elusive. It’s worth asking, then, why so many people are tempted by the language of therapy.
Big social media platforms offer up an interface that obscures the vast size of your potential audience. They ensconce you in the intimacy of screaming into your pillow while actually handing you a microphone in a stadium. The former entices us into self-soothing, as we often might in private; the latter provides an audience that can (potentially) feed us affirmation.
Social media therapy-speak perfectly reflects that dichotomy. It’s individualizing and self-soothing, yet it holds out the promise of affinity and community. Add to that the fact that specialized terms like “trauma,” “narcissist,” “gaslighter,” “abuser,” and “trigger”—weighty language in the mental health community—have been hijacked to describe ordinary stressors. This can provide comfort to people seeking validation, an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, and affirmation that anything that upsets them is not their fault. But it can also make it easy to pathologize normal human conflict and disagreement as something much more complicated: abuse, psychopathy, clinical narcissism. It’s all too convenient to use this language to flatter yourself and damn anyone who angers you. The risk is that, instead of working to resolve the conflict or improve yourself, you put up a wall and end up feeling more alone than ever.
If you’re always right, and your emotions can always be dressed up in the Sunday best of therapeutic language, what hope is there of being able to reconcile yourself with a more realistic community? We can’t all accommodate one another’s special feelings at all times. It’s easy to forget that when you fall into what psychologist John Suler calls solipsistic introjection: imposing yourself on social situations as if you’re the only person whose life matters, as if you’re a player character among a gaggle of NPCs. In fact, Suler identifies this as a key factor behind online harassment.
That’s no surprise: The intractable conflict that can be promoted by therapy-speak—“I’m always right, and those who disagree are narcissistic abusers”—is ripe for the kind of drama that goes viral. Two people cannot simply fail to get along; they must accuse each other of being, say, racist abusers who make others feel “unsafe.” Then we are off to the very familiar arms race of escalating allegations and insults, a despotism of irreconcilable individuals who prioritize their self-care above all else. Voilà, we become a mass of people who isolate ourselves from one another rather than come together in mutual reconciliation.
Reconciliation is simply compromise and the acceptance that one is not always right and that one’s feelings should not always prevail or be seen as objective truths. Compromise doesn’t invalidate your worth as an individual; in exchange for tolerating the eccentricities and foibles of others, you get to be in a real community that will sustain and support you.
Focusing on that might be as close as we’ll get to rebelling against the tyranny of social media’s therapeutic language, a reminder that you are not, in fact, alone in that vast crowd. You just have to reach out and give a little.