'Therapy speak' is everywhere, but it may make us less empathetic NPR's Andrew Limbong speaks with culture writer Rebecca Fishbein about her article for Bustle on how "therapy speak" may be making us less empathetic.

'Therapy speak' is everywhere, but it may make us less empathetic

'Therapy speak' is everywhere, but it may make us less empathetic

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NPR's Andrew Limbong speaks with culture writer Rebecca Fishbein about her article for Bustle on how "therapy speak" may be making us less empathetic.


Before we get on to the show, Juana, there's something I need to tell you.



LIMBONG: I'm in a place where I'm trying to honor my needs and act in alignment with what feels right within the scope of my life, and I'm afraid our friendship doesn't seem to fit into that framework.

SUMMERS: I'm sorry, what?

LIMBONG: I can no longer hold the emotional space you've wanted me to and think the support you need is beyond the scope of what I can offer.

SUMMERS: Wait a minute. Andrew, are you trying to break up our friendship on the radio?

LIMBONG: OK, no. But apparently that's a real text one woman got from a now former friend, I guess.

SUMMERS: Well, that's awkward.

LIMBONG: Yeah. This kind of clinical-sounding, so-called therapy-speak language is all over the place in the U.S. these days - you know, including personal relationships. Rebecca Fishbein wrote an article titled "Is Therapy Speak Making Us Selfish?" for Bustle, and she's with us now. Hey, Rebecca.

REBECCA FISHBEIN: Hi, Andrew. Thanks for having me.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So I think, increasingly, we can identify therapy-speak, like, when people, like, just want to name a toxic thing or holding space to do, like, emotional labor. But can we, like, define some terms here? What is therapy-speak?

FISHBEIN: Sure. So therapy-speak is prescriptive language describing certain psychological concepts and behaviors. It's generally formal. It might be language you pick up from a mental health professional. It might be language you pick up from, you know, social media or just talking to your friends. I actually saw someone online refer to it as the HR-ification (ph) of language, and I really like that because it's sort of scripted in a way that removes culpability.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You had mentioned that this type of language shows up on social media a lot. There's this dude that pops up on my TikTok all the time. His name is TherapyJeff, and you mentioned him in your piece.


JEFF GUENTHER: You're feeling everything all the time, but also have no capacity left to feel anything anymore. This overwhelming mix of emotions simultaneously floods your senses and leaves you numb. And still, you're expected to conquer the day like a...

LIMBONG: So how do these types of videos, like, increase the proliferation of therapy-speak?

FISHBEIN: I think, in the last decade or so, we've really been talking a lot about mental health care and, you know, learning ways to prioritize our needs because a lot of people were prioritizing other people's needs and neglecting their own. So, you know, these videos are very popular because people are learning about themselves for the first time. But they are meant to be blueprints. They're not meant to be an actual script for how you communicate with your friends. It's just a way of getting people to think more deeply about their interactions and relationships.

LIMBONG: Hmm. Yeah, you talked to people who were on the receiving end of therapy-speak from friends and other people in their lives. Can you tell us an example that stood out to you?

FISHBEIN: Sure. So the example that you read in the intro - I spoke with a young woman named Anna who received a text message from a friend that she'd been in a five-year friendship with. And Anna was really hurt by this and really frustrated. And, you know, she tried to ask her friend, like, what she'd done, and, you know, her friend said that she wasn't comfortable answering. And Anna felt like this friend was ending the friendship with an HR memo and, you know, had hoped that, after five years, this friend would respect her enough to give her something more straightforward or at least be a bit more kind.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Is that what the experts you talked to said - like, that's how you should just confront conflict head-on like that?

FISHBEIN: So the experts that I spoke with talked a lot about how every situation is different, and so honesty and having compassion can be really helpful in a difficult situation. I spoke with this one expert, Marisa G. Franco. She wrote this book, "Platonic," that's really great if you're interested in learning more about friendships. And she spoke about the concept of mutuality. And mutuality is thinking about your needs and someone else's needs and deciding which are more important to prioritize in the moment, which sounds really obvious, but, you know, it's actually a good way to sort of think about how you're dealing with a friendship.

So an example she gave is let's say that your boundary is you don't text after 10 p.m., but your friend is having a crisis late at night, and she needs to talk to you. At that moment, your friend's needs are perhaps greater than yours, and so you can break your boundary and talk to your friend. On the other hand, if your friend wants to text you about "Love Is Blind" at 11, your need to be off screens and get some sleep is more important than the need to talk about the TV show.

LIMBONG: Mmm hmm. It's just, like, that pendulum swinging back and forth until we find the right place.

FISHBEIN: Yeah. And it's going to be an ongoing discussion, hopefully for a long time, because we're learning more about each other. We have more access to more voices because of social media, so it's giving us an opportunity to think, like, beyond ourselves and beyond our immediate friendships, too.

LIMBONG: Did you talk to anyone who has used therapy-speak with their friends?

FISHBEIN: So I interviewed a lot of people for this story, and some of the people that I interviewed said, you know, I've also done this, and it's not even intentional. It's just, when you've been saturated in some of these phrases - either you're in therapy or you watch a lot of therapy TikTok - it can come out in your conversations with your friends. I've said holding space to my friends without even fully understanding what that means, but it's not that people are intentionally being cruel to their friends or trying to sound like a therapist. It's just - it's trending. It's in the lexicon.

LIMBONG: That was culture writer Rebecca Fishbein, who wrote about the proliferation of therapy-speak for Bustle magazine. Thanks, Rebecca.

FISHBEIN: Thank you.

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