When surfer and model Sarah Brady shared text messages to her Instagram story over the weekend that she claimed were between her and ex-boyfriend Jonah Hill, some noticed familiar “therapy” terms that have proliferated in online discussions of mental health.
“Therapy speak,” once called “psychobabble,” is simply psychology jargon. It has become popular verbiage on social media, where words like “gaslighting,” “narcissism” and “boundaries” are used liberally.
In some cases, the language of therapy has given many people the much-needed vocabulary to describe their feelings. In other cases that “therapy speak” can be misused to manipulate and control others.
“Whenever we use jargon in lay conversations, we are shifting the power dynamic whether we intend to or not,” said Israa Nasir, a therapist and mental health educator who has 153,000 followers on Instagram. “What happens in ‘therapy speak’ is there’s a little bit of this moralistic virtue signaling, right? Like I’m a little more informed, I’m more emotionally mature … and I’m telling you that you are harming me in this way.”
Brady shared several screenshots on Instagram that allegedly show Hill telling her to remove photos of herself in bathing suits while surfing, claiming she is crossing his boundaries. At least three times in the shared texts, the person who appears to be Hill talks about his “boundaries.”
“You don’t seem to get it. But it’s not my place to teach you. I’ve made my boundaries clear. You refuse to let go of some and you’ve made that clear. I hope they make you happy,” one message about the removal of photos reads.
Brady claimed in other posts that Hill was an “emotionally abusive partner.”
Brady and Hill did not immediately respond to requests for comment. NBC News was not immediately able to verify the text messages’ authenticity.
Some experts point to the coronavirus pandemic as the inflection point where “therapy speak” took off on social media, but many factors have contributed to its rise. Among those who appear to have embraced the language the most are the millennial and Gen Z generations. Both have grown up with less stigma around therapy than previous generations, experts said. But it’s millennials who have frequently been dubbed the “therapy generation.” That could be why, when Brady posted her screenshots, millennials began discussing their encounters with partners who used “therapy speak” to manipulate or coerce them over the course of their relationships.
Pew Research defines a millennial as anyone born from 1981 to 1996. Hill, who is 39 years old, was born in 1983. He has also been open about his use of therapy, having even made a Netflix documentary about his therapist, Phil Stutz.
On Twitter, many discussed their own romantic relationships with millennial partners, particularly straight millennial men. They described partners who had weaponized the language of therapy to win arguments and pointed to the intersection of “therapy speak” with millennial men and misogyny.
“I also think this is important because something that REALLY goes unnoticed/not commented on is the baseline misogyny of a lot of millennial white men, because they seem like softbois. But many of them hate women and see women as competitors,” one person tweeted.
Another person tweeted, “Jonah hill perfectly illustrates how patriarchy adapts and the millennial iteration relies on emotional abuse and gaslighting.”
“I’ve received Jonah-Hill-texts from every man I’ve ever dated except literally 2. Straight millennial men are just as misogynistic as their boomer daddies, I fear,” another posted.
Nasir said that while Gen Z — those born from 1996 onward, according to Pew — has been raised to view men and women as largely equal, millennial men were raised, to a large degree, in old schools of thought, in which systemic inequities between men and women persisted. Although many millennial men have gone to therapy, they still operate with many of the systemic inequities of the patriarchy embedded into their way of thinking, which could be why some use “therapy speak” — possibly unwittingly — as a manipulation tactic.
“We’re raising our girls to be really strong, but we’ve not changed the way we raise our boys,” Nasir said of millennials. “And so you’re just seeing the patriarchy being packaged in this very clean, you know, sans serif font of millennials. But it’s the same thing, though.”
Jeff Guenther, a licensed professional counselor who goes by @TherapyJeff on TikTok, where he has 2.7 million followers, echoed Nasir, saying therapy is often used as a “green flag” in relationships. On some dating apps, being in therapy is available as a tag for people to apply to their profiles. Because of that, Guenther said, some men use “therapy speak” on social media to make themselves look more emotionally intelligent and empathetic.
However, using terms like “gaslighting,” “crossing boundaries” or “triggering” in the context of disagreements can put your partner on the defensive.
“Sometimes when people are doing the sort of ‘therapy speak,’ it reads like a script, and it feels kind of hollow,” Guenther said. “You’re using emotional words or psychological words, but they’re not very empathetic, and instead they can come across controlling or manipulative.”
Neither Guenther nor Nasir have treated Hill or Brady or know the greater context of the text messages beyond what was posted on social media. Both said they often see “therapy speak” used on social media and have seen the conversations about “therapy speak” and millennial relationships spring up in light of the shared screenshots.
Ajax Ammons, 27, who posted a TikTok video about the Brady-Hill situation that has been viewed more than 850,000 times, said that she’s pro-therapy but that it can be frustrating to see some people weaponize the tools therapy has taught them. She said “therapy speak” is popular among her generation because so many of her peers seek out mental health services.
She said people who go to therapy and use “therapy speak” on social media need to self-reflect.
“You can’t just show up to therapy … without looking inward and being like, ‘Am I actually being the problem?’” Ammons said.
Although “therapy speak” is most likely a permanent part of the social media lexicon, Nasir offered guidance for couples using it in their arguments.
“It’s important to kind of remember that ‘therapy speak’ is meant for the interaction between you and your therapist,” Nasir said. “So therapy is still wonderful. And it’s meant to increase your own self-awareness. It’s not meant for you to learn things and then police other people.”