Picture this. Your friend has been acting distant for a few weeks. You ask her if everything's okay. "I've treasured our season of friendship," she says calmly, a distant, bittersweet smile on her face, "but we're moving in different directions in life."
For many people, this detached reply would be nothing short of infuriating. Yet this is exactly the "friend breakup" that Arianna Brandolini, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York, recommended in a recent viral TikTok video. The video goes on to show Dr. Brandolini speaking to an imagined friend about how she no longer has "a capacity to invest" in the friendship. "I'm sorry if this feels painful and confusing," she sums up with an unsettling brand of what feels like corporate roboticism. "I wish you all love and success."
Dr. Brandolini's video, entitled "Here's how you break up with a friend," quickly drew heated criticism, with many horrified by what they saw as a "condescending" and even "sociopathic" approach to ending a relationship. "I too speak to my friends like an HR rep," wrote one viewer. "This feels SO sterile and avoidant omg," wrote another.
Many were shocked by the seeming coldness of Dr. Brandolini's video, but it's just one example of a communication trend that has been brewing for some time. In the past few years, social media has been flooded with videos, posts, and memes that extol the virtues of this kind of jargonistic pathologizing.
In the wake of a much-needed increase in accessibility to therapy and therapists in the digital age, a whole new communication system is beginning to form. We are encouraged to "set boundaries" and "hold space" and "reject toxicity." We are taught to look out for things such as "gaslighting," "narcissism," and "love bombing" in our relationships. All healthy things, of course. But what happens when these phrases and terms begin to creep into the language we use in our everyday relationships? The "rise of therapy-speak," Katy Waldman called it in a 2021 New Yorker piece. Dr. Brandolini's video is a prime example of therapy-speak in action.
As with most things that have evolved in the age of social media, therapy-speak is the product of a lack of nuance. "Social media boils down very complex situations and conversations into 30-second soundbites," says Lauren Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist. "In reality, conversations would be at least 30 minutes probably — not 30 seconds."
As Crystal Britt, LCSW, explains to us, Dr. Brandolini likely never intended her short video to be viewed as a real conversation that anyone should replicate but rather as a breakdown of the mechanics of healthy communication. "To provide psychoeducational content, therapists have to break down interactions, which can make them feel very sterile," she says.
We reached out to Dr. Brandolini, who explained to Refinery29 that as Britt suggests, her intention was to create a conversational template. "The video was meant to normalize that sometimes it's necessary to end a friendship that does more harm than good," she says. "It was intentionally impersonal because it was meant to be a template — friendship issues are so specific to the individuals involved that it's impossible to generalize — and people should customize how they will. And of course, have a conversation longer than 30 seconds!"
Even if videos like Dr. Brandolini's are intended to be educational templates that we use to better understand ourselves and our relationships, a strange phenomenon occurs when we take them at face value and use them in place of real therapy. As we are fed more and more videos that strip any nuance from psychological concepts, some viewers are replicating what they see online. After all, these "how-to" therapy videos often appear alongside other instructional and aspirational content like skincare videos, makeup videos, and fashion videos. This is where things get dangerous. If these short videos are our sole entry point into the world of therapy, we can be left with only a rough understanding of complex terms.
Dr. Brandolini acknowledges that this "therapy-speak" phenomenon can complicate things. "It's wonderful that we're able to access information about, and normalize, mental health issues. However, as with anything, there is also the danger of misuse, misinterpretation and weaponizing," she says. "People can take these words and concepts out of context and use it to justify bad behavior. It can also feed unhealthy self-centeredness. That's why it's so important to be using mental health-focused media as an add-on to working through our issues with a licensed professional."
"I think if a person is in therapy, the point of treatment is to use therapeutic terminology and knowledge in their daily life," Britt says. "However, I think the potential of TikTok being the only source of learning about healthy therapeutic terminology is dangerous. If you're wondering if your significant other is narcissistic, don't throw it into the search bar; get a professional's point of view. It's what we trained for."
It's harder to call out somebody for being a bad friend or being self-absorbed if they mask their intentions with a bunch of pseudoscientific lingo they learned on TikTok.
Without a trained guide, many have begun to develop a habit of applying their half-baked understanding of psychology to situations where the concepts simply don't apply. If we feel uncomfortable or unhappy or anxious, we reach for a term that fits. Soon, we are speaking in a language filled with therapy-speak — even if we aren't necessarily qualified to understand it. In turn, important concepts begin to lose their meaning and our conversations and relationships are diluted with increasingly vague, meaningless turns of phrase.
It's easy to see the appeal of injecting psychological terms and concepts directly into our conversations with friends. Therapeutic language promises to tidy up all the mess that comes with human relationships into convenient little emotional boxes. In theory, there should be nothing wrong with this kind of emotional tidying — learning about psychological concepts and using what we've learned in our real lives should help us understand ourselves and express what we feel. "As a psychologist, I think it's great for people to learn more about mental health terminology," Dr. Cook tells us. "As with any topic, whether it's economics, government or social justice issues, the more we can learn and discuss, the better."
But as Dr. Brandolini's video and others like it demonstrate, in its most extreme form, therapy-speak threatens to take away from the humanity and empathy in our relationships. Is the real appeal of therapy-speak that we seem to tidy things up so much that we are able to elevate ourselves above the thorniness and complexity of real emotion? That we can convince ourselves that nothing we feel or do is ever wrong? "No," we can say smugly, "I'm not cancelling on you last minute. I'm setting boundaries." "No, I'm not ending our friendship. I'm reassessing my capacity for you."
These kinds of therapy-speak phrases hint at something sinister. At its worst, therapy-speak allows us to arm ourselves with language that masquerades as a kinder, more empathetic form of communication, while in reality it is weaponized to excuse our most selfish choices.
While therapists seem to find it hard to condemn the rise of therapy-speak, people who have experienced it in the real world often link it with this type of veiled selfishness.
"There's a difference between setting necessary and important boundaries in friendship and using therapizing language to justify, in short, being a bit of a prick," says Charlotte, a writer in London who has experienced therapy-speak firsthand. "It's harder to call out somebody for being a bad friend or being self-absorbed if they mask their intentions with a bunch of pseudoscientific lingo they learned on TikTok."
Sarah, 33, another Londoner who has come across the influence of therapy-speak in her friendships, adds: "I understand setting boundaries, sometimes, but I also hate treating other people like commodities. Constantly therapizing your friends is not it — it completely negates the other person's feelings."
"I think therapy-speak can come across as very clinical," says Louise, 28. "You really have to be careful about who you're talking to and take that into consideration. You can't just use these terms and phrases as a blanket template to end all your friendships. Every person is different so your conversations with them should all be different, too, depending on what they would actually want to hear from you."
Watching trained therapists on social media might help you to understand your relationships and your communication pitfalls but it doesn't qualify you to diagnose yourself or your relationships; to speak to your soon-to-be ex-friends like uninformed clients of your amateur therapy practice. By all means, end a friendship if you need to — but please don't do it in therapy-speak.