I was going through a breakup when I started therapy post-pandemic. My friends were telling me that I needed to work on healthier emotional boundaries. They said I was probably experiencing trauma from a toxic ex. Most likely, I’d been in a codependent relationship.

When I went to fill out the intake questionnaire before my first appointment, I regurgitated what I’d heard. I was seeking therapy to “establish healthier emotional boundaries because of a codependent relationship that had left me traumatized.”

But after a few sterile sessions full of the jargon I’d picked up from friends and the internet, I stopped using these terms—trauma, codependence, emotional boundaries. I was using language to distance myself from reality. I was confusing self-preservation for emotional maturity.

It’s not like these words were entirely inaccurate. It’s that they’d become clichés, shorthand that kept me from understanding the nuances of my own experience. I wasn’t undergoing “trauma.” But I was scared of what another romantic relationship would look like and worried about whether it would turn out the same way this one had.

I’m not alone in my use of “therapy speak.” Thanks to social media, terms once confined to clinical settings are ubiquitous in everyday conversations. A difficult roommate is “toxic”; conflict is “abuse”; every ex-boyfriend is a “narcissist”; and stress is always “trauma.” We are all “victims”; we are all “gaslit.”

Sometimes, of course, these words are warranted. With mental illness on the rise, it’s helpful to have common language at our disposal. As more people discuss their mental health, therapy itself is becoming destigmatized. Hearing other Christians talk openly about abuse may be the encouragement a victim needs to come forward. Acknowledging a painful childhood as “traumatic” may free someone to seek professional help.

But all of us, and Christians in particular, should be careful about overrelying on therapy speak to describe our relationships with others. This language has consequences—not only for understanding our own lives rightly but for living together as the body of Christ. How we speak shapes what we do, and therapy speak might be limiting our ability to love our neighbors well.

Overusing therapy speak—or using it out of context—conflates different kinds of difficult experiences. That conflation can be confusing at best and harmful at worst.

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Take, for instance, a social media video that came across my feed a few years ago, in which a woman describes skipping a meal as “self-harm.” Of course, this may indicate a pattern of disordered eating. But in many cases, though skipping breakfast is unfortunate, it’s also benign. Classifying one missed meal as self-harm undermines the seriousness of what that term really means.

Then there’s the word trauma. I’ve heard it used to describe a difficult class at school or even an encounter with a centipede in my first apartment (true story). But when trauma becomes a fair characterization of normal conflicts or everyday stresses, its real meaning—“exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”—gets minimized.

Using words like toxic and gaslighting as sloppy shorthand for normal conflicts with parents, professors, and friends is dishonest, even when done without ill-intent. It dilutes the meaning of serious words for people who’ve undergone serious suffering.

For example, when abuse describes an argument between roommates, it’s no longer a helpful word for those who’ve experienced real mistreatment, including in the church. For congregations that are reckoning with actual instances of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or the abuse of authority, it’s especially important to be precise with language. Overusing a word can take away its severity, making light of the heaviness it holds for those walking through dark valleys.

Overusing therapy speak can keep us from hearing each other. It can also give us an excuse to stop listening altogether. It’s hard to argue for reconciliation when a friend deems your relationship “toxic” or “problematic.” Nobody can push back on plans canceled for “self-care.” And “emotional boundaries” just can’t be crossed.

When we use therapy speak to shut down conversations, relationships become dictatorships, with one person wielding terms over another. A me-versus-them dynamic centers ourselves rather than others. I feel unsettled about something you do; because of that, I need space. We seek to minimize any conflict, discomfort, or inconvenience.

This deflection of responsibility discourages both introspection and even honest confession about the ways we fail to love our neighbors. Labeling your friend as a “narcissist” is easier than recognizing the part you play in the dynamic. It’s far easier to set an “emotional boundary” than to sacrifice for someone else, especially when it feels like they’re being annoying or unreasonable.

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Of course, sometimes, boundaries are warranted. Sometimes, relationships must end. But cutting people out of our lives should always be done carefully and thoughtfully. Therapy speak can simplify what should be a process of discernment and prayer about our own roles in a relationship into a black-and-white judgment that doesn’t consider others’ complexities, mistakes, and imperfections. My mom remembers a conversation differently; she’s “gaslighting” me, and I won’t speak with her anymore. My emotionally immature colleague didn’t respect my time during a meeting; he’s “toxic,” and not worth the trouble of getting to know.

Our brothers and sisters will annoy us, hurt us, and misunderstand us. Sometimes, this will require a private conversation to clear the air (Matt. 18:15), but often won’t warrant estrangement—or wielding these words as weapons.

God doesn’t promise perfect relationships, and we should be asking the Lord to search our hearts, to identify the planks in our own eyes (Matt. 7:5). We need to be honest about “any offensive way” within instead of assuming ourselves to be the victim (Ps. 139:23–24).

Unquestioning validation” from those around us feels great in the short term. Distancing ourselves from those who have offended us is easy and can even be misconstrued as accountability or justice. But these relational quick fixes aren’t helpful in the long run—especially if what we want is real Christian community.

For Christians, that community is eternal. It’s also messy. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized that through hard relationships, we realize how much we need God’s grace: “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”

Therapy speak just might be making us less patient, less kind, and less generous, slower to forgive and quicker to anger. Our culture too easily tosses people aside over difficulties that are converted into trauma or toxicity. We limit the fruit that comes from living together. We turn sacrificial love into a burden.

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This is an opportunity for Christians to be countercultural—not by promoting unhealthy relationships, closing down conversations about mental health, or rejecting the insights that therapy provides, but simply by using our words carefully and by seeing people beyond the labels we ascribe to them.

After settling into therapy, I found the slow (and oftentimes ugly) practice of expanding on my emotions to be a fruitful one. My therapist helps translate what I am saying into the terms that make sense for each situation. To be honest, sometimes I just need help figuring out strategies for conflict resolution. My therapist often reminds me that “it takes two to tango”; she confronts me thoughtfully and straightforwardly about how I might be misrepresenting someone else. Our process together has shown me how important it is to have a good support system—a system that can “carry each other’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) with patience and grace.

Mia Staub is editorial project manager at Christianity Today.

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