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Are you using these ‘therapy-speak’ terms correctly? Experts explain

By Kristen Rogers and Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — Gaslighting, breadcrumbing, gray rocking: With growing awareness of mental health has come the rise of “therapy-speak” in online discourse. The increasingly popular terms can capture the ways people treat us, or how we respond to such behavior.

But the trend is “a double-edged sword,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Arianna Brandolini in an April episode of the CNN podcast The Assignment with Audie Cornish.

“People are now able to talk about mental health more freely. They’re able to get information more freely. It’s helping us destigmatize things. It’s helping people feel like they have community,” said Brandolini, who is based in New York City. But it has its drawbacks. “In terms of the online space, you’re sound-biting things, and you’re throwing out words that are much more complicated and much more nuanced.”

Amateur diagnoses — given by people online and in personal relationships — aren’t always accurate. That’s why CNN explored six of these buzzwords that gained traction due to celebrity news, TikTok trends and more to help regular folks better understand the behaviors they are seeing and address them.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting has long been one of the most widely used of these catchphrases — in fact, Merriam-Webster deemed the term its word of the year in 2022, after experiencing a 1,740% increase in searches for the term. What added fueled to the fire of its popularity was when alleged texts between actor Jonah Hill and surfer Sarah Brady, his former girlfriend, sparked conversation about the concept.

Gaslighting is a “highly calculating form of manipulation — which involves destabilization — of one individual by another over a protracted period of time,” Toronto-based psychologist Dr. Monica Vermani told CNN in an August interview. Vermani is author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.”

Someone who gaslights, often a close contact the victim trusts, attempts to destabilize and control a person by attacking their mental faculties to make the victim think their emotional stability, credibility or memory is flawed — leading the victim to distrust themselves and become dependent on the gaslighter.

If you feel like someone constantly mocks your ability to remember what happened, thinks your friends have bad intentions or acts as if their feelings matter more than yours, you might be experiencing gaslighting. Confront the problem with this expert advice.

What are boundaries?

The idea of boundaries is another therapy-speak term that came up during the Hill-Brady situation.

Boundaries are statements — expressed through words or actions — for what you expect, need or want in different situations based on your values, priorities or limits, experts previously told CNN.

Boundary setting is meant to protect those things for the sake of your overall health, emotions, beliefs, time and more, and to keep relationships running smoothly and mutually respectful — not to control someone’s behavior.

Determine what your boundaries are by reflecting on your needs, values, limits and priorities, experts said. Build self-awareness by recognizing situations you tend to avoid can also reveal where you might need boundaries, since avoidance can be due to the anticipation that someone will overstep. Read this for other tips on setting boundaries.

What’s a narcissist?

She’s a narcissist, he’s a narcissist, they’re a narcissist — we’re all narcissists!

Except, not really. While everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum of narcissism as a personality trait, only 1% or 2% of the population has narcissistic personality disorder, experts told CNN in August.

There are three types of narcissists, each describing a narcissist’s MO to feeling special: overt, covert and communal.

Overt narcissists cope by feeling superior to others, so around them you may feel like you’ll always be less than in the other person’s eyes. Covert narcissists, on the other hand, feel special when they are seen as the person who suffers the most, and their struggles will always overshadow yours. Then there are communal narcissists, who like being perceived as the most altruistic person in a group.

If you’re on the receiving end of any of these patterns, as well as second-guessing yourself or feeling disconnected from your feelings, you might be dealing with a narcissist.

What is gray rocking?

When it comes to how to cope with a narcissist’s dramatic tactics, experts suggested you become a “gray rock.”

It involves responding to narcissists in concise, bland ways until they lose interest, experts previously told CNN.

When the narcissistic person in your life rages or makes charged comments to get your sympathy, praise or outrage, gray rocking can be accomplished with phrases such as “OK,” “Sure,” or “You’re entitled to your opinion” — all of which address the person without allowing yourself to get emotionally sucked in. If the person sees they can’t manipulate you, they are likely to back off.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Amid the various social media trends of this year were memes or videos of people doing comically impulsive things — with the tagline “I let the intrusive thoughts win.” Except, for people with mental health disorders, actual intrusive thoughts can be distressing due to their often violent, disturbing or sexually inappropriate nature.

These repetitive and unwanted thoughts can pop up out of nowhere, experts told CNN in October. Some common intrusive thoughts include suddenly envisioning pushing your partner off a cliff while you’re hiking with them, or wondering if you’re a pedophile because you think children are adorable.  

But people with intrusive thoughts aren’t dangerous because they don’t act them out, experts said.

Though experts don’t know the cause of intrusive thoughts, there are treatments available — such as therapy and healthy lifestyle habits, including sleep and stress management.

What is breadcrumbing?

One toxic behavior in the modern dating scene is “breadcrumbing,” the term for sporadic acts of attention that don’t result in anything meaningful for the victim — who may be seeking commitment to a serious relationship or simply emotional vulnerability from a hot-and-cold perpetrator, experts told CNN earlier this month.

Breadcrumbing can look like cycles of being romanced with long phone calls, and the person going ghost for days or weeks — creating confusion, anxiety and self-doubt for the target.

If breadcrumbing is happening in a relationship that’s important to you, you can address it and give the person a chance to change.

Using therapy-speak terms

A therapist can help you determine which of these terms reflects your feelings and experiences. Working with a therapist to untangle and heal yourself from the patterns of any of the more harmful therapy-speak behaviors is sometimes necessary.

“It’s in the therapy room that we’re able to actually talk about how … you apply this concept and this word in an appropriate way, in a way that’s actually going to be healthy, and approach relationships as opposed to (making) them unhealthier,” Brandolini said of all therapy-speak terms.

You can find a therapist by searching online or within the databases of organizations such as the American Psychological Association, The Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists, and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

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