Gaslighting, Narcissist, and More Psychology Terms You're Misusing
By Angela Haupt,2023-03-15
If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve probably picked up a few psychology terms without realizing it. Take “gaslighting”—which recently became so popular that it clinched the mantle of Merriam-Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year.
Other terms that have crept from the therapist’s couch into the public lexicon include love-bombing, triggered, grooming, and toxic. Frequently, mental-health experts say, when we overuse these words, we also misuse them.
Doing so “can dilute the meaning of the words themselves, and we know that words have power,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition, a nonprofit that aims to end stigma around mental health. “If we’re very quick to throw labels on something, it can derail nuanced, important conversations, and create this idea of an assumed meaning.”
While terms like gaslighting have existed in therapeutic practice for decades or longer, most only started to become common lingo within the past few years, fueled by use on social-media platforms. One viral Reddit post or TikTok video is all it takes for the masses to latch onto a previously overlooked word.
Here are 10 psychology terms mental-health experts say that we’re using the wrong way, plus what they really mean.
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Perhaps the most often misconstrued word of the past few years, “gaslighting” has been widely adopted as a way to describe any act that’s insensitive, a lie, or simply a difference of opinion. “I hear it all the time,” says Elisa Martinez, a psychotherapist based in California. “People often use it in this accusatory way—maybe the person who’s ‘gaslighting’ isn’t taking responsibility for their actions. But the reality is a lot darker.”
True gaslighting, she explains, occurs when someone manipulates you into questioning “your sanity, your experience, your memory, even your reality.” It often happens within abusive relationships (like the one between the married protagonists of the 1944 psychological thriller film Gaslight , from which the term originated). For example, someone might repeatedly insist that an event “never happened”—even though it did—or say something like, “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “You’re too sensitive.” “The intent of gaslighting really is to cause confusion and sow the seeds of doubt,” Martinez says. “It can be a very coercive and controlling tactic.”
You tripped and fell in front of a bunch of people? How traumatizing!
But therapists would prefer you use a more precise term, like embarrassing, mortifying, shocking, or upsetting. Trauma is “a serious, often chronic physiological disruption of the nervous system,” Martinez says. People with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, can experience intense distress that makes them feel like they’re reliving the horrible emotions of earlier traumatic experiences. Many PTSD sufferers, she adds, have died by suicide to escape the pain. “When we hear the use of the word ‘traumatized’ in this very casual sense, it trivializes what trauma and being traumatized actually is.”
The word “triggered” has become a common way to express feeling offended or shocked. (A recent search on Reddit revealed that people were triggered by a celebrity’s red-carpet dress, slow walkers, and a bad scene in an animated movie.)
In its truest sense, however, being triggered means encountering a reminder of a traumatic experience, followed by a response like flashbacks, self-harming thoughts, or a panic attack. It often feels like the trauma is happening again—or that it will at any second. For example, a war veteran could be triggered by hearing gunshots, leading to distressing flashbacks, Martinez says. Or someone recovering from a substance-use disorder might be triggered by seeing a character on TV using their drug of choice. “The brain and body respond as if they were in the moment again,” she says. “This can cause an emotional and physiological reaction before the person even realizes why they’re upset.”
That’s why some books, movies, and other types of media often include “ trigger warnings ”—an appropriate use of the term—to let consumers know the content might be disturbing for trauma survivors.
One of the internet’s favorite diagnoses is that someone is a narcissist—which has become shorthand for anyone who appears self-centered or entitled. The term is “thrown around so carelessly,” says Jacquelyn Tenaglia, a licensed mental health counselor based in Boston. “I see narcissism being especially misapplied when it’s used to label someone who exhibits qualities that someone might not like.”
While it might feel good to call your frenemy who only talks about herself a narcissist, mental-health experts suggest refraining. Narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis that can involve characteristics such as an exaggerated sense of talent and self-importance; fantasies of power and beauty; a tendency to take advantage of others; and a deep need for attention and admiration. It can also manifest as an inability to cope with criticism, and it’s most commonly diagnosed in men , Tenaglia says. Treatment typically consists of talk therapy and, in some situations, medication.
Say two people are newly dating, and one is lavishing the other with gifts and compliments. When someone makes grand gestures to the object of their affection, bystanders can be quick to call it “love-bombing”—though actually, it could be totally normal excitement.
“Love-bombing is inundating somebody with love and affection, either to make up for abusive behavior or to control or manipulate somebody,” Torres-Mackie says. For example, a man might shower his girlfriend with excessive attention and extravagant trips to make her feel obligated to and dependent on him. True love-bombing is relatively rare and most commonly used in abusive relationships, often by people with narcissism. Clearly, employing the term correctly requires context—and a thorough understanding of the reason for the showy displays.
People tend to attach “toxic” to anything or anyone they find upsetting. (Your boss is toxic, the barista who makes you wait 15 minutes is toxic, that pop star’s fandom is definitely toxic.) But Torres-Mackie prefers to use it to describe truly abusive situations in which someone intentionally causes harm. “If somebody in your life causes severe emotional damage, that is toxicity,” she says. “If somebody isn’t a good match for you, or is a difficult person, that doesn’t mean they’re toxic”—and slapping the label on them could be unfair or even harmful.
Some politicians use this term—inaccurately and dangerously— to spread anti-LGBTQ misinformation , which then circulates on social media. It’s also misused elsewhere online. People on the internet have started declaring that any older person dating a younger one is “grooming” them. But determining if that’s the case requires more nuance than a computer-chair diagnosis allows.
True grooming occurs when someone develops a relationship with a younger person, potentially a minor, with the intention of sexually abusing them, Torres-Mackie says. It often occurs via online communication, and signs include undermining the victim’s relationships with their family and friends; gaining trust through gifts and attention; and desensitizing them to touch by, for example, hugging or tickling. Concluding that grooming is at play in any age-gap relationship is “an assumption of the younger person in the relationship having no agency or power,” she adds. In reality, if that younger person is an adult, he or she might be making their own decisions, no abuse involved.
People often assume that trauma-bonding “is when two people share with each other their experiences of trauma, and that brings them closer,” Torres-Mackie says. Having a word to describe such scenarios would be helpful—but it’s not this one.
According to mental-health experts, trauma-bonding actually refers to the connection or attachment between an abuser and his or her victim. One example of that is Stockholm syndrome, a coping mechanism that occurs when someone develops positive feelings toward their captor or abuser.
Martinez describes a trauma-bond as “the emotional bond—and more than that, the hormonal attachment—that’s experienced by the abused person.” Often, she explains, an abuser alternates between intense demonstrations of love and abuse, and the victim’s brain becomes wired to latch onto those positive experiences of relief. “This can create this feeling that the abused person needs the abuser to survive,” she says. “It’s often mistaken for love.”
Don’t feel like going to a party? Fair, but it would probably be incorrect to label yourself “antisocial.” The term is often colloquially used to indicate a lack of desire to be around other people, but it actually refers to a personality disorder associated with repeatedly disregarding and violating the rights of others.
“It’s marked by criminal behavior, impulsivity, lack of empathy, and a lack of awareness about how you impact other people,” Torres-Mackie says. Those who have the disorder might be deceitful, reckless, and manipulative, and will likely have experienced symptoms for the majority of their life. So next time you want to stay home, tell your friends exactly that.
A good venting session is lots of things: affirming, a relief, the way two people might bond. But pouring your heart out to a friend about all the hard things you’re dealing with isn’t necessarily “trauma-dumping”—a term popularized on TikTok. The actual definition of this trendy term is “sharing specific details about a traumatic experience with somebody who isn’t ready or doesn’t want to hear it,” Torres-Mackie says—particularly in a repeated or unsolicited way, or at an inappropriate time.
Those on the receiving end of trauma-dumping are at risk of experiencing secondary trauma that leaves them drained or anxious. For example, someone might share graphic details about her abusive relationship with a friend who endured a similar experience, which could be triggering. The goal of trauma-dumping tends to be soliciting a response, Torres-Mackie says—unlike healthy venting, which is about getting something off your chest.