June 6, 2023 - 7:00am

Holly Willoughby wants to know, “Are you okay?” Not about the cost of living crisis, or the massive counterattack in Ukraine, or the pressure on mortgages. No, Holly wants to know if you are feeling “shaken, troubled, let down” by “someone who you gave your love and support”, and if you feel a “desire to heal” and “process”. She is, of course, talking about Philip Schofield’s resignation after he admitted to having an “unwise but not illegal” affair with a younger colleague. 

Her address on Monday morning was a sermon of schmaltzy spin-doctor sorcery. Dressed in an angelic white dress with glacial poise, Willoughby delivered empty, predictable platitudes with the infantalising tone of a children’s TV presenter having to explain a devastating natural disaster. I’m surprised she didn’t ask everyone if they would like to hug it out. The BBC described her as “emotional”, when in reality she vacantly read from an autocued PR-perfect script like a modern Nurse Ratched: cold, clinical, and regurgitating pseudoscientific psychobabble.

The fact that Holly addressed the audience as if they were PTSD survivors — rather than viewers motivated by morbid curiosity, schadenfreude, and a voyeuristic desire to see a celebrity crash and burn — shows how common therapy-speak has become. You don’t need to spend long on Twitter or TikTok to find discussions about setting boundaries, healing your inner child, codependent relationships, different attachment styles, and being “triggered”. For every make-up tutorial there is now a video asking if you are an ‘empath’; for every cooking demonstration there is a clip of someone listing the “red flags” of “toxic” relationships. On Monday, walking home from working at a school, I even heard someone say, “Their behaviour… it’s giving bipolar disorder.”

Applying the endemic language of trauma isn’t self-care: it’s selfish. It pathologises quite ordinary behaviours or experiences: for example, not all disagreement is gaslighting, and not all conflict is abuse. It can make it difficult to discern what is mainstream and what is medical. How can I explain to my students that feeling sad, or worried, or angry can be perfectly normal, when everyone online is telling them that their sadness is depression, their worry is anxiety, and their anger is hysteria? The obvious rebuttal is that therapy-speak has always infiltrated everyday language eventually — think Freud’s death wish, slip of the tongue, denial or repression — but the scale and speed with which mental health terminology has defined our current zeitgeist is unprecedented. 

The other problem with decontextualising clinical terminology is that it does the opposite of what therapy actually intends to do. It shuts down honest discussions; it implies moral superiority; it can be used to excuse self-serving behaviours (for example, I’m going to be a bad friend because I need to “hold my space”); and, most dangerously, it can feed into these absolutist narratives in which everyone is either a hero or a villain, a victim or a sociopathic narcissist. 

Take Prince Harry, for example, who has often spoken about his “generational pain”, and focusing on “awareness”, “compassion”, “lived experience” and “listening to his body” so that he can “break the cycle”. Harry said: “to me it’s always so fascinating to hear about someone’s struggles and then being able to trace it back to not what’s wrong with you, but what happened to you?” 

Yet this is exactly it: by framing yourself as a passive vessel, a lump of clay moulded and shaped by everything that has happened to you, you undermine any sense of accountability or autonomy you have, and this feigned helplessness isn’t healthy for anyone. A similar thing happened on This Morning: by framing herself as a victim of being “lied to”, it’s not about what is “wrong” with Holly or the programme in general, but what happened to her.

In the right context and setting, therapy-speak can be a useful tool to help frame and discuss your experiences. Yet these are deeply precise, complex and specific terms that have become stripped of their true meaning. As Lori Gottlieb, author and psychotherapist says, “Instagram therapy” becomes “ego-directed, as if the points were always, I’m the most important person and I need to take care of myself.” Now imagine putting that in your Instagram handle.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.