In early July of this year, texts sent from the 21 Jump Street actor Jonah Hill to his ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady were posted online, sending the internet into a frenzy over the language and nature of the messages. The texts consisted of Hill expressing his discomfort with photos and videos of Brady, a professional surfer, in swimsuits on her social media. Hill outlined his “boundaries” that more closely resembled demands prohibiting her from being friends with fellow male surfers, and ending friendships with women in “unstable places”.
The actor has previously spoken openly about his relationship with therapy and his therapist, advocating its benefits, and giving his counsellor a platform in his documentary, Stutz. Twitter’s outrage, however, posited that Hill was not setting boundaries; instead, he was manipulating his partner under the guise of “therapy speak” and progressive language.
These behaviours have become a recent epidemic amongst young people, commonly used on social media sites like Twitter (now titled X) and TikTok. In addition, the 2023 Refinery29 article “Is Therapy-Speak Ruining Our Relationships?” by Meg Walters discusses the overuse of buzzwords often seen in counselling, and how it is negatively affecting relationships; platonic and romantic. Indeed, there now seems to be trepidation in “oversharing” being referred to as “trauma-dumping”, enjoying someone’s company as “codependency”, and in the case of Jonah Hill, setting demands for your partner as “boundaries”.
In no way am I trying to minimise or downplay the seriousness of these terms; this article is actually hoping to do quite the opposite. By overusing and devaluing words that describe genuine toxicity and abuse amongst interpersonal relationships, we are trivialising these behaviours which have catastrophic consequences. People actually experiencing gaslighting are being told online that everyone is being gaslighted, demeaning and reducing the severity of their experiences, and potentially trapping them in an unsafe environment. The Global Observer quoted a 1,742% rise in the use of the word “gaslighting”, also stating it was the most googled word in 2022.
The constant circulation and often incorrect usage of these terms can lead to confusion surrounding the actual definition, so I have compiled definitions and examples below that I found helpful in differentiating TikTok psychology from genuine examples.
A manipulative tactic in which a person, to gain power and control of another individual, plants seeds of uncertainty in another person’s mind.
What it is not: “My friend said that the sky is green, but I said that it’s blue.”
What it is: “My friend said that the sky is green, but I said that it’s blue. We argued because my friend said that the sky is green and I cannot process colour, but by the end of the argument they said that the sky is blue and it always has been. They’re not sure why I would say it’s green, but I convinced them that it’s true.”
A guide to define what you are comfortable with and how you would like to be treated by others.
What it is not: “I don’t like partying, but my partner does so I make them come home early or not go at all.”
What it is: “I do not want to go to parties, so I will stay home or do another activity instead of attending; I cannot, however, tell my partner to not go.”
A relationship dynamic when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed.
What it is not: “I really enjoy hanging out and spending time with this person.”
What it is: “I don’t feel complete without this person, I wish they would tell me what to do and we could spend all of our time together as I don’t feel “whole” without them otherwise.”
Unloading traumatic experiences on others without warning or invitation.
What it is not: “I’m quite upset at the moment because of [xyz]; can I talk about it?”
What it is (very subject to nuance as it is a relatively new term): Oversharing very personal details in an inappropriate setting/to an inappropriate audience to gain attention, validation or sympathy.
Circling back to Jonah Hill, we can clearly see that his requested “boundaries” for his ex-girlfriend are actually demands, and defining them as boundaries only leaves room for more people to manipulate and control partners under the guise of protection. Hill is only one example of the rapidly spreading “couch psychology” movement, gaining traction through social media without much regard for analysing its harmful implications, as it devalues real abuse within relationships.
These examples are all partial to nuance; in no way am I trying to define how a relationship should be constructed, as healthy relationships between two individuals look very different to everyone. The main takeaway, though, is that healthy relationships should be built on mutual trust, love, and the ability to communicate; all skills that take time to build and develop, but are doable and beneficial for you and the people around you.