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Deciphering Psychologese

Navigating Psychotherapy Jargon

We can thank (or blame) modern psychology for the dumpster full of jargon that has seeped into our everyday language. Self-esteem. The unconscious. Connection. Validation. Authenticity. Codependency. Freudian slip. Boundaries. Conditioning. Not that psychology coined all these terms, but they're prominent in our psychology-friendly culture. At times, the words truly capture the event or construct we're describing. But sometimes they're so over-used they lose their meaning.

Imagine this snippet from a therapy session:

Client: "My husband doesn't validate me, and that deprives my sense of self-worth."
Therapist: "Your inner child is looking for a hug from daddy."
Cl: "Yeah, my authentic self is seeking connection."
Th: "But you defend against boundary violations that might lead to enmeshment."
Cl: "Uh huh. I've been conditioned that way."
Th: "Mmmm..."

What? Such exchanges have so many 50-cent words that it takes a thesaurus and cryptologist to figure out what's going on. While psych-jargon may be a useful shorthand for some, for others it clouds important emotions and ideas that need to be shared. Furthermore, without a clearly understood definition of terms, therapist and client could throw jargon back and forth for an hour (or longer) and completely miss the point.

This happened to me early in my training. A client came to discuss her issues with codependency. As a fresh psychologist-to-be armed with plenty of book knowledge, I assumed we were talking about the condition where one person is psychologically dependent in an unhealthy way on someone who is addicted to a drug or other self-destructive behavior. After two months of unproductive work, I finally asked the client what she meant by "codependent." She said it meant she was shy and unassertive. The two are definitely related, but not exactly the same issue. We spent two months barking up the wrong tree because we didn't take the time to define our terms.

Therapy is such a warm, empathic (here we go with the jargon again) environment that it's tempting to believe we're always on the same page. Therapists assume clients know "psychologese" because we talk that way all the time. Clients assume therapists understand their language because, well, that's what we're paid for. But as people with different jobs, experiences and education, misunderstandings are to be expected.

The purpose for this blog is empowering clients to get the most out of their therapy. The empowered client is free to ask the therapist to define any term that isn't crystal clear. This goes for all reflections, observations, interpretations and homework assignments, too. Part of the commodity you pay for in therapy is the words the therapist says to you. Ask her to give that commodity to you in a way you can understand and use.

Does that resonate with you?

More from Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP
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