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What Did You Say? Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Other Commonly Misused Psychological Terms

“You’re gaslighting me.”

“That guy is narcissistic.”

“Respect my boundaries!”

“My high school English class traumatized me.”  

“Experts” on television shows, people on social media, friends, and others we meet misuse these (underlined words above) and other psychological words. It’s easy to copy the language we hear without knowing if it’s correct. 

Individuals and society suffer when we use psychological terms incorrectly:

  • We discount and stigmatize serious mental health disorders. 
  • We pass on wrong ideas about mental health disorders.
  • We call normal experiences unhealthy.
  • We identify ourselves as having a mental health disorder when we don’t.

so what do thee terms actually mean?

Here’s a list of some common mental health words with accurate definitions and with their popular definitions. Notice the differences.

Gaslighting

  • Mental health: “a form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity (Psychology Today, 2024).”
  • Common use: when another person does something the other person doesn’t like (O’Neill, 2023).

Narcissism

  • Mental health: Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a psychological diagnosis. “A pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy (American Psychological Association [APA], 2013)
  • Common use: rude or selfish behavior (O’Neill, 2023).

Boundaries

  • Mental health: “A psychological limit that marks the distinction between behavior that does not cause emotional harm and behavior that causes emotional harm (A Guide to Psychology and it’s Practice, 2023).”
  • Common use: implies self-centeredness (O’Neill, 2023).

Trauma

  • Mental health: when an individual person is exposed “to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (APA, 2013). “
  • Common use: any upsetting experience (O’Neill, 2023). 

“OCD”

  • Mental health: “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.” The person can’t control these symptoms even if they want to (APA, 2013).
  • Common use: a set of behaviors observed in the moment (O’Neill, 2023). 

Why do our words matter?

Clients and therapists need to understand each other. It would be easier for everyone if we all used the same word to mean the same thing.  That doesn’t happen in the real world. Instead, we assume we know what the other person is saying based on our knowledge of the word. Assumptions aren’t correct most of the time. It’s healthier to ask the other person, respectfully and without judgment, what the word or phrase they used means to them.

Challenge yourself to identify the words you might use incorrectly. You can find a lot of information about misused mental health words on the Internet. Think about looking up the words you use to describe people. If you do this even a little bit, you will adjust the way you use words and expand your vocabulary. Most important, you will gain new understanding of mental health disorders.

Are you confused about what your own symptoms mean and want to understand yourself better? The media and friends are not reliable sources of mental health information. Talk to a Sea Glass Mental Health therapist!

Meet The Author

Pam Wagner, Clinical Therapist and Social Worker at Sea Glass Mental Health in Arizona

PAM WAGNER

LMSW, LPC, CTS-1

Meet The Author

Pam is a Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health. She works with adults, couples, and families. Pam specializes in female childhood trauma, chronic pain, PTSD, and EMDR.

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