The TikTok generation’s psychobabble turns mundane experiences into melodramas

Rhonda Fleming and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 American psychological thriller, Spellbound
Rhonda Fleming and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 American psychological thriller, Spellbound - AA Film Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, I overheard two women in a bar discussing a “sociopathic” ex-boyfriend.

The bar happened to be in West Hollywood – which meant the bar snacks were dried edamame rather than Scampi Fries – but from LA to London and Seoul to Sydney young people are now branding their exes “sociopaths” as a matter of course.

There are other labels generation TikTok like to slap on former lovers or friends when things turn sour. These people who’ve let them down in the usual banal ways tend not to be just sociopaths, for example, but psychopaths – as though the two words were interchangeable.

They’re also “toxic”, “narcissists” and “gaslighters”, who are continuously “disrespecting our boundaries”.

And whilst villainising exes has been a popular pastime forever (I spent many a happy hour in my teens and 20s doing precisely that), diagnosing them and others with mental disorders is part of a rising trend that experts are rightly concerned about.

In a report on Sunday, Dr Scott Lyons, a US based psychologist and author of the recent book, Addicted to Drama, warned about how today’s psychobabblers are co-opting these words to fuel their love of drama.

It’s not enough for those who did you wrong to be “weak”, “thoughtless” or “selfish”. No, they have to be Ted Bundy and Myra Hindley.

“Yet all of these [labels] feature specific diagnostic symptoms – like a checklist,” he said, “which are just being pushed aside so the terms can be used flippantly.”

I’m not sure the people using them are being flippant. A decade ago, there were armchair psychologists; now many will diagnose a politician, celebrity or acquaintance’s neurological state with complete confidence – a confidence once built up over years of training.

This lot don’t need any training. Not when they’ve got a TikTok habit (#therapyspeak has 9.8 million views), a love of grave and empty Instagram proclamations – “Don’t let them steal your peace” – and a victim mentality.

Because whilst it’s always fun to identify someone else’s boss or frenemy as clinically flawed, psychobabble is at its most beneficial when used to describe our own antagonists.

“It’s about setting up a clear oppressor/victim narrative,” says the UK-based therapist, Gillian Bridge, author of Sweet Distress: How Our Love Affair with Feelings Has Fuelled the Current Mental Health Crisis.

Every “fed-up woman” will describe the disappointing men in their lives as “narcissists”, she explains, while “gaslighting” can be “an equally lazy way to describe something that may actually be a matter of profound criminality – and risks conflating that with much less substantial issues.”

The rise of therapy-speak is also presumably about the lack of accountability characterising younger generations. If everyone who challenges you in even the smallest way has some form of neurological disorder, that means nothing can possibly ever be your fault.

The boss pulling you up on your poor performance is a “coercive controller”. The university professor saying something you don’t understand is “gaslighting” you.

The friend who disagrees with your assessment of the latest political scandal over Sunday brunch is “triggering” a series of past traumas in you.

Boom. A few words of medicalese can turn the most mundane experience into a melodrama. And again, young people have a long history of overreacting. There’s actually nothing wrong with that (as long as you grow out of it).

Those early histrionics can even be quite touching. But in the same way that claims of “my lived experience” cancel out critical thinking and discussion, adapting science to suit your narrative can both be dangerous and trivialise the impact of real mental illness.

Ask any Gen-Zer or Millennial what their generation’s biggest contribution to society is, and they’ll likely either say “the environment” or “the de-stigmatisation of mental health”.

As true crusaders on both accounts, they would be right. Yet by questing after non-existent disorders – for both themselves and others – and pathologising ordinary life, they risk undoing so much of that good work.

Just last month a Cambridge University study undertaken with the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit found that suppressing some of our negative thoughts and not giving every fleeting anxiety undue weight might be good for our mental health, after all.

I’d urge the psychobabblers to have a read of that, as well as two obituaries published last week. That of 102-year-old Phyllis ‘Pippa’ Latour – the war heroine parachuted into Normandy before D-day – and 94-year-old Anne Ponsonby – who was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2019 for her work as a wireless operator helping the French resistance against Nazi occupiers.

Both women thwarted danger, endured tragedy – and ended up living long, joyful lives. But they could probably have done with less drama.

So to be actively yearning for that drama from a safe, coddled vantage point at this precise moment in world history? Well, it’s hard to find a strong enough word for that.

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