You don’t mean that: Sadness is not depression, restlessness is not ADHD...
But you already knew that. See why these terms are everywhere, and trace the very valid history of semantic inflation.
There’s a term for the way terms such as “OCD”, “trauma” and “depression” wander into situations where they don’t belong. It’s called “concept creep”.
It’s not really “traumatising” when a date goes badly. One isn’t “depressed” when the tickets to a highly anticipated concert sell out. And it’s not obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that keeps one from going to bed without putting the trash out first.
So why do we say it is? Part of the reason is that we’re hearing the words more often, and not always in the right context. A term used (accurately) in a therapy session or (often inaccurately) on social media may be repeated by the hearer, out of context, building into a habit. But still, why?
The answer here is simple: Humans are always trying to more accurately convey how we feel. The words available often fall short. It’s why dictionaries keep growing, why language was born, and why we often can’t explain why a film or a work of art has elicited tears.
So, at a time when people are discussing their own states of mind more often and more casually (and this is a good thing), they begin to cast about for words with which to describe ambiguous emotions. “Sad” doesn’t do justice to the long anticipation and immense disappointment of the missed concert. “Habit” doesn’t fully account for the unease one feels at the garbage task being left undone. The use of “depression” and “OCD” are attempts to convey to the listener that this was something more deeply felt.
It’s still wrong and risky, and we’ll come to why in a bit. But another aspect to why concept creep occurs so frequently in the mainstream today is the element of vanity. Particularly in the social-media age, with so many living in their personal spotlight, “talking about mental-health has taken on an element of glamour,” says psychologist Sneha Shah, co-author of the self-awareness self-help book What Shape Are You? (2023).
Whatever the motive or reason, the dangers of this kind of mislabelling are two-fold. First, and perhaps more significantly, flippant use of complex mental-health terms trivialises the experience of people with these disorders. These conditions are named, defined and treated because they are severe and debilitating. They are not emotions and moods that appear sporadically and then dissipate.
The second element of risk is personal. In self-diagnosing, without even at first meaning to, one can begin a narrative about one’s mental health that could build into an inaccurate self-image. A layperson is in no way qualified to make such a judgement; even most mental-health professionals would hesitate to self-diagnose.
Interestingly, psychology has a tradition of expanding concepts of harm and pathology, Nick Haslam, the professor of psychology at University of Melbourne who coined the term “concept creep” in a research paper in 2016, tells Wknd. It’s called semantic inflation. The concept of bullying, for example, was used in the 1970s to describe aggressive, intentional, repeated behaviours among children, that were perpetrated downward towards someone less powerful. This concept expanded by the 2000s to include behaviour by adults as well, both offline and online. “It now also includes acts that need not be intentional or repeated and don’t need to occur in the context of power imbalance as traditionally conceived,” Haslam says.
Similarly, the word trauma, initially used to describe a serious, devastating event, is now divided into what mental-health practitioners describe as trauma with a little t and trauma with a big T. “Big-T Trauma is generally related to life-threatening events with acute psychological impact such as a violent crime, natural disaster or loss of a loved one, while little-t trauma refers to incidents that cause significant distress such as the loss of a pet, losing a job, etc,” says Sukriti Das, a clinical psychologist and learning and development head with the online therapy platform Betterlyf.
For obvious reasons, however, the evolution can only be framed by those within the mental-health community. Even a trauma with the littlest t cannot be used to describe your feeling of suddenly realising you’ve left home without your wallet. What other words might you be misusing? Take a look at some of psychology’s most commonly miscast terms.
OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD
These are often treated as handy adjectives but are, of course, recognised mental-health conditions. “We are talking more about well-being and often confusing it with mental health so that any lack of happiness is seen as a sign of mental illness,” Haslam says. “Bouts of sadness are not depression, restlessness is not ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder), fear is not chronic anxiety disorder,” adds Shah.
Traumatising / Triggering
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.” Perhaps you are haunted by elements of your past, and struggling to deal with them. We recommend conversations with an expert whose job it is to help individuals process such a history. For those in pain because their favourite cricket / football / hockey team lost a tournament, again, we empathise with the disappointment, but this is not the term for it.
This is a tricky one, because it originates in a movie based on a play, so it seems like fair play to use it as one pleases. The film was Gaslight (1944; directed by George Cukor; starring Ingrid Bergman; based on a play by Patrick Hamilton). The story follows a woman whose seemingly caring husband is secretly trying to convince her that she is losing her mind.
Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the film and the term are now part of a cultural record of sinister crimes against women, enabled by power imbalances in an unequal society.
The fact that more people are alert to the dangers of being lied to by those they trust, is a positive evolution. “Gaslighting” was even picked by Merriam-Webster as 2022’s word of the year.
People of all genders are still gaslit, and no one should be. But a friend saying your sneakers don’t suit you because they don’t want you to wear them again because they have the exact same pair. That is not gaslighting.
As a rule, Shah offers, “try to describe emotions in the most basic terms first. Why not just use “hurt” or “cornered” to drive a point across?” It’s healthier for the argument / discussion too.
This refers to an imbalanced relationship where one person either enables the other’s self-destructive behaviour or enmeshes their own identity with that of their partner. If one is really in such a relationship, it’s a good idea to seek professional help to find a healthier way forward. But co-dependency is not the phenomenon of being unwilling to spend a month apart, or eat a meal alone. The question isn’t: Could I do this by myself? It’s: Is there a lack of boundaries here?
Now, for those feeling a little foolish or guilty, be kind to yourself. These are mistakes that millions are making. They’re ways of misperceiving that go back to Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis. “We like finding meaning in everything, to give ourselves a sense of autonomy,” says Das. “And psychology at its core is so relatable, people feel they can identify what is going on with them.” Of course, that’s not how it works. So be kind, but careful too.