Complaining circles are the antidote to therapy speak

Tired of hearing responses like “you’re seen” and “your feelings are valid”, my friends and I spent hours venting and it felt great

Hero image in post
photo: Sex Education, 2019, Eleven
Hero image in post
photo: Sex Education, 2019, Eleven

Tired of hearing responses like “you’re seen” and “your feelings are valid”, my friends and I spent hours venting and it felt great

By Darshita Goyal27 Jul 2023
10 mins read time
10 mins read time

TW: mentions of eating disorders and depression

On an overcast June evening, as my partner Ishaan and I waited for the ever-elusive bus number 1 to arrive, everything felt apocalyptically wrong. As Ishaan, an astro-enthusiast and self-proclaimed vibe-fairy, would say, “the energy was too heavy”, and I don’t know if mercury was in retrograde, but it sure felt like it. Our three months of living together in London was coming to an end and Ishaan was taking a flight back to India at the end of the week, sending us back into the complex realm of long distance with a four (five during daylight savings!) and a half hour time difference.

To top things off, our mouldy Bermondsey flatshare developed a mouse problem and a fly infestation all in the same week, plus we continued to have a leaky bathroom that the landlord refused - and, still, refuses - to fix. (Trust me, the rent is not cheap either.) Oh, and I was getting ready for my graduation the following week and none of my clothes seemed to fit right. The morning of this fateful day in June, while everything seemed to be falling apart, my therapist informed me that all those extreme emotions may have stirred a depressive episode, my first one ever. As if the atmosphere wasn’t stormy enough, my phone pinged to reveal a long, detailed and revealing text from my best friend/flatmate about how she had had the worst day ever at work.

It was one of those messages that was so emotionally fraught that I could see her lingering online in the seconds after, wondering if she should press “delete for everyone” before it was too late. (We’ve all been there…I’m thinking of you, cheeky 3638 word text with two “continue to read” signs that I sent to my ex in 2021). Anyway, without much thought, I began typing, “I’m really sorry Akanksha, how you’re feeling is completely valid,” and then immediately backtracked. Despite, or rather because I was overwhelmed right around when my best friend was vulnerable, my mind went on autopilot, whipping up disingenuous replies that just fill the space for a response.

It’s the sort of reply you would get from the Ticketmaster customer service bot after you tell them you signed up for Taylor Swift pre-sale and waited hours in queue but still failed to get any tickets. Well, actually there is a better turn of phrase for this depersonalised, minimum effort talk, it’s peak therapy-speak. You know, the words you hear from “self-aware” TikTok gurus who use confusing language and psychological terminology to avoid putting in the effort to discover how they actually feel. Or sometimes, to discard responsibility for how they feel, as in the case of Jonah Hill’s conflicting, alleged texts to former partner Sarah Brady, where he appears to pressure her to stop posting photos in bathing suits or go surfing with men if she wishes to stay with him - all under the guise of what his so-called "boundaries" are.

Indeed, that's part of why therapy speak is so commonplace, and can pop up in so many different contexts: it's so estranged from how humans actually that it becomes meaningless, substituting clear, productive communication with euphemism, passive aggression and - too often - grown-up sounding words that could signify just about anything depending on the context in which they're used. Therapy speak in relationships is basically like those TikToks which teach you how to professionally say things like "I want to quit" - rather than just saying what you mean, everything has to be couched in a demeanour of emotional maturity and psuedo-psychological jargon which often obscures the thing actually being discussed.

When I realised that I, too, had succumbed to this nice-sounding but ultimately superficial form of communication, something snapped. How did therapy-speak become so ingrained in my everyday language that I had forgotten how to communicate with my friends with compassion and honesty? Instead of acknowledging how unrealistic her manager’s expectations were or just hating on the capitalist system that has us working 8-hour jobs day after day, I was about to offer empty words, neatly packaged to look like validation. It wasn’t even my voice anymore. I could almost hear the TikTok life coaches telling me to add, “On another day I would love to hold space for your emotions, but I’m burnt out today and need to preserve my energy.”

Um, ew? Who is that? Even though I didn’t send those texts, the epidemic of therapy speak weighed just as heavy on my flatmate. When we reached home, she told me, “You’ve been having a terrible week as well, so I just don’t want to trauma-dump on you, forget the text, let’s just sleep.” More meaningless, clinical jargon. I wanted to scream and say that our relationship isn’t transactional, and I still wanted to listen to what was going on with her irrespective of how I was feeling – those two aren’t mutually exclusive despite what the internet may tell us. How did we get to a point where we can’t talk about what’s bothering us without cloaking it in layers of “boundaries” or worrying about it being misunderstood as toxic or narcissistic?

Honestly, while I’m glad access to therapy and self-care are becoming a priority, social media often reduces these complicated human emotions to catchphrases propped up in 30 second sound bites. Case in point: this viral TikTok from January when a psychologist provided a cold and distant script to break up with your friend. These videos pose one-size-fits-all solutions to very specific, hyper-individual problems and most times it just doesn’t stick. Like that one time I told a friend I used to be bulimic and she responded by saying we were in a safe space and my feelings were valid. Having known her for years, I was sure that her intention was to be helpful and actually listen to me but her words were so vague and bereft of real emotion that it felt distant. I wanted her to comfort me, to share how she really felt instead of serving up trite, rehearsed responses.

What’s more concerning, is that this so-called therapy speak is hardly ever used by actual therapists in session. As writer Daisy Jones writes in The Guardian, “From my own experience, therapy rarely focuses on the behaviour of another person, but rather how that behaviour might have made you feel, and why.” And as someone who has muddled through three therapists over the last five years, I agree. I’ve never actually heard the words “trauma-dumping” or “gaslighting” from a counsellor. Just online, and those categorisations have never comforted me, they’ve only ever made the situation feel more alienating.

So on that ominous night back in June, instead of giving into the temptation of superficially fixing things by sprinkling pseudo-therapeutic phrases, we decided to try something different. Akanksha was right, I was emotionally exhausted and probably not in the best place to offer advice. But what all of us could do, rather needed to do, was to vent and scream without feeling like it was taking up too much space.

And so that’s what we did. The three of us sat around in a circle and took turns to say life sucks in as many ways as we could think possible. POV:

“I’m tired of everything in my room smelling like fly-killing spray”

“I just want to buy that dress from Urban Outfitters and those shoes from Ganni without worrying about how much money that is”

“My body doesn’t move the way it used to and I don’t have the energy to fix it”

“The bus is always late, I have to leave an hour before and I’m still delayed”

“I want to burn this house down, why is the furniture so bad, why is the tap leaking, when will this end ughhh”

“I think I want to move back home but I can’t decide if I’ll hate myself for it”

“Why is the delivery fee for everything so high? I just want to have fried rice for dinner, is that too much to ask?”

“I want to quit my job it doesn’t make me happy but I don’t want to spend weeks feeling uncertain and hopeless again”

“I want to meet new people, my life feels so saturated”

“I want passport privilege, I just want to fly to Italy for the weekend without waiting for 5 months to get a visa appointment”

There was no pause to throw in blanket statements like “I’m sorry”, “you are seen” or “your feelings matter”. There were tears, hugs, the occasional screaming together into the abyss and lots of hand-holding. Human touch, eye-contact, sighs and just body language made our venting circle feel safe even though we didn’t label it a “safe space”. To be fair, at times it was hard not to respond with a validating statement. Somehow, dropping self-help speak seems to make very real emotions feel less messy and vulnerable. Saying “I hold space for your feelings” appears easier than actually sitting together after an uncomfortable conversation and letting the moment pass.

By allowing them to speak in their own language, free from clinical jargon, people can connect on a deeper level.
Dr. Becky Spelman

Despite the tricky pauses, there was something innately healing about being in a complaining circle; verbalising those frustrations that we were holding in felt cathartic and relieving. Dr. Becky Spelman, psychologist and the founder of Private Therapy Clinic notes that this may be because we didn’t have to package what we felt into tidy, acceptable responses to one another’s struggles. “Venting circles prioritise active listening, where individuals are given the opportunity to be fully present for others without judgement or interruption,” Spelman says. “By allowing them to speak in their own language, free from clinical jargon, people can connect on a deeper level and feel more comfortable sharing their true emotions, which can be a powerful source of validation and support.”

Of course excessive complaining can make life feel bleak and these spaces are in no way a replacement to professional therapy. But every once in a while, venting with your friends feels surprisingly good. It humanises our problems and reminds us that we’re not alone in struggling with the little things or the big things. Hearing Akanksha complain about how badly she needs a pedicure made me feel seen without using those very words. The next time I’m furious that my gel nail polish chipped from washing too many dishes, I know it’s not an overreaction. And sometimes, just having that reassurance, and a space to rant, goes a long way towards making you feel accepted.

If you suspect that you are struggling with a mental health condition, you should book an appointment with your GP to discuss potential treatment plans. Anyone looking for shorter mental health support or to explore available information can contact the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393.