Why You Need To Watch Out For 'Thera-Posing' When Dating

For the longest time, when it came to dating apps, sex was the biggest seller. Singles relied on their looks to garner as many right swipes or matches as possible, and there wasn't much more to it than that. But what's selling these days is mental health. "This is part of the competitive advantage," psychology professor at the University of California, Davis Paul Eastwick told The New York Times. "Instead of being like, 'I'm 5-11, and I can bench press some large amount,' it's like, 'I have grappled with the challenges of my childhood, and I've thought deeply about my issues.'"

Although it's great that the stigma around mental health is shrinking and more people are willing to talk about it, it's given rise to "therapy speak," also known as "thera-posing." Therapy speak is when people use mental health and psychology-related jargon in everyday conversations, but rarely use it as they should. "I want to be clear that there's no reason why people who are not professional psychologists should be expected to use these terms correctly," psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb told The New Yorker. "But there's a lot of inaccuracy."

It's this inaccuracy that leads to mental health language being weaponized (as we saw with Jonah Hill's texts to his ex) and because of this, singles aren't having it. According to Plenty of Fish's 2024 Dating Trends, 33% of people know someone who's thera-posed, with Gen Z, at 42%, being subjected to the behavior the most. No matter who's doing the armchair diagnosing, it's dangerous. But if it's someone you're dating, then you really need to see that for what it is: a red flag.

Why thera-posing is problematic

First things first: the only people who should be using mental health language are therapists. Your friends aren't therapists, whoever you're dating is not your therapist, and you're not their therapist either. Although some of this terminology can come up early on when dating someone new, especially when explaining "boundaries" and/or "trauma," both of which are technically therapy speak, there has to be a limit. There's a fine line between using mental health jargon to communicate, and overusing and misusing terms that should be left in a therapist's office.

"It's wonderful that we're able to access information about, and normalize, mental health issues. However, as with anything, there is also the danger of misuse, misinterpretation, and weaponizing," clinical psychologist Arianna Brandolini, PsyD told Refinery 29. "People can take these words and concepts out of context and use it to justify bad behavior ... That's why it's so important to be using mental health-focused media as an add-on to working through our issues with a licensed professional."

If someone wields their "attachment style" as an excuse for their bad behavior, that's a misuse of mental health terminology just as much as labeling someone a "narcissist" because they upset you. According to a 2023 study published in StatPearls, only 0.5% to 5% of the US population have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). So is that person in question really a narcissist? Possibly, but chances are slim — and that's the problem with thera-posing. Psychology-related terms, when used correctly, are far more nuanced, because mental health is nuanced.

How to respond to thera-posing

If someone you're dating is dropping mental health jargon like it's their job, it's time to shut them down. "I would always be asking questions, like, 'What do you mean by that? What are you looking for when you ask me to confirm or clarify what this person might be like in my own eyes?' And that's not just in my client work but also in my personal relationships," therapist Rotimi Akinsete told Vice. "If I'm not willing to validate them, then I will say so. Validating someone else's view when I don't understand or agree with them is not fair on them or on the person they're trying to get me to comment on — certainly not."

Asking questions in general is the best way to respond to someone being rude or saying things they shouldn't. It forces them to look inward and examine why they're using such language, in this case, therapy speak, and highlights that it's time to change the subject. 

Although this dating trend is something to watch out for, it does illustrate how far we've come as a society in regard to mental health acceptance. "I'm a baby boomer," biological anthropologist and chief science adviser for Match.com Dr. Helen Fisher told The New York Times. "In the '60s and '70s, this is not what we were trying to sell. We were trying to sell intelligence and being fun and being creative and being career-oriented." In that respect, thera-posing being a result of more people being in therapy is good. But it's still a red flag that should give you pause.