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Using Therapy Speak As An Excuse to Be a Jerk

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Using Therapy Speak To Be a Jerk 

In the wake of two (still evolving) celebrity couple scandals, the internet is buzzing about what it means to have "boundaries" in a relationship. When does one partner asserting their needs and limits tip over into trying to control the other partner?

What everyone’s talking about 

Last week, Keke Palmer's boyfriend Darius Jackson criticized an outfit she wore to a concert, saying, "It's the outfit tho [sic].. you a mom." Fans came to her defense, but Jackson doubled down on the comments saying he’s representing his “standards & morals.” Days later, actor Jonah Hill's ex-girlfriend, pro surfer Sarah Brady, accused Hill of being emotionally abusive by sharing a series of IG Stories showing alleged texts between them, including one where Hill allegedly shared a lengthy list of "boundaries" (read: rules) for Brady to follow if she wanted to be with him.

“In both cases, men expressed a desire to control how their partners dressed and how much of their bodies they revealed,” says Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Women's sexuality has been guarded and controlled since time immemorial … so this is nothing new.”

What is new is the proliferation of mental health terminology or "therapy speak" and, in these cases, the weaponization of such words against a partner. “Therapy-speak can give people a sense of authority and makes others reluctant to question what they are being told,” says Saxbe.

When “therapy speak” goes wrong 

In Brady's Stories we see this play out as Hill uses words like "boundaries" and "triggering" to explain his demands, including dictating who she can spend time with (no women in “unstable places”) and how (nothing with those women “beyond getting a lunch or coffee or something respectful”). While Jackson doesn’t lean on “therapy speak,” per se, many are likening his  “morals” and “standards”  to Hill’s “boundaries” — an attempt to use language to legitimize control.

But that's not how boundaries work. The point of boundary-setting is for people to recognize when others are overstepping and respond accordingly rather than trying to change another person’s behavior. “One valuable lesson you can learn in therapy is that you can't change other people — the person you have the most power to change is yourself,” Saxbe says. “Any time people use therapy-lingo to change or control other people in their lives, it's a sign that the lessons of therapy haven't quite sunk in.” 

To be clear, setting boundaries can still be beneficial for mental health when used appropriately. “If you feel like you constantly fall into patterns where people are taking advantage of you, it might mean that your limits are not clear to others, and it can be helpful to work on expressing them more effectively,” says Saxbe. 

Your move

Don’t let someone else’s mental health journey infringe on your autonomy, says Rachel Louise Snyder, a journalist and author who has spent her career reporting on abuse and domestic violence. Her tips: 

1. If someone in your life is “prohibiting your freedom in a way that you would not prohibit yourself,” she says the key is to “get out.” 

2. Reflect on your boundaries and make sure that you’re using them as an internal guide rather than “set[ting] them on someone else,” she says.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to

ask an expert

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Last week, we asked you to vote on a question to answer. The winner was:

What’s the best hair-care routine for summer?

April Kayganich, hairstylist and curl expert, says: 

Summer activities usually mean you’re washing your hair more often. All that extra shampooing — combined with the summer heat and sun exposure, can dry out your hair. 

Focus on maintaining your hair’s hydration. If you have straight hair, try washing it less, and when you do, use a sulfate-free shampoo, which won't strip your hair of its natural oils. When you can, skip the full blow-dry and let your hair air-dry. Pro-tip: A summer hat or a UV protection spray can protect it from sun damage too.

Wavy hair typically needs hydrating shampoo and conditioner with ingredients like avocado oil or coconut oil to help maintain moisture. Hydrating products with almond oil, argan oil, and shea butter will be your natural hair’s best friend this summer. Protective styles are another great way to keep your hair from getting sun damaged but don’t forget to keep your roots and scalp hydrated with a scalp oil. And keep a curl refresh spray on hand to use between wash days. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read more here.

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smart follow

Michelle Elman
Michelle Elman

We feature experts, podcasts, orgs, and other accounts in the health and wellness space worth hitting “follow” on. Our pick this week is: 

Michelle Elman

Credentials: Author, speaker, life coach, and relationship expert

Where to follow: @michellelelman on Instagram and TikTok

Why we follow: Elman is all about teaching good communication so her clients and 254,000+ followers can have less stressful relationships. She's a board-accredited life coach who has given a TEDx Talk on body image and has helped create multi-platform series, including “Body Politics,” where she interviewed high-profile women about how they connect with their bodies and mental health. Her books (the fourth of which comes out August 17) provide useful and actionable steps to improve your communication skills and set helpful boundaries. (Sounds pretty good right now, no?). So, if you're looking for self-help without the fluff, gatekeeping, or vague advice, Elman is your one-stop shop.

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