From The Straits Times    |

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“I’m triggered.” “The relationship was toxic.” “Could you respect my boundaries?”

“Therapy speak” – specific traditionally therapeutic terms related to psychological concepts and behaviours –  is increasingly prevalent in day-to-day conversations, extending beyond clinical contexts. It can be observed in various aspects of our lives, from social media and group chats to dating apps.

But what exactly do phrases such as gaslight, trauma, and boundaries mean? We highlight some of the most commonly used therapy terms and how to interpret them.


In everyday conversations, the concept of accountability involves acknowledging and taking ownership of your actions or contributions within a given situation. Accountability emphasises the recognition that each individual carries a certain level of responsibility in any relationship or event, regardless of its magnitude. This extends to the idea that our actions can influence events, either positively or negatively. Asking someone to “take accountability for your actions”, for example, means accepting responsibility for the specific role they played in any given moment or circumstance.


Boundaries refer to the personal limits we establish to safeguard our well-being and maintain a sense of safety. Boundaries primarily serve as guidelines for ourselves rather than rules for others to follow. They exist to help us navigate social interactions, regulate our energy, protect our personal space, and attend to our own needs effectively.

When we casually attribute our problems to a violation of these boundaries, we often place the blame externally. It’s important to recognize that most of the time, other people may not be aware of our specific boundaries, so criticising someone for crossing them can be an inaccurate use of the term.


Codependency can be described as a situation where an individual looks to find their own happiness or fulfilment in another person. It signifies an excessive emotional or psychological dependence on someone else.

For instance, if you convey to someone that your entire world revolves around them, it may not just be a heartwarming sentiment. In some cases, it can represent a genuine life approach rooted in codependency. At its most extreme, codependency manifests when one person becomes unable to undertake any actions or make decisions without the involvement or approval of another individual.


You’d hear this term pretty often – gaslighting is a form of deceitful manipulation in which the perpetrator seeks to undermine another person’s perception of reality. When confronted about their actions, a gaslighter typically denies involvement and avoids taking responsibility for their behaviour.

According to the American Psychological Association, the term “gaslighting” originally referred to a level of manipulation so severe that it could potentially lead to mental illness or be used as a pretext for committing the gaslighted individual to a psychiatric institution. However, it is now more broadly applied to describe manipulative tactics used by one in general.


While we often use the term casually to describe someone who appears self-absorbed or vain, it’s important to note that narcissistic personality disorder is a recognized psychiatric condition. This disorder is characterised by several key symptoms, including an inflated sense of self-importance, a strong sense of entitlement, and a marked lack of empathy.

When someone exhibits narcissistic traits, they tend to prioritise their own interests above all else, often at the expense of others. However, when it comes to genuine narcissistic personality disorder, the effects are more profound. Individuals with this disorder frequently struggle with forming and maintaining meaningful relationships, often finding themselves isolated or lacking in close friendships. They may also experience emotional detachment from others, making it challenging to connect on a deep emotional level.


In therapy contexts, the term “toxic” is often employed to characterise relationships within the realms of romance, family, or work that create feelings of being unsupported, uncared for, misunderstood, or belittled.


From a clinical perspective, trauma refers to the emotional distress that arises in response to a perceived threat to one’s life or safety. Traumatic experiences often stem from events like war, natural disasters, or instances of abuse or assault.

It’s important to note that the term “trauma” is subjective in nature. What one person finds traumatic, another may perceive as a minor issue. One defining feature of trauma is its lasting psychological impact, where events from the past continue to influence an individual’s present experiences and emotional well-being.


The term “triggered” is often thrown around casually in conversation, but in clinical contexts, being triggered refers to the experience of heightened emotions, such as fear and hyper-vigilance, when encountering a person, place, or thing associated with a past trauma. Similar to the concept of boundaries, understanding one’s personal triggers is an introspective process. For example, a war veteran might be triggered by the sound of a helicopter overhead.