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Session 271: Being Mindful About How We Use Mental Health Terminology

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

Over the past few years, you’ve probably found yourself online viewing and reacting to bite size pieces of mental health information. At times in an attempt to better understand ourselves and the world we live in, we digest and share pieces of information that we don’t fully understand or properly reflect our experiences. Take for example the terms trauma bonding, gaslighting, and narcissism. All terms that you’ve probably heard before, and maybe even used in your everyday life. But, are you using them correctly?

Joining me today for another one of our Group Chat conversations are my friends and colleagues Dr. Ayana Abrams and Dr. Joy Beckwith, both psychologists in Atlanta. During our conversation we break down the definition of key terms we’ve noticed people using online and share suggestions on how to be more mindful around information online.

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Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke

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Session 271: Being Mindful About How We Use Mental Health Terminology

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 271 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.

[SPONSORS’ MESSAGES]

Dr. Joy: Over the past few years, you’ve probably found yourself online viewing and reacting to bite-size pieces of mental health information. The difficult part of navigating the interwebs is deciphering information from misinformation, especially as it relates to our mental health. At times, in an attempt to better understand ourselves and the world we live in, we digest and share pieces of information that we don't fully understand or properly reflect our experiences. Take for example the terms trauma bonding, gaslighting, and narcissism, all terms that you've probably heard before and maybe even use in your everyday life. But are you using them correctly?

Joining me today for another one of our group chat conversations are my friends and colleagues, Dr. Ayanna Abrams and Dr. Joy Beckwith, both psychologists in Atlanta. In our conversation, we break down the definition of key terms we've noticed people using and misusing online, how and why that language was shared incorrectly, and we share suggestions on how to be mindful around information online. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession, or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in-depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here’s our conversation.

Dr. Joy: The group chat has assembled once again and I'm excited to chat with y'all about some of the terms that it feels like have been used very widely, I think mostly on social media, that are often being either misused or used incorrectly altogether. I know that you have also seen these memes and people sharing all this stuff and so I just wanted to get your take on some of these terms that I think people should just be really careful about. The one that comes to mind first is trauma bonding. Look at the collective sigh from both of you! How are you all mostly seeing this used and what do we want to clarify for people about what trauma bonding is?

Dr. Abrams: Unfortunately, I'm mostly seeing it used by therapists on Instagram. Therapists and like therapy coaches on Instagram, which I think comes up in a lot of ways. I think what has happened largely is that therapists have started (I'm included) this way of trying to offer psychological education in bite-size format through images or IG stories or carousels. I think we have been introducing psychological language to the community and, because they're not in therapy, you can’t have a space to like really kind of hone in on stuff, a lot of people have run with those things. In a lot of ways, I think it’s our fault. I think we did this, I think we created this. Well, let me not *[inaudible 0:04:11]

I think the mental health system, if we talk about kind of like systemically. The reason we are doing this is because we know that most people don't have access to mental health care and we are trying to offer some free way for people to get some access to something more than what they have. But I think it's turned into now its own industry of that kind of psychological education. And that was one of the first ones that we began talking about I think because a lot of therapists work with clients who are navigating or dealing with trauma or consequences of traumatic situations. And then you pair it with a lot of people needing relationship help, we've got this trauma bond. I don't know the difference between misinformation and disinformation, but that.

Dr. Beckwith: No, I agree, Doctor A, I think we did it and I think for all the reasons that perhaps were intended to be good reasons. How can we start talking about these relationships that perhaps are unhealthy in a way that is a little bit casual? It's like, oh, okay, so perhaps this is what's going on. And we made it a term where you can kind of latch on and it has the trauma there so it's like, okay, this is trauma-related and, oh, the connection, it's a bond that you have. So I think we did it in terms of making it where we're raising I guess public awareness about the dynamics of these relationships. But there are some pros and cons to speaking of it in this way. And as we see, then everybody's trauma bonding so we're not really talking about what exactly it is, so before you know, it's like, oh, went to the grocery store and this is what happened, I was trauma bonding with the cashier. No, you were not! So now we’re using this term and really not talking about exactly what is it and what are the potential dangers involved when we trauma bond. And so I think you came up with one intention and then it grew wings, and it's taken over.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, because I think the traditional definition of trauma bonding is much more like Stockholm Syndrome, correct? It is more like you have been through a traumatic experience and then you in some ways empathize with your perpetrator. But what it feels like it's commonly used is like, oh, I have a traumatic experience and then I share my traumatic experience with somebody and they had a traumatic experience and so we then bonded over our trauma—which is not the same thing. It sounds very like it would make sense, right? Like, “oh, we bonded over trauma,” but that's not actually trauma bonding.

Dr. Beckwith: Yeah. And you don't want to necessarily bond over your trauma. So it feels like now we have trauma bonding circles where it's like, oh, we've all experienced this trauma and we're bonding over that. And it's like, well, although it's helpful for us to talk about the trauma that we've been through, we also don't want to... You know, ruminating doesn't help, and it kind of staying there does not do anything for who I'm talking to about my trauma. So yeah, it's gone away from the original definition. And then your trauma, my trauma, we've experienced it, but where's the help? What are we doing now instead of like, okay, I've experienced this? And then we go online and we're making reels and TikTok videos about the trauma that we've all experienced as a result of whatever so it's just not helpful if we continue letting it be used loosely like this.

Dr. Abrams: And I think largely, people still do not understand what trauma is. I'm seeing a lot of blurriness between things that people experience as trauma versus things that are unpleasant. Things that people remember from the past that were unpleasant experiences, and that is also still very different from a traumatic experience. Again, because all of that gets lost because of how we are learning about this in these sound bites and in these Instagram clips. You're not working with somebody who can really help you understand and discern that because you remember something unpleasant that happened, doesn't mean that that was a traumatic experience. Because something happened that you didn't like or was unexpected or that was painful for a while, also doesn't mean that that was traumatic for you.

So I think that even the conversation around trauma and trauma bonding also really dilutes what people can understand or accept about the human experience. That there are things that will happen that are not okay, that you didn't want, that you didn't like, but that doesn't always mean that you have been traumatized in some way and that you are a trauma survivor or that you now have this new identity because things didn't happen in a certain way—or that you were hurt or that things harmed you. Harmful things also don't equate to trauma. It's a fuller experience and I think that if you're not working with someone professionally or kind of have more of sensibility around that, then yes, your narrative would be that everything has been trauma for you. And I think that social media, unfortunately, can help promote that same theme or theory. We see a lot of these posts that say all the different things are trauma. You've been traumatized if this. Or this is a trauma response. That's the other one that kind of comes with it... Not liking apples is a trauma response.

Dr. Beckwith: Designed to eat all of your food on your plate and having difficulty throwing it away or walking away from it as a trauma response—maybe as a child, you didn't have food. You know, just yeah...

Dr. Abrams: Everything is a trauma response and all of that goes together. It's the same way in which we have really diluted what trauma is, which I think also then serves to be harmful to people who have had traumatic experiences. Because now people are having a harder time naming that, they're feeling more confused around that, they're feeling invalidated by like, “Well, if that's trauma, what is this? What was my experience of it?”

Dr. Beckwith: Yeah, that's what you were talking about, it minimizes the seriousness of trauma. That you can experience things that are unpleasant, that are negative, and it (does) not necessarily mean that I have PTSD as a result of that. And so yeah, you're right, we have someone else who endured something where harm or death or the idea of serious death was actually real and they have nightmares, they have these memories, they have severe anxiety, they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so you're listening to someone say that this experience at the grocery store was traumatic for them or that PTSD is a result, and you're looking at your thing, and it's like, oh, my gosh, what is happening with me?

And I think that's what people are bonding over. They have these experiences and it's like, why do I behave this way and why do I act this way? And it's not necessarily trauma. It’s like, oh, we've had this shared experience, it does not mean I have PTSD from my childhood or from my relationship, and we need to talk about that in that way. But if you are having nightmares, if you are having severe anxiety, if you are unable to kind of function as a result of what's happened to you, that's a different thing and it requires a different intervention. But I think it's all gotten lost. Whereas the public awareness is there, it’s like awareness of what?

Dr. Joy: So it does feel like there's a growing conversation, and I know you have all heard about it, Big T trauma versus little T trauma. And so it feels like there is space, and I think rightfully so, for us to expand our understanding of all the things that could be trauma. I think for a long time, we thought only war and like seeing somebody shot were traumatic experiences. And so of course, now we understand that there are tons of other things that can be traumatic. How do we help people differentiate what is considered trauma? What are the guidelines around what we can define as trauma versus something that may have been unpleasant but may not necessarily fall within the realms of trauma?

Dr. Beckwith: I think when in doubt, I go back to what it is that we know, like our DSM, for example. I really do want to go back to how do we define something that is traumatic, so I can validate your experience and the effects of your experience without necessarily saying you need to be labeled as having trauma or labeled as having PTSD. And sometimes helping you to understand like, hey, this is what happened, so that you have clarity. Is it PTSD or is it necessarily traumatic? Like that was a horrible experience, a very unfortunate unfair experience, but really going back to, okay, what are the results of that experience? And so that they can see clearly, okay, everything isn’t traumatic but I do have increased anxiety. I am having nightmares, I am detached or I am kind of dissociating or detaching from experiences. I do feel numb. Really going through with them so it's not discrediting your experience or saying that's traumatic and that's not traumatic, but saying, hey, here's how we define trauma and let's look at it. And having them to help me with, okay, is this what your experience is? And so you tell me if this is considered very traumatic for you, based on this criteria and definition so that there's no bias in there.

So they get to step outside of the experience a little bit themselves and see, okay, you know what, this was severe, this was very impactful, there's some residual stuff. And so they can decide what is traumatic and what is not traumatic. So I love standards, I love some procedures there. I love something that is common language that is research-based. And so when they do experience something traumatic (hopefully not), it's like okay, that's what this is. And so also, I don't like people to walk away and it's like “I have trauma from my past relationship,” and so now you've labeled yourself as this person with significant trauma. Well, no, you were greatly heartbroken, you even perhaps were depressed as a result of your last relationship. But I don't want you to give yourself labels and terms that are not founded or grounded in any research, that don't have any basis. I always go back to how do we define it, and having them to help us with “is this your experience?”

Dr. Abrams: That is the crux of what gets missed in social media exchanges or interactions. There's not room for kind of that deeper process and not even having the language or the criteria to be able to, in a deeper way, process or explore where anybody might fall on any of that spectrum. And I think what also gets missed, the conversations that I'm able to have with clients, trauma does come up, is one, we are also continuing to assess for safety. So I'll talk to clients a lot about ways in which I tend to differentiate how I'm hearing their narratives and how they're experiencing their bodies. Is that something happens, either they have an experience, they witness something, they hear something, the vicarious trauma that changes their sense of safety in the world. And then we're still also looking at these criteria because if that sense of safety has changed, then you might be feeling more anxious, you might be feeling more depressed, you might be feeling more numb. So kind of pairing that with, has something shifted in terms of how safe you feel in this world, in this dynamic in this area in this relationship, in whatever it might be? And that is a way in which I can help kind of bridge the gap between the criteria and the subjective experience of this.

Which is why I recognize that on the flip side of that, I know we also say you can't tell somebody they weren't traumatized by something because it's about their subjective experience of this thing. But what I'm always looking for and assessing is safety. Did something shift, where now the way in which you experience your sense of safety and security in this scenario or environment, has that then inevitably shifted after this thing happened? Historically, like you were saying, Dr. Joy, you were only allowed to name trauma as it related to war, a car accident, specific kinds of violence. People haven't historically thought about community violence or systemic violence as traumatic. They don't see poverty as violence when I do see poverty as violence. So also being able to expand those things but really talking to people about how safe they feel, given these different factors. And that helps me lean into whether or not they might feel traumatized by this.

And that also doesn't mean that we're using that language. If we do discern that this was a traumatic experience, I always lead with what the client might name because a lot of my clients don't want to name trauma. “I wasn't traumatized.” They don't want that label. It also seems like a lot of people want this label these days. People want to have a story of difficulty, they want to have a story of trauma, I think a lot of people are beginning to see some kind of social value. Those are things that I'm noticing on social media, where it's just like I want to be traumatized. You don't really want to be traumatized but you think you do because maybe now you are seeing on social media that that's the way in which people are connecting. I've been noticing that actually with the young (I'm probably millennial), me and under. They are seeking these ways to be like, “I have this. I have this.” That horrible thing happened to me, I've never been the same, so like let's connect. I'm actually seeing a shift in people rejecting a narrative of having been harmed or having trauma to “I do, I do, I do. Me too. Me too.” So I think that's also an interesting phenomenon that we're now seeing.

Dr. Beckwith: You're so right. It's like there's this badge of honor. But I think it's the “despite the fact that I have been traumatized, I am still like in school.” These things, it’s like this badge of honor. I endured trauma, I endured this or my childhood was traumatic. And what does it do? Does it validate the reason that I'm a little delayed in this, this and this because I've had to overcome a whole lot because of this trauma? I've still been able to achieve this, despite this trauma. So yeah, I've been seeing it where it's a thing, where everything is like this is traumatic, or we bonded because of this trauma, and look at what we've been able to attain because of this trauma.

And I think along the same lines and this trauma, and I know this is probably about to be like, oh my gosh, it's like everything is triggering. That's another word. Triggered. It's like, oh, you know what, the store was closed, I feel triggered. And there are real triggers when we talk about trauma. Things, sights, sounds, smells, all of those things that remind us of a traumatic event, so triggers are really real. But also it's become such a common term. I feel triggered because of this, this and that. So it's all of that. Not only is it a badge of honor, seemingly in the social world, where you've experienced trauma and you've been able to triumph over it, or you have something that's in common, there's a sense of belonging with other people who have endured trauma. It’s this thing of like, oh, I feel triggered. This thing triggers me. So another word.

Dr. Joy: Y'all have said a whole lot that I feel like I'm trying to figure out. Because I agree with you in that I am also seeing that, especially I think with younger people, and I wonder what it is about. And of course, we are psychologists, so I think that's our natural inclination. Like what's the story here? What's happening? But it does in a lot of ways feel like people are just very excited to finally have language to be able to describe what's happening. And so I don't necessarily pathologize it, I don't think that's what y'all are saying either. But it does feel like people finally have language to describe, like, this awful thing happened to me. Or I realize now that everybody's experience wasn't like that and so now I have a name to call it. To your earlier point, Dr. A, around we as therapists kind of did this. I want to take a step back and figure out, is there a way to maybe in some ways course correct?

Or is it a problem? Because it does very much feel like, yes, I think that that is a lot of our goal, to be able to give people something. Like we do understand how broken the mental health system is, we want to try to make things more accessible. But I think there has to be a limit. And so when you just see a carousel, you can't go too far with like talking to any one person in a comment section about what their personal experience of something has been. And so it feels really hard to know, okay, is there a way to do this that is helping people, or are we actually doing more harm by giving this information without an actual contained way to help somebody fully explore what's happening with them?

Dr. Beckwith: I don't know if this answers it completely, Dr. Joy. But I think you make a really good point and I think that's probably where we struggle. Because we see the cons or the dangers, the potential dangers in letting these terms be free flowing out in the world. But the good side of it is kind of what we’ve always wanted. I think we're saying that using some of these terms raises the awareness that a person can have these various experiences and it can look a different way. I think we want to feel that we are not alone in our experiences so now we're talking about things that we have experienced. We're talking about our traumas, we're talking about our childhood, so it's letting us know that you're not alone, this is more common than not. That's the benefit and the beauty, that these words are causing conversation.

I think it also changes the narrative, and we talk about the shame that's attached to mental illness, and that can be attached. I think that it changes the narrative where when we think a person has been let's say traumatized or they may have “high functioning depression,” or whatever... I know, don't roll your eyes at me, I know, but it changes the narrative. Oh, you guys are giving me those sharp eyes, I'm gonna look down. It changes the narrative of how we have seen these things in the past. And so we think about what has perhaps trauma looked like when someone has experienced something really, really, seriously traumatic, or what has depression looked like? And we've been afraid to necessarily claim our experiences because we're afraid of like, oh, if you say this person is depressed or they've been through something traumatic, it looks this one way. And we're talking about it so it allows us to see that, you know what, it doesn't look this one way. You don't have to be ashamed if you've experienced depression or something that's really, really traumatic. So, yes, that's the pros and we're like, yes, finally, we're having these conversations. But then we're like, whoa, whoa, whoa—reeling it in some.

And so maybe an answer is to allow the conversations as much as we can (because we don't have all power.) To see these conversations and for us not to water them when they're being used incorrectly. Being able to say, I do understand what you're talking about, these reoccurring thoughts are definitely a sign of PTSD. So being able to validate what is real in the sense of how we define it. Or, yes, being in bed for days and still going to work, that is definitely how depression can look. So how we don't kind of join the party when we realize that it's going in the wrong direction. I don't have to wave a flag and say stop it. “Stop talking that way, that's wrong.” No, I love the conversation. I love that we're honest, open, and talking about it. But making sure that we are honoring the work, the research. We are honoring what we know to be true. So just as we started it, you know, it's out there now. What are you doing in being honest with yourself? Am I doing reels talking about trauma bonding and am I doing it the wrong way? Our health is not for likes and for reposting to go viral. We don't want to (at the expense of those things) compromise, like the health, because it's a real deal.

Dr. Abrams: I absolutely agree. I think that in general, therapists in some of these social spaces and having these conversations, and the conversations happening, are doing more good than they are doing harm. I think there are spaces that are much better at this than other spaces, in terms of what they are sharing and how they are sharing and how they are nuancing it. But I also recognize that, given that this is happening through certain media, it's limited. So I think that what's also happening is that we're really getting caught up in “this needs to happen in 30 seconds.” I need to explain this really, really heavy, nuanced, layered, subjective personal thing in 60 seconds. In a reel, in a carousel, on Twitter when you only have 280 characters, whatever it is. With us trying to use that particular forum to get this information out in this mass way, we've conformed. We've changed the information, we've shifted what we can even say to try to make sure that people get it.

But again, people can only get so much so I think we've also lost the art of the subjective language in that because of how we're trying to make it through. We can have hours of conversations with clients; we can't do that on social media. So it turns into “you've got this many characters, people don't read captions.” It turns into all this stuff where it’s like, “I gotta get it here” and then you add how social media has also kind of changed how a lot of the mental health industry is also accessing clients and business and all this stuff. That people want to go viral. So you want to get the thing, you want to say the thing. And if you say that this is trauma bonding and you know that trauma bonding is a big thing, you're gonna get more likes and follows and shares and all that stuff in terms of whatever that can turn into for you. I think the larger problem is this intersection that we're seeing at the mental health industry. Lack of mental health care, lack of enough mental health professionals, increased need, and then we've got social media as this quick way to try to help people, and it's very, very limited. It's really, really limited to the knowledge that we have and it's really limited to the care that is needed. But if that is our funnel, then we go based on that. And I think that is largely why and how the harm is happening in this way.

I also recognize that, because mental health and mental illness has become in some ways a bit more trendy for industries, and for a number of industries to kind of jump on and say that they're responding to and really valuing, people can also take advantage of the increased popularity of it and are not there to really offer care. They're there to make money. So I think that's a whole other piece of this. But us talking about the intersection of technology and the certain forums that we're doing this on to be able to spread more awareness, creates this kind of bottleneck. So people are dancing to things and people are doing different things to try to kind of get people to the information, but we don't really know what people are getting from this. They're laughing at and that's this, but it's really incongruent, oftentimes, with the content that we are sharing. And trying to kind of share really heavy things so I really don't know how it's landing with people.

Dr. Joy: More from my group chat conversation after the break.

[BREAK]

Dr. Beckwith: Just to make sure so that no one comes for our girl... At the very beginning, you started off by saying, hey, we did this to ourselves. And, you know, because we know better. I think what you're saying is it's very possible that we unintentionally in our quest to increase awareness, and because there's a greater need and demand than actual resources at this moment. You're saying in our trying to get all of this information out in 30 seconds and to make it where “this is a really important topic and I want to make sure that our audiences get this information,” that we have very likely compromised (unintentionally) the information that we put out.

Dr. Abrams: This is why this is the group chat... With that, I also think it is ethically our responsibility to take responsibility for how we are sharing information and what we are saying, and what we are not saying. And for us to kind of do our own internal work around what is the motivation and what is the goal for this? That is our own self of therapist work that people out there have no clue that those are things that we are supposed to be doing and navigating ethically. So I think it's also on us to take that responsibility for what we are sharing, how we are sharing it, and really being clear about what the motivation is. And if we're not doing that self-awareness work, this is why these things will also continue to happen.

Dr. Beckwith: Absolutely. It becomes, what is driving? It's like, okay, you want to get your followers or your likes or you want to go viral or you want to get more clients, or whatever this is. You want to be on this path, it’s like we have to be self-aware to know like at this point you are compromising. Or to put this out in 30 seconds is doing more harm than it is good. And so being aware that we cannot compromise what we're ethically sworn to do and give and provide, and the care that people entrust with us. We have to keep that at the forefront because otherwise you're doing these reels and it may seem fun and there's more visibility, but once it's out there, we have no control over how it's being interpreted or where they decide to post that information.

And although we want to increase awareness and put it out there, there's a responsibility, especially when it becomes you are doctor such and such. It's like, okay, the doctor such and such said that this is trauma bonding, and now I'm going back and I'm telling my family because of this, this and this. And so it goes back to what we were saying earlier. To be mindful of, am I watering this, or am I adding gasoline on to this fire? So if you feel like you have to be engaged in this conversation, how are we going to be engaged in this conversation? It’s like, oh, that's cute and I don't have to take it personal that you decided to use that word. It's not personal. It's like I love that we're having a conversation about this but my little, whatever, 50 characters are going to tell the truth basically.

Dr. Joy: Another term that comes up quite often is gas lighting. Gaslighting, and I have also seen a new spin on the term, self-gaslighting, which I was not aware of. This is another term related to an old movie around this man and wife or husband and wife. He was turning off the gas or turning on (I can't remember) to make her think that the lights were on when they really weren't or something like that but to kind of make her feel like she couldn’t trust her own...

Dr. Abrams: It was like the heat she was feeling. It was like the gas and he was turning it off and on so she would be cold and need a blanket and...

Dr. Joy: Right, so making her feel like she could not trust her own experiences. Like she couldn't trust her own knowledge. And that is I think a hallmark sign of narcissistic personality disorder, which it is often tied closely to. Again, it feels like this is one of those terms that has escaped the confines of where it started, and now anything that is dishonest or anybody who is not being completely truthful, “oh, they were gaslighting me.” I want to hear from you both, what are some of the dangers of this kind of term not necessarily being used correctly?

Dr. Beckwith: Do we define what it really is? Like, hey, it is psychological manipulation where the abuser is sowing self-doubt and intentionally trying to cause confusion in the victim's mind. So this is what it is. That could be a lie or you're trying to play mind games or you're trying to trick me, but it does not necessarily mean that I have been gaslit or you are gaslighting me.

Dr. Abrams: I think you named it. The piece about it being intentional. So where I hear it get really murky for a lot of people is that when somebody is disagreeing with you, that they are gaslighting you. If somebody just isn't in the same kind of space with you, doesn't maybe believe what you have said, there's an argument about it, they don't see things the same way that you see things, now what has come out of that is that you are gaslighting me because you do not believe that I have had this experience. And I think that, again, it has to be noted that this is about intentional manipulation, where somebody is denying your experience of something and they're trying to also make you question your lived experience. It is not them not understanding you, it is not just not agreeing with you. It is not them arguing with you, it is not them not believing that something happened. It's them trying to—by different words, by different kinds of versions, different actions—get you to not believe yourself so that you would more than likely become more dependent on them. Because in you being confused, you will be more vulnerable. And in your vulnerability, you will gravitate back towards them. So it is a power play.

But people disagreeing with you, mostly is not because they're trying to get power over you or confuse you; they are literally having a different experience of the same thing. And I think that is really difficult for people to discern when they feel activated. When they want to feel understood, when they want to feel cared for, when they want to feel seen and somebody doesn't, it's really dysregulating for some people and now we've got this term to be able to add to it. And again, thinking about the ways in which these days we are very short on language, so that fits it. Well okay, you're denying my experience, you must be gaslighting me. Versus there are so many other options of what is happening here. And I think that we are removing the different options and the nuances of what really happens in relationships.

Dr. Beckwith: Yes, absolutely, and I love it, Dr. A. You're saying, hey, just because I don't agree with you or perhaps I don't understand your perspective or your experience, or I don't quite believe it happened that way. I think that if we automatically latch on to that this is gaslighting, then you've said it. Like you're gaslighting me, it's like a cascade. Now you're going down this path and it becomes all of these other things that are attached with a person who legitimately gaslights. And so I think it reduces our opportunity for a resolution. If I believe that you don't understand me or if I believe that, okay, I see you disagree, let's have some conversation about it, if I'm looking at it from those lenses, then we can kind of have a resolution. This thing does not have to become bigger.

But once I've said that you are gaslighting me, I'm activated. You're gaslighting me, I'm going hard now. And this thing that started out as something significant but not as big, has now turned into something big. And often what I've seen in doing couples work, it's a term that, okay, maybe the one person is familiar with it and another person is not as familiar with it. So then what do we go do? You said I'm gaslighting you, gaslighting you, so then the other person goes to look it up and there's nowhere to go but down from there. When we start to look up what it says, the true definition of gaslighting—that I'm this horrible, horrible person—and now why are you with me if I'm so horrible? You’re saying I’m manipulating. So instead of being able to discuss what are the behaviors that you're seeing that you're not happy with—compassion or empathy or let's work on communicating your feelings—it just does not give us the opportunity to be able to deal with what perhaps is the core issue we're experiencing here. Because we've already attached this label to it of “you are gaslighting me.”

Dr. Joy: Yeah, and I do feel like this is the perfect segue into discussing narcissism which is gaslighting’s first cousin. Because I do think, like we talked about earlier, people want to understand their relationships. We want to understand ourselves and we want to understand who we are in a relationship and we want to understand our partners. And so I think this has become one of those topics where it feels like, oh, this person does this, this and this—they are narcissists. When really we know that very few people actually meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. And so kind of throwing around this term that this person is a narcissist. Like you’ve mentioned, Dr. Joy, okay, now that you've labeled them as this, is there any way for a resolution? Is there any opportunity for discussion or for us to get on the same page if you've now labeled this other person as a narcissist?

Dr. Beckwith: And you know what happens once you label something. Like, oh, it's a beautiful day outside, then you see the beauty in it. It's a bad day, then you see the bad things in the day. So once you label a person as, oh, my gosh, you're a narcissist. And guess what? Now I'm starting to pick out all the things that I feel a narcissist does. Like look at you, you're calling me, you expect me to answer. You couldn't wait for me to call back. It's like, what is happening here? Because you made up in your mind that this person is narcissistic. Or you're wanting me to help you, it's like I don't know if that's a narcissist. And so it just leads us down this path where there does not seem to be a good end. And again, we can't resolve or it's difficult to resolve because I’ve automatically attached this definition to you.

Dr. Abrams: Yeah. And it’s the problem of the lack of nuance. That there's a difference between someone exhibiting narcissistic traits, which research shows many of us have narcissistic traits. It can actually be really useful for us to have some narcissistic traits, depending on how we're using them. To kind of move through different scenarios or stay motivated or, you know, boost our self-esteem. There's a difference between having narcissistic traits and having narcissistic personality disorder but people put that all together and just say that you are a narcissist. So now we have this kind of identity that is formed with this person and that misses all of the nuances and all of the criteria that we, as mental health professionals know, you need to meet pretty significant criteria for a certain amount of time in order to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

And I also recognize that what the research shows and what people think is that more men are narcissists, so we've also got this gendered conversation and dynamic around it. And because people don't understand the statistics like we do, that it's actually pretty rare. It seems really common, but it's actually fairly rare in terms of general population. But there were maybe 85% of the women in this chat that said that they were dating a narcissist or had dated a narcissist. And in my mind, what I said to myself was, unless y'all have all been with the same three people, that is statistically not possible. It is statistically not it. Absolutely, you were in relationships where you did not feel loved, you did not feel cared for, you did not feel understood, you did not feel met. Somebody said something that was harsh to you or mean or harmful, but all those things also don't equate to narcissism. Because there are so many more criteria that the general population does not understand, and for a reason.

There's a reason why a certain number of people who have studied this for years understand this in a certain way. And that's why it's not kind of this widespread thing where we are just naming everybody as narcissist. But again, soundbites, Instagram carousels, reels, TikTok stuff, right? “The four signs you’re dating a narcissist.” There's more criteria than these four signs. You trust what you're seeing online, you're trusting kind of where this information is coming from, so you take that information as truth. Even if we can put all the disclaimers and all that kind of stuff, you take that information as truth, you apply it to your life, and you're probably going to come across 17 people who you would diagnose with narcissistic personality disorder, and that's not that. People get to be jerks and not kind and not nice and not love you, and they're not narcissists, right?

Dr. Beckwith: Absolutely, Dr. A. Yeah, they get to be selfish, you get to choose yourself over someone else and it's not because you are narcissistic. I think one of the downsides of doing that, sometimes it's so that it explains the end of a relationship or why something did not work. It becomes “oh, well, it didn't work with this person because this person was a narcissist.” Or this is my family because my parent was a narcissist. And I think that if you put it automatically on there, then it can decrease your desire to work on what happened in that relationship because now it's this other person's fault. It's not necessarily a “you” thing. It's like, okay, because he was this way, he was this way, he was this way, and the last two were this way.

But I think when you are able to label the behaviors that didn't serve you in the relationship, then you can really kind of look at yourself and say, how did I find myself in this relationship? What were the things? So maybe the fact that this person was so confident or the fact that they had these self-care days was appealing in the very beginning of the relationship until you got in it and it's like, okay, we haven't gone out but you're going on the self-care day. So now it seems like you're so selfish, you want what you want and you have these... Boundaries are healthy but in the context of this, when I’ve labeled you as a narcissist, then this boundary becomes a problem. So I think that sometimes we do that and we put it on the other person in terms of their narcissism in a way to not sit with ourself and to say, okay, how did I find myself in this type of relationship?

If the last three men you've dated, have been narcissists, then to take a look at yourself and say, what's going on here? Why am I attracting... what is appealing to me about these certain characteristics? And so I think it's easy to say, oh, that's what it is, girl. Yeah, that makes sense because you know I'm dope, I'm awesome, I'm wonderful. So it was the fact that XY and Z. It's so much danger in automatically labeling it there. Like you said, you can have characteristics of it and not actually have the disorder because we know how difficult it is to reach that criteria. And if all of the women in this group all dated narcissists, then we need to figure out where they are because that's a great research study. We know how hard it is to find them!

Dr. Joy: More from my group chat conversation after the break.

[BREAK]

Dr. Joy: What y’all are talking about in terms of labeling, it does feel like there's some kind of armchair diagnosing going on. Just like the Monday morning quarterbacks, it definitely feels like there is some armchair diagnosing of like, oh, I see all of this stuff and this meets the criteria that I saw on this Instagram post so you now have narcissistic personality disorder. But in addition to people doing some of that diagnosing of others, it also feels like there's a lot of self-diagnosing. Y'all have kind of talked about that some, but I do want to hear your thoughts on the increase I think that we are seeing in terms of people looking at something that they see on social or a video that they see on YouTube and then diagnosing themselves. And what are the dangers there? But also why is it happening? I think for a lot of the reasons we talked about it in terms of the system, but I do think we have to be careful. I think people have to be careful in terms of diagnosing. What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Abrams: I think we have seen an increase just with the adjunct to the increase in this information being available online. So not only related to mental health, but we see, you know, the WebMD rabbit hole or the Healthline rabbit hole, that you can find anything. And again, I think it goes back to a limited understanding and acceptance of the human experience and that not everything is going to be pleasant all the time. I think we got lost a long time ago with this like happiness goal, and us believing that happiness is the standard and that you should always feel like that, and positive psychology. I think that has kind of created this setup, where if anything feels awry, it must be a problem. And then because our brains literally need to solve problems to kind of figure out what's going on and kind of assess for threat, we've now got all this information at our fingertips, and in 0.0005 seconds, we can find the five diagnoses of why I don't think that he likes cats and he should. Whatever the thing might be.

I think it's heavily related to our inability, as a society, our inability or kind of lack of understanding around tolerating distress. So that when distress is present, it's really dysregulated for us and then we want to get rid of it so we go to find what are the ways to get rid of it. Who knows about this thing that I might be experiencing? And then that kind of sends us down whichever rabbit hole about these things. And I also recognize that being able to access a lot of this information online is another opportunity for like self-advocacy. Because I recognize the limits of health care. And oftentimes, when we go into different spaces, particularly for black women, we're going in and talking about what's going on with our bodies, we get denied. We get rejected, we get dismissed, somebody tells us that our pain is not this.

So I recognize that there is a part of this threshold that feels really important for us to access information so that we can take better care of ourselves in a system that historically has not done the best. But it's that fine line of that and wanting to use this information and be able to use the healthcare system and, say, hey, I think it might be this, I'm noticing this about myself, I'm the expert on me, you're the expert on this, can we put that information together? Versus going into the office saying I've got these three diagnoses, my daddy did it, this is the this, this is what you need to do and that is all I will accept. I think it's having some flexibility and some agility around how we're using that information.

Dr. Beckwith: You're exactly right. I think it goes back to sitting with the human experience. And I think what we've had the opportunity to do, whether we ask for it or not, as we seek to understand the human experience, we are seeking to understand our own personal experience. Why do we experience life this way? What is it with me? And so as we're sitting in the house trying to understand ourselves, what do we do? We look for information because we're problem solvers. And so where do we look for information? In the palm of our hand, and so there's this social media where all of this information is like, oh, I'm looking for dislike cats. You can look and let’s see who has used the hashtag #dislikecats. And you know what, if it's your lucky day, it’s attached to some type of disorder. And so you're seeking some type of understanding and some type of clarity. So we get it in that, in terms of why is it happening. And we are experiencing, of course, more distress. The downside of that is as we seek to have clarity, as we seek information, as we seek understanding, we run the risk of mislabeling ourselves. You’ve basically said, based on what you found out here—whether it's WebMD whether it’s social media and these reels—okay, now I have this.

And so, as you're saying Dr. A, you want to be able to advocate for yourself, but what happens with a mislabel, misdiagnosis, and then our treatment is definitely impacted? So you feel that if you don't go to a doctor, and sometimes if you do, but if you don't, it's like now I have this. Or I have trauma, so now you're doing these other tools and techniques that you have said that, because I have trauma, now I'm doing these things that I've read about online because I'm treating my trauma. And so are we really healing the wound? Are we really making it better or are we making it worse? Because we are now doing and engaging in things, interventions that are not even targeted at what this thing is rooted in. That's the downside of it. I do get it, where we want to be able to advocate for ourselves, we want to be able to educate ourselves, so if we need to tell our provider this information, we can. But if we're getting not-so-good information, we've attached this not-so-true label to ourselves, then we are engaging in interventions and behaviors that are not necessarily doing what we are wanting and expecting to do. And that's the unfortunate part. I think that we seek to know, we seek to understand, but there is that fine line.

Dr. Abrams: Any given day, I got 14 diagnoses in the DSM. Any given day.

Dr. Joy: Wasn't that everybody's experience when we first took our abnormal psych class? Like, oh, I definitely meet criteria for this.

Dr. Beckwith: Sometimes all at the same time. It’s like I got all of these.

Dr. Joy: And I think human behavior is just so fascinating and so interesting. Of course, we want to know about ourselves and I think that's a part that the general public maybe doesn't always see. That even as people who are trained, that was a part of our experience. But you continue your training and then you realize, no, you don't actually meet criteria for all of this. But if you are just now introduced to all of these, “like I can check this list off,” but there is no additional training or understanding or nuance to go with it, then you just kind of stop there. As opposed to continuing to learn more about why it's not appropriate and why you don't actually meet criteria for these things.

Dr. Beckwith: And you think about the relief when we said, oh, I have all of these things. And the relief once you studied more and learned more, it's okay, I don't. And it's like, phew! Okay, good. Because if I feel like I got all these things and then it's like I feel like my life is jacked up now. So then there are these limits because I walk around carrying all of these things. I think what perhaps happens out in the world is that you now feel like, okay, I have all of these things. And on one hand, it’s like okay, now I understand. Okay, good. So now I understand why I am this way or why I feel this way. But once that one thing turns into 12, then how do you operate now? Now you feel that I am perhaps damaged or there's some limits to me. And it's like, whoa, it may not even be true. And so now you're figuring you can't do this or you can't marry or you can't go to school, you can't whatever, because of these things, and it's like you said that. No one else said that, you said that. And you said that because of a reel, 30 seconds that got reposted. And so just really being mindful of that.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, so I think that that is where I would like us to kind of wrap up. If you could both offer some suggestions or advice around how people can be mindful around the information that they find online. What kinds of things should they be paying attention to and how do they make use of that carefully?

Dr. Beckwith: I love what Dr. A said when you said you are the expert on you and I think that we start there. I think that your experience is your experience and it’s a valid experience. And so if there's something that we're seeing online, it's like, wow, that feels very familiar to me or I think that offers some insight into how I've been feeling. It is okay if that basically resonates with you, but knowing that these are not credible spaces necessarily and knowing where am I getting my information from? All of our experiences are different. So just because you experienced it too, you are now not the expert or this person is not the expert on that particular thing because they had the experience.

And so I'm okay whatever comes up for you or whatever resonates with you, but then saying, okay, where can I go to meet with a licensed provider? Someone who's trained at, hey, and you can take your experience into the room. This is what I experienced and I actually saw something on social media that talked about this and this is what I experienced that was similar in that particular post. And being able to work through that because you really do want to have understanding, you really do want to get better, you really do want to target whatever it is that's perhaps causing you discomfort, or the struggles that you're having when it comes to the experience of life. So I think being mindful of the source, where we're getting the information from, and then being mindful of where we go to for help and where we go to for treatment. The experience is valid, your feelings are valid, but then what do we do now as a result of all of that?

Dr. Abrams: Yeah, absolutely. The main thing I was going to say was around the source. Thinking about and recognizing who you are sourcing information about yourself from. I think I would add to that that you don't have to be this constant self-improvement project. You don't always have to be working on yourself and you don't always have to be getting better. And I see things and I understand what the attempt is, like 1% better every day. It's just like can I just be where I am today for a week or two? And that's the distress tolerance piece. But I think we are like walking self-help sections of Barnes and Nobles, where it's like everything I should be doing to get better. I need more money, I need more clarity, I need better friends, I need higher following on social media.

And I get wrapped up in it too so I understand it from my own experience, but that can be really exhausting and you will more than likely find yourself reactively searching for all the things to get better. So looking online, buying courses, buying programs, getting coaches, like doing all this stuff that really can take away from you actually just feeling connected with who you are and kind of where you are now and then allowing that to be good enough.So just being mindful of how much time, energy, effort, money you spend on wanting to be different than who and how you are. Just being mindful of how much time, energy, effort, money, and I think that can be a helpful kind of mindfulness exercise. And being mindful of who you're following and how the information leaves you feeling. I’d want to say last year, maybe the year before, I probably unfollowed like 1500 therapists. I couldn't do it anymore, it was too much.

Dr. Beckwith: Dr. A, are you following me? Hold on... a minute now because I’m not on there like that. Let me go... Okay, listen, as soon as we’re done....

Dr. Abrams: I am still following you two but I had to stop following therapists. It was too much for me. I was initially doing it to kind of support, but then I found myself doing it to kind of get ideas for social media. And that they're posting about this so I should post about this. And, oh my goodness, they're talking about this, I never learned about it that way. Maybe I should... I had to stop. It was too much. It was too, too much for me. So also recognizing and leaning into your own awareness of what gets activated for you when you see this kind of content. And if it's taking you further and further away from yourself, you can change up your theme. I love therapists, but I was doing way too much. Doing way too much. So I need to follow, you know, puppy pages not therapists.

Dr. Joy: Right, good old meme pages.

Dr. Beckwith: Dr. A, it’s like we get to... Like it's okay for us just to be and that we will constantly be in a state of becoming, and that is okay. We don't have to always be... you know. Yeah, just be. Just be and that's okay.

Dr. Joy: Yes, yes. Thank you again, both, for such beautiful, beautiful thoughts. Remind us where we can find you all on social media as well as your websites. On or on not-so-much social media.

Dr. Beckwith: Don't be trying to comfort me, Dr. Joy, because I’m not on there like that as often. *[inaudible 0:53:43] This ain’t the group chat, watch out! I am @AskDrJoy on Instagram. That's where I am—not daily, not often.

Dr. Abrams: Where I am daily, and probably too often for my own benefit, I am on Instagram @Dr_Ayanna_A.

Dr. Joy: Perfect, and we will include all of that in the show notes, thank you both.

I'm so glad Dr. Abrams and Dr. Beckwith were able to join me again this week. To learn more about them and their work and to check out the other conversations we've had here on the podcast, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session271. And make sure to text two of your girls right now and tell them to check out the episode. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.