Therapy-speak is infecting our relationships and undermining our values.
Lately, it seems like everyone is drawing lines in the sand. One of the defining characteristics of Millennial culture is the way the language of therapy leaches into our everyday vernacular. Concepts like “boundaries,” “bandwidth,” “priorities,” and “safety” have started to define how we talk about our relationships. From TikTok influencers to corporate America, this particular use of language is a rising trend, and one that shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.
The use of what’s called “therapy-speak” to negotiate our commitments with each other has benign roots. As a generation, we’re chronically overextended, juggling multiple commitments every day of our increasingly fast-paced lives. Yet one recent interaction with a friend of mine made me consider how dark this tendency’s less pleasant side can be. I was recently bereaved and grieving; she was notably absent. When I asked why over text, the response felt more like a disciplinary corporate communication than an invitation to connection: she was pressed for time and energy and needed to protect her bandwidth. She hoped I understood. This communication was more than just confounding; it was offensive to the very heart of what friendship should be about: a willingness to be inconvenienced by each other, sometimes frequently, when the road gets dark.
My experience is far from unique. As chronicled in recent articles in Bustle and Slate, “therapy-speak” is rampant, and so are its casualties. Concepts initially developed to heal are acting, instead, as a source of harm, wielded as a brute force instrument that tears apart relationships that are already hanging by a thread in a society that’s increasingly polarized, isolated, and self-protective.
The more lines we draw between ourselves and others, the more we start to forget there are real people with real needs on the other side of the line. Therapy is a necessarily self-centered process: the patient’s needs come first in a therapeutic relationship. But extending this approach to our friendships – even adopting it as a paradigm, applied across every interaction and every context – makes for a harsher world and more guarded relationships. It’s easy to see how attending a family wedding or funeral, or taking a meal to a grieving neighbor, for instance, could encroach upon our personal needs. But the appropriate response in such situations can’t be to simply slash it from our schedules. Granted, we can’t do everything, all the time, for everyone. Nor are we obligated to. But a healthy awareness of our own limitations doesn’t require starting from a place that assumes human flourishing is a zero-sum game. Treating others as though our needs are in competition with theirs is a disturbing position to adopt.
Mental health professionals propose an antidote to overzealous boundary-setting in “mutuality,” a two-way, reciprocal sharing of feelings, intended to improve emotional connection within relationships. In reversing current trends, it’s a practice that might be necessary. But I doubt it will prove sufficient. In the end, it attempts to cure the problem through the same therapeutic worldview that created it, subordinating an objective communal good to subjectively experienced, felt need.
The truth is that life gives us seasons where the needs of our neighbor threaten our bandwidth.
Focusing solely on our subjective experiences, on how certain acts or failures to act make us feel, loses sight of the underlying, objective truth about human relationships. And in this context, the truth is that life gives us seasons where the needs of our neighbor or neighbors – what we call the common good – might well threaten our personal bandwidth. We cannot deny our inherent connectedness. It is impossible to move through the world unencumbered by others’ needs. And this is a good thing. Our most meaningful relationships aren’t an imposition on our own private quests for self-realization, but an intrinsic part of who we are. At our core, we’re made for community.
Our dominant cultural narratives tell us to carefully guard our time, talent, treasure, and energy, but they fail to explain, ultimately, why that matters. What’s the point of all our aggressive self-preservation? If setting strict boundaries gives us more time in our schedule, greater emotional reserves, what will we then do with that surplus of time and energy? And if we don’t, like most of us, plan to use them for any particular purpose, why do we continue to fixate upon our own internal resources?
I don’t think the answer is that Millennials are unusually, irredeemably selfish. I think it’s that we’re honestly afraid: afraid of what caring for others might demand of us. Maybe in times when we’re pressured by other commitments – work, or family, or problems of our own – this fear is legitimate. It can feel impossible to create the time, space, and energy necessary to give another person what they need. Yet Scripture shows much more can be done with little than we could ever imagine. With seven loaves and a few small fish, thousands were fed. And so, more than connection, perhaps, we need trust: trust that our efforts will not go to waste, that a humble offering can multiply in the hands of the hungry and the souls of the suffering.
As painful as our culture’s focus on boundary-marking can be for those on the wrong side of those sharply drawn lines, what might be necessary, counterintuitively enough, is a greater willingness to accept discomfort in the service of something greater. What we need is a cultural reckoning that living a fully human life means living in community – and that means implicitly agreeing to be perpetually inconvenienced by others. That can be a demanding, difficult path to follow. But when we live this way, what we receive is not only authentic purpose beyond self-preservation, but the promise that we, too, will be blessed by someone else’s meager offering of seven loaves and a few small fish.
Alexandra Macey Davis is an attorney and a Catholic freelance writer on issues of faith, culture, and family life. She is a regular contributor to Catholic Women in Business and her work has been featured in Verily Magazine, The Federalist, Public Discourse, FemCatholic, Catholic Mom, Everyday Mamas, and many more. You can read more of her writing or reach out at alexandramaceydavis.com.
Originally published on Plough.com as “Bandwidth and Boundaries”, July 31, 2023. Used with permission.