The question we should ask about incorporating psychological terms into the current lexicon is whether or not it helps us in our individual or interpersonal psychological work? Does knowledge of key terms help or hinder the therapeutic process? Or could it become an obstacle in your therapeutic journey?
The case for talk therapy
I often invite my clients to Google “attachment styles” or listen to a podcast about self-esteem or shame issues. Clients can then gain some insight into their own blocking points or interpersonal conflicts, name and tame some triggering issues. Knowing the psychological language in this way can be an extension or way of knowing yourself.
For example, knowing what your ‘love language’ is can help you understand why your partner’s advances just don’t seem to go anywhere with you. Knowing that small gifts or gestures really make you feel safe while touch pushes you away is really good knowledge that both you and your romantic partner need. This can work even better when translated into “I language” that explicitly communicates your desire. Telling your partner that while he may think rubbing your feet is a kind gesture but actually pushes him away can sometimes overcome a feeling of rejection on his part when you recoil from his touch.
Psychoeducation can also be helpful in specifying or articulating a confusing communication pattern in a couple. What appears to be blocking or rejecting a partner may actually be a self-regulating gesture, indicating a high level of self-attunement in an apparently withdrawn partner. Being able to name this distinction using psychological language can help us break out of stalemates and cycles that escalate and seem endless. It requires a keen ability, however, to distinguish between two interpersonal phenomena that can often appear alike. When is withdrawal to punish the other and when is it a gesture to de-escalate a situation and not give in to attacks or impulses of contempt?
The case against talk therapy
The example of obstruction versus self-regulation may also make the case for the dangers of therapeutic infiltration into our personal lives. Knowledge of key terms, especially when they are red flag terms like “obstruction”, “contempt”, or “defensiveness”, can often be used as fair weapons in a highly escalated situation, for example, “Are you blocking now and John Gottman says you absolutely cannot do that!” or, “You are behaving like a textbook evader!”
A bit of psychoeducation gleaned from online sources can quickly turn into a means of diagnosing your spouse, often as a way around your own responsibility in a conflict situation. While there may be some evidence in your informal diagnosis, most of us are not clinicians and diagnosticians, and diagnoses take time, accuracy, and experience.
These terms can to feel really insightful in the moment and can help give language to something we feel for someone else. However, assuming your correctness or setting up a pseudo-assessment in a conflict, in my opinion, doesn’t do much to improve things interpersonally. In most cases, these informal assessments do more to reassure the victimized party that their grievances are justified than they do to improve things in a relationship. It can even lead, in the worst cases, to greater resistance to communication and empathy, further delaying relational improvement.
My rule of thumb when encountering this clinically is to recommend keeping this psychological suspicion to yourself (or sharing it with a personal therapist) but acting empathetically with this in mind. For example, if you suspect that your partner is, in fact, an avoidant type who blocks and withdraws, try to find ways to soften and include them, to help them “unzip their snowsuit” and communicate. better. Using therapeutic speech in this context is likely to encourage more withdrawal, more protective barriers, and undermine trust. your assumption it could be correct, but this correction will not necessarily improve your relationship. Being right in this case rarely leads to better interpersonal outcomes.