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Jonah Hill’s alleged texts spark discussion on ‘therapy speak’ — and if it was misused. Here’s what experts say.

Jonah Hill at the UK Premiere of "The Wolf Of Wall Street," in 2014.Joel Ryan

A firestorm has swirled online around the popularization of therapy language and the implications of its misuse in everyday settings in recent days, spurred by allegations made against actor Jonah Hill.

The discussion was ignited after surfer Sarah Brady, Hill’s former partner of about one year, shared several screenshots on her Instagram Stories of text messages that she claimed were sent by Hill — the conversations showed the number was saved under “Jonah” — and that she said demonstrated his “emotionally abusive” behavior.

In the exchange that drew the most attention, Hill laid out the “boundaries” he expected Brady to follow to maintain their romantic partnership. They included no longer surfing with men, not posting pictures of herself in a swimsuit, and giving up modeling. Brady pointed to the requests as an example of Hill misusing the concept of “boundary setting,” an approach that is taught in therapy to help create a healthy personal space.

In the past few years, “therapy speak” — language used by mental health professionals to describe certain psychological concepts and behaviors — has become increasingly mainstream on social platforms like TikTok, where communities centered around wellness and mental health thrive. Many people, particularly Gen Z and millennials, now use the terms colloquially, but not always in an accurate way.


After Brady posted the messages, a debate ensued over whether Hill had “weaponized” such language against Brady. Some said it was a textbook case of manipulation and abuse, while others insisted that Hill was merely presenting his needs for the relationship to continue.

Experts, both in psychology and sexual violence, offered differing interpretations of the situation, but ultimately agreed that the everyday use of once-clinical language has the potential to cause harm when people exploit terms for their own gain.


“There’s a lot of positives about therapy speak — it’s normalized mental health, people are seeking therapy, people are interested in learning about their mental health,” said Alexandra Gold, a clinical fellow in psychology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “But the double-edged sword here is that sometimes the words can be misunderstood and misused, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”

Brady has continued to speak about Hill’s messages and her reasons for sharing them publicly. Hill has not spoken publicly about the allegations. Brady and a representative for Hill could not be reached for comment.

Hill, 39, was also accused on Saturday — after Brady posted the messages — of forcing himself on former child actor Alexa Nikolas in 2008, when she was 16. He is being represented by attorney Martin Singer in the matter, Jezbel reported.

In an Instagram story on Wednesday, Brady said that sharing their private messages was “tacky and a violation of privacy,” but it was the only evidence she had to prove she was in an “emotionally abusive relationship.”

“He has branded himself as the mental health guy, and many people believe he has changed ways A LOT since his 20s. IMO he hasn’t changed much. He’s just found new tactics to manipulate with, whether that manipulation is conscious or not,” she wrote.

As mental health and therapy have become more normalized, in part due to the number of people who sought care during the pandemic, therapy language has proliferated, Gold said, which helps explain why terms are frequently misused. The concepts are complex and require a therapist to break them down, she said. Without that, people repeat terms without grasping their full meaning or use words and phrases to justify behaviors or actions that may not be appropriate in a relationship.


“A lot of the times it is more of these self-focused actions,” she said. “It would not be appropriate if it’s being used to exert control over another person. I think that’s where someone might use — in some context — therapy speak in order to do so. But I also think they might misuse some of that language to focus on their own needs at the expense of other people, whether that is an intentional or unintentional process.”

Much of the anger directed at Hill centered on his use of the word “boundaries,” which some said he used as a way to control her actions.

Psychotherapist Kathleen Sprengel said she teaches boundary-setting in her practice as placing limits around what people are willing to do, what they want, and what they want out of another person in a relationship. In a healthy relationship, a person should be able to ask for anything with the understanding that their partner has the right to say no. Particularly in intimate relationships, Sprengel said she leaves that process “very open” for her clients.

When Sprengel read the text messages and ensuing discourse, she found herself taking the less popular view that Hill was using language to convey what he wanted in the relationship, she said. If that was not going to work for his partner, then the relationship would end.


“That’s all relationships are,” she said. “When it does go over into inappropriate and abusive is when someone is denying your perception of things, denying your lived experience, or trying to confuse you about your own beliefs.”

Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies how social structures make sexual violence more common, said Hill’s use of “boundaries” was a form of emotional abuse. Therapy speak can be “used as a shield,” she said, a distraction from what would otherwise clearly be seen as “controlling and abusive behavior.”

Bedera also said that Hill presented an ultimatum in saying the relationship would end if she did not comply, another control tactic.

“Whenever these cases come to light, one of the underlying dynamics is that all of us are more vulnerable to these abusive tactics than we want to believe,” Bedera said. “Abuse thrives in silence and isolation.”

While Gold considers it a good thing that people are using therapy language to advocate for their own needs in a relationship, it’s crucial that they figure out how to honor their own needs “while also respecting the other party and relationship.”

“We’re really talking about the emotions underlying these boundaries and the feelings that we have around them,” she said.

Shannon Larson can be reached at Follow her @shannonlarson98.