- Psychological terms such as “narcissistic abuse” and “gaslighting” are bleeding into everyday speech.
- Online, several influencers have accused their peers of harmful, abusive tactics.
- Experts talked to Insider about the impact of influencers adding these terms to their lexicon.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Before Trisha Paytas stormed off the set of “Frenemies” for the final time, they accused their cohost and brother-in-law-to-be Ethan Klein of “gaslighting.” The pair, who have had a rocky journey from fellow YouTubers to family members over the past two years, built one of YouTube’s most successful podcasts, garnering millions of views.
In the final episode posted on June 8, which has been viewed 4.4 million times, they argued over the show’s budget in what would be their last time in a video together for the foreseeable future. Paytas, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, suggested Klein was gaslighting because he insinuated Paytas was upset while Paytas insisted they were not. Klein then accused Paytas of gaslighting him in return, which spurred various TikToks, YouTube videos, and social media comments arguing that neither of them was using the word correctly.
Psychologist and therapist Perpetua Neo told Insider gaslighting is when someone “screws with your sense of reality to manipulate you, causing you to distrust yourself and trust them instead.” It’s a well-documented form of psychological abuse and manipulation, which is not the same thing as having a different opinion from someone else. So when someone is accused of abusive behavior such as gaslighting, the dynamics of the conflict dramatically change.
The “Frenemies” scene highlights a trend sweeping across internet culture, where clinical terms that describe deeply harmful abusive tactics or mental health conditions are being thrown around and weaponized during online feuds. Insider spoke to experts about the long-term implications of this, and how words such as “gaslighting,” “narcissist,” and “sociopath” became part of the influencers’ lexicon.
Some of the biggest influencers on the internet are using psychological terminology in their videos
YouTuber Gabbie Hanna has similarly borrowed words from therapists’ handbook. She has been embroiled in countless online feuds, and has referred to several people she has fallen out with, including her former best friend Jessie Smiles, as “narcissistic abusers.”
Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable condition that affects between 0.5 and 1% of the population, and only a mental health professional has the ability to diagnose someone after an evaluation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In a video calling out Hanna, therapist and YouYuber Mickey Atkins said, “it’s frustrating to see someone like Gabbie Hanna with such a large platform labeling people as narcissists and especially saying, ‘that’s narcissistic abuse’ about actions that may have been very hurtful to her, because she hasn’t got the credentials to be diagnosing people.”
Trauma therapist Shannon Thomas, who has treated survivors of psychological abuse, told Insider she has seen a boom in popularity of terms that describe it over the past few years, both in articles and online discourse. She calls this a “double-edged sword,” telling Insider that while it may raise awareness and help people seek professional help, the correct information can get diluted and distorted in the process.
Calling someone “narcissistic” or accusing them of “gaslighting” in the heat of the moment weaponizes the terms, she said, and easily silences the opponent. “It’s a way to stop people from even being able to communicate,” she said.
Influencers are encouraged to use dramatic language by the click economy
Jenna Drenten, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago who studies digital consumer culture, told Insider that psychological terms being used in a public forum can help destigmatize them. However, it can also diminish their seriousness, she said, adding, “If everyone’s being gaslighted, no one’s being gaslighted.”
Language often evolves when topics reach the public consciousness, she said, but when this happens with influencers, there is a complicated dynamic because their content is monetized. Influencers are rarely mental health professionals, and when they speak about abuse and personality disorders, it’s wrapped into a digital infrastructure that incentivizes getting clicks. In disagreements and tensions battled out online, words like “narcissistic abuse” and “gaslighting” fan the flames.
“It has nothing to do with normalizing issues around mental health,” Drenten said. “It has everything to do with maintaining the interest of the internet attention.”
Experts say normalizing this language could desensitize people to its real meaning
Former YouTuber Shane Dawson received criticism from mental health professionals for his 2018 docu-series “The Mind of Jake Paul,” where he sought to establish whether fellow YouTuber Jake Paul was a “sociopath.” The eight-part series racked up millions of views per episode.
Sociopathy does not appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The closest thing is anti-social personality disorder, which is characterized by a lack of empathy, manipulative and reckless behavior, and superficial charm. Dawson’s editing, which included ominous music and stylings of a horror movie, led to criticism from some mental health professionals, such as therapist and YouTuber Yeonni, who said it was “stigmatizing.” Licensed professional mental health councilor Dr Todd Grande also commented on the series, suggesting Dawson was sensationalizing a condition.
Lisa Fontes, PhD, the author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship,” told Insider it’s common for people to borrow words from a scientific context and use them against people they don’t like or disagree with.
“‘Narcissist’ and ‘sociopath’ and ‘psychopath’ have specific meanings within psychology,” she said. “They have been hollowed out in popular use to mean something almost as broad as ‘bad,’ but they sound more specific.”
Using these terms, she said, can give influencers an air of credibility that they have not necessarily earned. Many people may exhibit traits of a “sociopath” or a “narcissist” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean they should be given that label. Fontes said that if the criteria are vague enough, it can “apply to almost anyone.”
Thomas said there’s the chance that the people who most need to understand the meaning of psychological abuse may become desensitized to hearing about “gaslighting” and “sociopaths,” thinking they are just meaningless internet trends.
She said now that it has been a few years of these words finding their way into pop culture, it’s time that people start thinking about what they actually mean when they hear them. Rather than being thrown around in rage, they should be used sparingly and when necessary, she said.