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Psychobabble is the use of psychological words, especially popular buzzwords, by people who are not really using the words in their proper context, and/or who don’t have the appropriate education and credentials to accurately use the terms. The rise in psychobabble can be connected to the earliest diagnostic terms in psychiatry and psychology that were captured by non-professionals and then misused. Self-help books, though they can be useful, have also done their part in contribution to psychobabble, since true diagnostic terms are often taken from them and used freely without any legitimate diagnosis or confirmation from a professional in psychology.
The term dysfunctional, for instance, has almost lost meaning and become one of psychobabble’s strong buzzwords. “I come from a dysfunctional family,” could be interpreted in numerous ways, without specifically defining the dysfunction. The statement may be correct if abuse or true mental illness existed in the family, but the term dysfunctional is often misused to mean any family where the going occasionally got rough.
The term also begs the question as to what defines a “functional’ environment, but may be so vague that it simply means some aspects of the family were problematic. A dysfunctional family could be anything from an environment where a mother or father occasionally yelled, to an environment where one of the parents had schizophrenia or severe and untreated alcoholism. The term is psychobabble because it has been jargonized and lost its original meaning and is now open to interpretation. It is overused and misused. Other terms that are bandied about in this matter include words like codependent, depression, inner child, and empowerment.
In some cases, people use the term psychobabble pejoratively, either to espouse negative opinions about people who use such terms without true understanding of their definitions, or to speak negatively of the mental health profession. When new terms derive from mental health professionals attempting to describe mental illnesses or destructive states of being, people may merely dismiss these as psychobabble: “It’s just psychologists, making up terms.” Though many of these terms do in fact describe states of being accurately, reluctance to accept a wider field of things as possibly mental illness can lead to prejudice against the whole field of psychiatry and psychology.
People wonder if shyness is really social anxiety disorder, and if the baby blues are really post-partum depression. They may take one of two directions and either diagnose themselves, or dismiss these diagnoses as made up. Both tactics are problematic. Dismissing a newly identified illness as psychobabble may not account for instances where such an illness really and truly exists. Self-diagnosis may lead to too much dependence on chemical solutions when these are not really needed. A person who is shy and claims social anxiety disorder may receive medication they do not need, and a person who dismisses post-partum depression and actually suffers from it may be at risk.
Lastly, such babbling may also describe those who use heavily jargonized psychological terms without really defining their meaning or context. This may be the case with certain motivational speakers and with writers of self-help or New Age books. Since the terms seem somehow powerful and scientific, they may lend credibility to ideas that are not thoroughly proven or that make the writer or speaker seem more intelligent or rational. It should be noted that many books of this type are written with the best intentions and don’t contain pseudoscientific terms, jargon or buzzwords.