Toxic boss gaslighting you? What these psychology terms really mean

Science and Health

Language is living, dynamic, and ever-changing. The language of today isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago, or 50 years ago or even five years ago. Concepts from different professions flow into everyday language and we end up using these terms frequently.

Social media and TV shows play a major role in this, and if you spend even a small amount of time online, it’s likely that psychological concepts have entered your everyday language – and you might not have even noticed.

All it takes is just one viral TikTok video.

One of the most prominent examples of this is the word “gaslighting.” If you don’t live under a rock and have been on the Internet at least once in the last year, you’ve no doubt come across this term.

It has seeped so deeply into our everyday life that the word was named “Word of the Year” by the Miriam Webster dictionary.

Depression in children and teens is on the rise, how can we help them? (credit: PEXELS)

Words have power because they shape consciousness and, ultimately, shape reality. This is because the careful choice of words can help shape the public narrative and opinion.

For instance, consider what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine. Is it a “war” and “invasion” or a “maneuver” or “special military operation?” Are the changes being proposed to Israel’s judicial system a “reform” or a “coup?” Are the IDF’s recent actions in the West Bank an “operation” or something else?”

Which words are used matters because those words can shape public opinion.

But when it comes to professional jargon, its usage by the general public is not always done correctly. This can result in the meaning of these concepts being diluted and devalued. 

Further, since words have power, using them incorrectly can have devastating consequences. For psychological terms, it can have particularly significant ramifications in how it impacts people’s lives.

Frequent and incorrect use of professional terminology can take away nuance, derail serious conversations and create social stigma. Because of this, it’s important to understand what these words mean and how (and when) they can be used correctly.

Here are some words that are used every day, and are usually used incorrectly:


A concept that has permeated everything from professional studies to pop culture in an extremely profound way. This term is used to describe insensitivity, lying, or sometimes just expressing opinions different from our own.

This word is one heard all the time, both in a professional environment and outside it. It’s usually used as a form of blaming someone, describing the gaslighter as someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their actions and behavior.

However, it’s actually much darker and more insidious than just lying or being insensitive.

Gaslighting is a process of manipulation used to make the victim question their perceptions, memories, sanity, and reality. It isn’t just a white lie. 

Gaslighting is a characteristic of many abusive relationships, as seen in the 1944 film Gaslight, where the term originates from.

For example, someone can insist repeatedly that something didn’t happen, even though it did, and tell their victim that they’re misremembering or just making it up.

The goal of gaslighting isn’t to get away with doing something bad. Rather, it’s to create confusion, sowing the seeds of doubt in one’s perception of themselves and reality. It is a violent and forceful act of coercion and control.


Even before Facebook and Netflix, Britney Spears asked people “Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” Since then, anything that makes people uncomfortable and frustrated is deemed “toxic.”

Your boss is toxic, your annoying friends and toxic, even the poor barista who took over a minute to make your coffee is toxic. 

But not everything that frustrates us is really toxic. Sometimes, it’s good to know how to contain one’s frustration without blaming everyone and it’s better to leave the accusation of toxicity to when someone is intentionally causing harm.

If someone in your life is causing you emotional harm on purpose, it is toxic.

Someone who isn’t right for you or is difficult to get along with isn’t necessarily toxic. Calling them toxic is wrong, unfair and can be hurtful and offensive.


Internet users’ favorite diagnosis is probably labeling someone as a narcissist, which has been used to describe anyone who seems to be self-centered.

This term is thrown around lightly and is sometimes used to just describe someone with traits we don’t like.

A narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis where one has an exaggerated sense of talent and self-importance; a perception of their own power and appearance bordering on fantastical; a tendency to take advantage of others; a deep need for praise, attention, and admiration; and an inability to cope with criticism.

Contrary to popular belief, people with narcissistic personality disorder don’t actually love themselves. Rather, they suffer from a severe ego bruise and are trying to compensate for their own insecurity.


Did you slip on the stairs at the entrance to your work and now everyone in the office saw you fall? How traumatic!

If you talk about this in therapy, your therapist will sympathize with you (and if they don’t, it’s probably time to leave) but they will use words like “embarrassing,” “horrifying,” or “disappointing.” Not “traumatic.”

Trauma is a deep, serious, and chronic condition that can affect not only the mind but also the nervous system. People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience extreme stress and tension from anything that reminds them of their traumatic experience and can even end up reliving it.

They suffer from, among other things, nightmares, impatience, anxiety, and aggression. In some cases, they even try to commit suicide to stop the pain.

Describing slipping on the stairs as trauma makes actual trauma seem banal and meaningless. 


If, like me, you need your beer glass to be at a certain angle otherwise it bothers you, it doesn’t mean you have OCD. Maybe you’re just a little weird.

Even if you’re not sure if you locked the door when you leave, even if you need your home to be extremely clean, even if you can’t go to bed if you haven’t finished folding the laundry – none of that means you have OCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is something much more complex. It’s an anxiety disorder based on an extreme need for control, where things are done in a certain way – and only in that specific way – in order to calm anxiety by establishing a sense of control. It isn’t just an inconvenience or wanting to finish chores before you sleep so you don’t have to do them in the morning.

Rather, it’s about a deep and severe fear and anxiety that if these things aren’t done in a specific way, there may be catastrophic consequences.

Outwardly, the behavioral aspect is the only part that’s visible. However, this behavior is an attempt to compensate for a cognitive aspect where someone with OCD suffers from intrusive and anxious thoughts and can’t control them.


Do you have a friend who never wants to go to parties and just wants to stay at home? Okay, that’s fine, but it would be wrong to think he’s antisocial. he might just be an introvert.

The word antisocial has started to refer to a reluctance to be with or around others. However, it is also a personality disorder that manifests as a repeated disregard for the feelings of others.

It is a diagnosis that manifests as impulsive behavior, lack of empathy, and lack of awareness about how your actions impact those around you.

People with antisocial personality disorder will often be characterized as careless, manipulative, and as cheaters.

Trauma bonding

This is a term that’s only entered pop culture relatively recently and it’s probably the term that is the most misused.

The assumption (and it isn’t unreasonable) is that trauma bonding is what happens when two people share traumatic experiences and this brings them closer together.

A concept that would describe this sort of situation sounds nice, but that isn’t really the case. In reality, the term is more like identifying with the aggressor.

Trauma bonding is what happens when an aggressor and victim form a sort of connection or attachment. One example of this is Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim starts to empathize with the aggressor. 

A traumatic relationship is an actual emotional attachment the victim develops toward their attacker. This connection can often appear in abusive relationships, when the aggressor exhibits intense transitions between loving and abusive behavior and the victim’s mind and body learn to depend on whatever displays of love and affection they get.

This can end up creating a scenario where the victim ma be mistaken and think they need the aggressor to receive these displays of love and affection.


This term is also used incorrectly in many cases, especially when it is used to describe “split personalities” when someone switches between different identities like Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde. That was once known as multiple personality disorder and is today known as dissociative identity disorder (DID).

The word schizophrenia comes from Latin and means “split mind.” But it doesn’t refer to multiple personalities. Rather, it refers to a disconnect between the mind’s different functions.

Schizophrenia’s symptoms are varied but to be diagnosed with it, one of the following symptoms must occur for at least a month:

  • Hallucinations (perceptions of sensory stimuli like sights, sounds, and smells that don’t exist)
  • Delusions (false thoughts and beliefs)
  • Disorganized speech

In this context, pop culture has had a major influence on how this condition is perceived. Now, the primary image of someone with schizophrenia in the public’s collective consciousness is that of particularly violent serial killers – who likely, if anything, suffered from antisocial personality disorder. However, the vast majority of schizophrenia patients are non-aggressive who suffer from both a mental disorder and severe public stigma.