Choosing Your Words Wisely
How casually saying things like “She’s so OCD” or “Don’t have a panic attack” can alienate people with invisible illnesses—and what to say instead.
Choosing Your Words Wisely is Important
Misused words and phrases are nothing new, nor is the usage of words that hurt others—intentionally or not. However, as society evolves and we learn more about brain health, we can identify issues and make corrections.
In the realm of brain health, this includes common misusage of terms and phrases, like, “Sorry, it’s my OCD” or “I’m being so ADHD right now.” Most people are not trying to be hurtful when they say these things and likely don’t realize these phrases carry weight. Regardless of intention, these terms, and many other misused brain health terms, can be extremely damaging to those who live with symptoms every day.
Understanding the Reality of a Diagnosis
For starters, people often don’t realize the depth of these diagnoses. OCD, for example, is not just about organizing things and maintaining a clean home. Cleaning is only one example of a compulsion someone living with OCD might experience, and it’s not present for every person.
This is just one example of a misunderstood diagnosis. Others, like ADHD and bipolar, also tend to be generalized, and misusing those terms can be harmful.
Negative Effects of Misusing Terms
People tend to misuse these terms when they intend to reference a single trait that is associated with it. Instead of saying, “I am particular about how I organize the spices in the cupboard,” they might say, “They have to be a certain way—it’s because of my OCD!”
They don’t actually suffer from OCD; they are just referencing a well-known compulsion for cleanliness. Because cleanliness is commonly viewed as a good thing, this misuse is almost glamorizing or minimizing OCD, which wreaks havoc in the lives of those who truly experience it.
Most importantly, though, these misuses can perpetuate a societal misunderstanding of what these illnesses are. When people aren’t aware of the depths of these illnesses and the impacts they have, it is easier to lack empathy, and this can lead to individuals with a diagnosis feeling alienated and alone. Lack of understanding also furthers the stigma around brain health, illness, and diagnoses like OCD.
What You Can Say Instead
Instead of using phrases like, “I’m so OCD” or “Don’t be so bipolar,” try communicating your message without generalizing and misusing terms. For example:
Instead of saying, “I’m so OCD,” to describe cleanliness or organization standards, try saying:
- I like to organize and clean, especially when I’m stressed.
- I’m very particular about some things.
- When I’m overwhelmed, I focus on what I can control, which is often cleaning and organizing!
Instead of saying, “Sorry, I’m really ADHD today,” to describe trouble focusing or being more hyper than usual, try saying:
- I’m a little all over the place today.
- I’m having difficulty concentrating, can you repeat that?
- It seems I’m feeling a little more energetic than usual.
Instead of saying something or someone is “being bipolar” to describe an object’s functionality or person’s mood, try saying:
- It’s been a little unpredictable lately.
- I’ve noticed your mood has been fluctuating a bit, are you okay?
- It hasn’t been very reliable; it may need to be recalibrated/repaired.
Instead of saying an ex is “a total narcissist” or “crazy” as a way to describe self-serving or unwelcomed behaviors, try saying:
- They were inconsiderate and a little self-absorbed.
- We had different expectations in the relationship.
- They were irrational at times and crossed some boundaries.
Instead of saying, “I’m going to have a panic attack” to describe anxiety or fear, try saying:
- I’m feeling nervous right now.
- I’m anxious about the potential outcome.
- I’m overwhelmed by all of this; I need to sit down.
Ask Questions and Educate Yourself.
As the understanding of terms, diagnoses, and impacts continue to increase, we will all learn and adjust. It’s impossible to be aware of everything, especially if you’ve never experienced it.
Be open and accepting of feedback and guidance from those around you and remember to be kind when educating others. Informing others should never be about embarrassing them, but about politely letting them know. If you are directly hurt or affected by their words, and you know they weren’t being intentionally disrespectful, consider letting them know in private.
For more information on brain health, tips, and relevant topics, visit our brain health outreach page.