The man had been effusive, at first — sending compliments, engaging in witty back and forths, making a playlist that included that song by Mazzy Star (you know the one). And then, suddenly, he wasn’t.
As it turned out, the guy had sent that same playlist to multiple women. He’d allegedly spammed at least one of them with an unsolicited nude photo. As he woke up next to one woman, he was planning that night’s date with another. Like so many online daters before him, Caleb was a creep.
But in the language of TikTok — and, perhaps, the language of our current moment — he was more than that: he was pathological. Caleb, better known at this point as “West Elm Caleb,” a 25-year-old furniture designer in Brooklyn who was the subject of viral mania last month, was accused of “love bombing” women by showering them with interest, “gaslighting” them by making them think he liked them, then abruptly ghosting them, leaving his “victims” to bond over their “shared trauma.”
There are plenty of words to describe somebody like Caleb: deceitful, manipulative, inconsiderate, liar, prick. There is in fact a word, one we can’t print here, created entirely for men like this. But in the souped-up language of today, none of those words seem like enough. “All pain is ‘harm.’ All ‘harm’ is ‘trauma.’ All ‘trauma’ comes from someone who is an ‘abuser,’” said Natalie Wynn, a philosopher turned popular YouTube personality. “It’s as if people can’t articulate disagreement or hardships without using this language.” And so, Caleb became a “predator.”
Call it post-traumatic hyperbole. Or TikTok pseudo-psychology. Or even therapy-speak. There are plenty of horrible things going on in the world, and serious mental health crises that warrant such severe language. But when did we start using the language of harm to describe, well, everything?
Consider “love bombing.” The term originated with cult leaders, in the 1970s, to describe the process of luring recruits by showering them with compliments and affection, which was often followed by more serious measures, like sleep deprivation and isolation. “Love bombing is a coordinated effort,” the psychologist Margaret Singer observed in her book, “Cults in Our Midst,” that involved “flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark.”
Much like “gaslighting” — which comes from a British play that was turned into a Hollywood film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband drives his wife to question her own sanity — “love bombing” became an important term in the domestic violence space to describe patterns of manipulation by an intimate partner. But the terms are meant to refer to patterns, not individual instances of behavior.
And so: Holly Madison saying in a new documentary series that Hugh Hefner love bombed her to control her, yelled at her for cutting her hair and banned her from wearing red lipstick? Sounds right. The New York Post, speculating that Kanye West may be love bombing his new girlfriend because he bought her a hotel suite full of new clothes? Meh. The Huffington Post, declaring that “If You’ve Online Dated, You’ve Probably Been Love Bombed” via overly effusive texts … if we’ve all been love bombed, has anyone?
But where the term has really found traction is on social media, in the various spaces governed by algorithms, primed for hyperbole, and awash in the language of self care. On TikTok and Instagram, especially, there are thousands of self-appointed “wellness,” “mind-set,” “life” or “energy” coaches — as well as relationship experts and those who describe themselves as therapists — to guide you through the process of recognizing a “covert narcissist,” or even an overt one, whose love bombing tactics might include anything from big gestures early on to planning too far in the future.
“I had someone tell me the other day that the checkout person at Trader Joe’s was ‘love bombing’ them,” said Amanda Montell, a language writer and author of the book “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism.” “And like, no, that’s not love bombing.”
The phrase “semantic creep” has been used to describe how the meaning of words change over time. What we’re seeing today, according to the psychologist Nick Haslam, a professor at the University of Melbourne, could be called “trauma creep,” — when the language of the clinical, or at least the clinical-adjacent, is used to refer to an increasingly expansive set of everyday experiences.
Beneath our collective embrace of such language, Mr. Haslam argues, is in fact a better understanding — and in turn, sensitivity — to the psychological aspects of harm. Which, to be clear, can be a good thing. “We’re calling out bad behavior that was previously tolerated, identifying harm that was previously ignored,” he said.
The word “trauma” comes from the ancient Greeks, who defined it as physical injury. And while the term is still used to describe physical harm, today it’s more commonly expressed in the context of the emotional. That shift was critical in the 1990s and early 2000s to legitimizing the concept of domestic abuse, said the sociologist Paige Sweet, the author “The Politics of Surviving”— and even helped shelters gain government resources because it “medicalized” the concept.
But as words gain useful new meanings, over time, they can also lose precision.
Gaslighting is now “thrown out anytime someone’s perception on something is challenged,” said Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, a sociologist at Florida State University. “Emotional labor” was once used to refer to a workplace burden; today, it’s an umbrella term for unpleasant household tasks.
And #Traumatok, a real place on TikTok with nearly 600 million views, teaches us that struggling with decision-making, overachieving, or the inability to stop scrolling might not be just products of indecisiveness, or drive, or boredom, but “trauma responses.” All the while, the public broadcasting of our personal traumas — sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders and so on — has become so ubiquitous that it now has a name: “trauma dumping.” Seriously, what is going on?
The backdrop to all this, of course, is the real, collective “age of trauma” we are all living through. Many things are genuinely not good. When everything feels so dire, why wouldn’t our speech patterns be shaped by those extremes? The Trump years, for instance, brought on the rise of “gaslighter” in place of “liar,” because the latter seemed “just not strong enough anymore,” said Ms. Montell. Discussions around systemic racism and inequality have helped usher in concepts like “generational trauma,” or the trauma of racism, or the way that trauma manifests in the body, and such awareness has helped erode the stigma around talking about such problems. (We can proudly thank our therapists at the Emmys!)
But part of the context, too, is that the age of trauma is unfolding in the age of social media — where everyone is striving, on some level, to rise above the noise, to be taken seriously, to (using another phrase of the moment) “feel heard.”
Words have always reflected culture. But at what point do they start to shape it?
We know, at this point, that algorithms reward outrage and public shaming online — and that, as the Yale psychologist Molly Crockett explained, those algorithms can’t distinguish between language that is proportionate, or disproportionate, to the original transgression.
We also know that victims of wrongdoing tend to be perceived as more “moral” or “virtuous” than others, and that using medical language tends to give a speaker authority, each of which are likely to result in more positive feedback.
It is not a huge leap, then, to imagine that deploying the language of trauma, or of harm, or even of personal struggle, carries cultural capital.
“There’s an economy in knowing that people will have a highly emotional, outsized response,” said Ms. Buggs. “Because they can monetize clicks. They can monetize followers. There is clout in it.”
And in the era of #MeToo, where hardly anyone has to be convinced anymore that the personal is indeed political, trauma-tinged language may offer a quick way to connect the dots between private grievance and righteous crusade, said Ms. Wynn, the YouTube artist. “Like, ‘Caleb hurt my feelings’ — nobody cares. But ‘Caleb is an abuser …’ Now there’s a reason to care.”
Suddenly, Demi Lovato is not just annoyed by having to pass by sugar-free cookies in a frozen yogurt shop, the singer is a victim of diet culture’s “harmful messaging.” The artist who claimed, falsely, that Taylor Swift doesn’t write her own songs, isn’t just misinformed, or a jerk; his words are “damaging” — the implication being, damaging not only to Ms. Swift, but to the culture.
And Caleb? Caleb becomes a meme, self-help influencers capitalize on the spectacle, brands use the moment to sell mayonnaise, and maybe, subconsciously, the rest of us plumb our souls for what we can interpret as our own trauma — because, wow, does trauma get results.
“It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like you’re policing the language,” said Mr. Haslam. “But when we start to talk about ordinary adversities as ‘traumas’ there is a risk that we’ll see them as harder to overcome and see ourselves as more damaged by them.”
In a recent piece in The New Yorker, the writer Parul Sehgal writes about the trope of the trauma plot in literature and television — which, she argues, has the tendency to flatten characters into a set of symptoms. Is all this trauma talk — and #traumatok — doing the same, but in real life?
Jessica Bennett (@jessicabennett) is a Times contributing editor, covering personalities, politics, culture and the workplace — through a gender lens. She is the author of “Feminist Fight Club” and “This Is 18.” Previously, she was The Times’s gender editor.
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