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  • Writer's pictureSophia Khan

Breaking Down the Problem with the Term 'Disordered' in Therapy



As a therapist, one encounters a multitude of terms and labels used to describe various mental health conditions. Among these, the term "disordered" stands out, and not necessarily for the right reasons. In this blog post, we'll explore why some therapists, including myself, have reservations about the use of the term "disordered" in the context of mental health.


  1. Normal Responses to Survive and Cope: The first issue with labeling certain behaviors as "disordered" lies in the fact that many of these actions are, in reality, normal responses aimed at helping individuals survive or cope. Human behavior is complex, and what may be perceived as disordered could be a perfectly understandable reaction to challenging circumstances.

  2. Purposeful Actions: Behaviors labeled as "disordered" often serve a purpose, providing comfort, pleasure, a sense of calm, nervous system regulation, distraction, or stimulation. Desiring these effects doesn't indicate a disorder; it underscores our inherent humanity and our adaptive capacity to seek solutions to life's challenges.

  3. Multilevel Understanding: The need for soothing or regulation extends beyond the individual level; it also makes sense on psychological, biological, social, and cultural levels. Dismissing these behaviors as merely "disordered" overlooks the complex interplay of factors that contribute to human experiences and expressions.

  4. Normal Responses to Abnormal Situations: What society may categorize as "disordered" often represents very normal and understandable responses to abnormal or distressing situations. Placing a label of disorder may oversimplify the nuanced nature of human psychology and emotional responses.

  5. Impact on Self-Esteem: The use of the term "disordered" can have detrimental effects on an individual's self-esteem and self-image. It may make people feel broken, dysfunctional, or as if something is inherently wrong with them, hindering the healing process.

  6. Counterproductive to Healing: The impacts on self-esteem and self-image are counterproductive to factors crucial for healing, such as self-compassion, self-trust, resilience, and leveraging personal strengths. Therapy should foster a sense of empowerment rather than reinforcing feelings of inadequacy.

  7. Lazy Language: Referring to behaviors as "disordered" may be seen as a shortcut, a way of categorizing without delving into the complexities of the individual's experiences. Using more nuanced language can lead to a deeper understanding of the person and their unique struggles.

  8. Focus on Compassion over Elimination: Rather than solely concentrating on eliminating certain behaviors, therapy could benefit from a shift towards providing care and compassion to the underlying pain or wounds that drive these behaviors. Understanding the root causes allows for more effective and empathetic interventions.

  9. A Reminder of Humanity: It's essential to remind individuals that they are not broken, disordered, flawed, or damaged. They are human, navigating the complexities of life, and therapy should be a collaborative journey towards understanding, growth, and self-acceptance.


In conclusion, the term "disordered" can be limiting and stigmatizing, potentially hindering the therapeutic process. By adopting a more compassionate and nuanced approach to language and understanding, therapists can create a safer and more empowering space for individuals to explore and heal.

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