Jonah Hill attends the "Mid 90's" press conference during the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 10, 2019 in Berlin, Germany.

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

We’ve all met that guy.

Holly Thomas

That guy will corner you in the pub for 40 minutes to whine about getting dumped, but fail to mention that his girlfriend pulled the ripcord because he cheated. That guy will go to counseling to work on his duplicity, only to arrive at an impasse because he secretly recorded the sessions. That guy might go to therapy, but he’ll treat it like a confessional — a place to document his misdeeds and interpret his therapist’s silence as tacit forgiveness, rather than space to reflect on what he’s done, and how he might change. That guy is an elder millennial who’s got a lot of feelings and won’t rest until he’s discovered the culprit.

I’ll use a more concrete example. Jonah Hill, the actor and producer famous for the movies “Superbad,” “Knocked Up,” “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and more recently “Stutz,” a super-intimate documentary named for Hill’s therapist, has come under fire over texts he allegedly sent his former girlfriend, Sarah Brady. In screenshots posted on her Instagram stories, Brady shared conversations in which Hill seemingly pressured Brady — a semi-professional surfer — to remove bikini shots from her social media and told her (among other things) that if she surfed with men, or had anything besides “respectful” coffees and lunches with female friends that he felt were appropriate, he wasn’t “the right partner” for her.

Hill does not have verified social media accounts and has not commented. In a statement published last year, he said he planned to take time off from promoting his work publicly in part because of his anxiety. Brady and Hill broke up in 2022; on Friday, she described her posts as a “warning to all girls,” adding that she hoped Hill’s friends would “hold him accountable.” On Saturday, she wrote that it hadn’t been her intention to become the subject of media scrutiny, but “if that’s what it takes for me to be able to be honest, heal, and move forward, then so be it.”

Hill apparently described these conditions as “boundaries,” but they might as well be called “rules.” Healthy boundaries, as therapists have been swift to point out, are limits people set for themselves to protect their well-being, not demands imposed upon others. Hill’s misappropriation of popular therapy-speak created a veneer of respectability that disguised a perverse shift in the power dynamic between himself and Brady. Judging by the public response, it’s a sleight of hand familiar to many. And while no demographic is culprit-free, Hill belongs to a stratum of men whose weaponization of therapy-speak is especially troubling.

Men of Hill’s age are in a weird spot. At 39, he sits at the older end of the millennial bracket. All this group’s schooling and the vast majority of their adulthood occurred before #MeToo. The noughties, generally agreed to be the most toxic decade for gender relations in recent years, were formative. Yet in their lifetimes, a shift has occurred. In the case of White men especially, advantages they might once have taken for granted — like employment opportunities — appear on shakier ground (even if men are still paid more than women). Boys will no longer be boys.

And while boys and men are rightly being encouraged to get in touch with their feelings, and increasing numbers are seeking mental health support, their relative lack of a familiar script leaves enormous scope for misinterpretation. In the wrong hands (or mouths), words intended to offer a framework for emotional development can be manipulated to reinforce suppressive patriarchal structures.

Jonah Hill and Sarah Brady attend the world premiere of Netflix's "Don't Look Up" on December 05, 2021 in New York City.

Take these examples from the Hill-Brady bin fire. As Brady has pointed out, she was a surfer before she met Hill. In allegedly demanding that she remove swimsuit pics of herself from social media, Hill wasn’t just reinforcing the outmoded notion that women are responsible for mediating the male gaze. He was attempting to change how she presented herself to the world, potentially impacting her earning capacity in the process. (In her replies to Hill, Brady referenced being “less financially independent” than she would have been if she’d never met him, and “work opportunities” she turned down “for” him.)

Hill also ventured to impose restrictions on who Brady socialized with, a known tactic of emotionally abusive partners. He couched all of this in terms of him being “vulnerable.” He told Brady that if she wanted “marriage and family,” she couldn’t use the “25 card” as an excuse not to “step up,” apparently anticipating the latitude she might have claimed on account of her age. Hill had the option of taking action himself, either by challenging his apparently significant insecurities or ending the relationship. Instead, he attempted to shrink his girlfriend’s world, to make her question the validity of her beliefs and actions. To borrow an overused parlance: He gaslit her.

Obviously, not all men who attend therapy do this. Many men work through deep personal anguish and maintain kind, empathetic relationships. And, of course, it is not only men who exhibit such regressive tendencies. It is a universal problem that many of us are able to correctly identify the fact that we are struggling but fail to diagnose the cause. Looking inward is terrifying, so we project outward. We rationalize other people’s behavior, using an emotional language that places the blame for our sadness on them, thereby absolving ourselves of the responsibility to do anything about it. (See also: the agonizing discussion around “friendship breakups.”)

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It’s impossible to know whether Hill was aware of any of this, whether he meant to assert control over Brady or truly believed he was exercising reasonable “boundaries.” Intention matters. Sincere intent speaks of a willingness to improve, while malicious intent would imply a deeper malignancy. But whether Hill understood what he was doing or not, the impact on Brady remains the same.

Attempting to confine Brady’s lifestyle according to his own, arbitrary mores was never going to make Hill happy, but it was almost guaranteed to make her miserable. Ultimately, like many who are in pain, Hill failed to recognize that the call was coming from inside the house. Hill hasn’t responded, and we don’t know his side of this story. But until he — and others like him — learn to look within, they risk realizing the same destructive promise over and over again: that hurt people, hurt people.