Most people don’t enjoy witnessing someone they know experiencing a distressing moment or being agitated. What usually happens when most of us see a person in that state? We have the urge to tell that person to remain calm, to encourage them to be calm, and so often, to demand that they be calm.
When people hear the order to “calm down”–no adult ever responds with relief, “Phew, thank god you told me to calm down, otherwise I’d be flipping out.”
We will also never hear anybody say, “Wait! That’s an option?! I can be calm?”
So why do we insist on requesting or demanding calm?
In times of distress, we also have the habit of shutting someone up (especially if we’re being held accountable in some way) and making them question their motives by telling them that they’re “crazy.”
A few months ago, I wrote a column entitled, “A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not Crazy,” in which I re-coined the term, “gaslighting.” In the piece, I explained how phrases like “You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out,” are often used to deflect a confrontation–where these statements are used as the weapons of emotional manipulation.
Most of you are reading this column because “A Message to Women From a Man” went viral on a level I could never have imagined. That particular column was ranked 22nd on the list of most-shared articles on all of Facebook in 2011.
I know that particular column struck a nerve because I was identifying a behavior, subtle emotional manipulation, that constantly frustrates many women.
And there are two phrases from that viral column that I want to further explore as I think they need to be put to bed: “calm down,” especially when used as a demand or order, and “you’re crazy,” especially when used as a insult.
I have no intention of dictating how people should speak and express themselves, but these two statements are not only completely unhelpful to their recipients, but the force of “calm down” and crazy” are also incredibly damaging, over time, to the people who hear them.
Both men and women are subject to and wielders of these two phrases, but I mainly write about and for women. So while acknowledging this reality, I am focusing on how “calm down” and “crazy” make women feel. And because we live in a culture that attempts to control their voices, I am also looking at how women bare the brunt of these statements.
These two phrases universally create a visceral reaction in all the women I know, a reaction of frustration, sadness and anger built up from previous experiences.
I want to first look at the problems with being told to “calm down.” Now, there are two different ways this phrase is generally used: when someone is distressed, it can be used by an outside person in an attempt to help the distressed person feel less agitated. “Calm down” can also be used as a demand or order, in a patronizing way, when the speaker doesn’t like the way someone is reacting to something.
In the first instance, when we are attempting to be helpful, simply telling someone to “calm down” generally doesn’t work–it really doesn’t. And while some people can indeed point to instances where it does seems to work, just because someone appears to be calmer, doesn’t mean that we have done anything to help them internally.
Words aren’t nearly as powerful as actions. When someone is distressed and we have the good intention of trying to help, we should help by finding a solution to the point of stress–this strategy would more effectively help the distressed person to find calm. Demanding someone to be calm often elicits exactly the opposite reaction.
We can’t force and request anybody to change their state of mind–this is impossible. If it were that easy, we would all do it to each other, all day long, in attempts to find more clarity.
Some of the men I interviewed for this piece were confused about why the phrase “calm down” is seen by women as so offensive. It boils down to this: by demanding calm (even in a respectful tone), you are saying that the person has no reason to be upset or agitated, that what they’re saying and what they’re feeling isn’t logical.
And when we look at the statement in the context of gaslighting, “calm down” is pushed to an even more sinister level. Telling someone to “calm down” when you are to blame for their frustration is not only unhelpful, it’s an attempt to quiet them when you are being held accountable.
For women, the order to “calm down” is about an attempt to control their emotions, feelings, voice. When someone demands that a women in distress, frustration, or anger find a moment of internal peace, that person is attempting to diminish or extinguish frustration/anger which our culture only sees as emotions that only men are worthy of feeling and having.
While plenty of women will tell men to “calm down,” it is not seen as something that is done for the common good, like when a man tells a woman to calm down, i.e. let’s keep the hysterical crazy lady quiet.
In fact, our culture tends to see the woman who tells a man to “calm down” as a hysterical crazy lady. Male agitation, rage is understood as a condition that needs to be appeased, with the problems that started that rage needing to be resolved by everyone involved. Our culture makes it so that men don’t deserve to be shut down with a flippant order to “calm down.”
However, a woman’s frustration, anger, distress is seen as mere inconvenience, something that needs to be shut down through the outside world insisting that she change (sometimes immediately) her emotional response, instead of helping her find the root of the problem.
But “calm down” is not the only statement that derides a woman’s state of mind and her voice. When we refer to women and their actions as “crazy,” we are also making a similar move in undermining how women behave, think, and speak.
I can go on and on qualifying different ways of using “crazy.” And when I refer to the word “crazy,” I don’t mean the situation where someone says “you’re so crazy!” with a laugh or a smile in moment of gentle kidding with a friend. I’m talking about the context of someone who uses “crazy” against another person as an insult, as in, “you’re crazy” (feel free to insert expletives like “you’re bat-shit crazy”).
The term “crazy” is so casually thrown around these days. We use it jokingly, we use it as an insult, it has almost lost its meaning for those who use it, but I have found that it has rarely lost its meaning for the recipients of this word.
We condition boys and men to avoid their emotions, to see emotional discussions with accountability and feelings as incredibly uncomfortable and inconvenient. What can immediately end those discussions? Call the woman who is asking a man to sort out and confront his accountability and feelings, a nut job. Make her question her own sanity and guess what? It works.
When “crazy” is inserted in the context of gaslighting (as I define it), the word can literally cause the recipient–usually a woman–to question her motives, her thoughts, how she processes things.
Unlike the statement “calm down,” there is no nice way to tell someone they’re crazy. When used as an insult, the damage lingers because the idea of “crazy’ taps into the power of gaslighting. The power of gaslighting is so incredible because the victim is usually self aware, and anyone who is self aware will constantly check and question themselves in a healthy manner.
This doesn’t mean insecurity is not a main player, but if someone is truly are crazy, calling them crazy is not going to stop them from thinking twice about their behavior. And because victims of gaslighting usually aren’t crazy, they will question and examine what is said and done to them.
We all say things we regret in moments of anger or passion, but the word “crazy” has a long emotional impact, a long shelf-life. It digs deep.
When someone is addressing a frustration and we throw out the response: “you’re crazy,” on the most basic level, it’s just hurtful. But tap into the power of our cultural conditioning and the word attacks a woman’s everyday plight: the struggle of constantly being bombarded with the idea that they are irrational and illogical.
We’re constantly telling women that they are crazy (think about reality shows like The Real Housewives series and The Bachelor), while simultaneously reminding them that they should never appear “crazy” (feel free replace crazy with needy) if they want to be married and happy.
Telling a woman they’re crazy is also telling her that what she has to say lacks value–something that women have to hear and face everyday in our culture. Because we generally don’t value what a woman has to say as much as we do a man, to further inject the idea of women as crazy is only driving the screwed up cultural message home. For many women, when they hear “you’re crazy,” many emotions bubble to the surface, creating a great deal of self-questioning, ironically when the issue they are accused of being “crazy” about may be perfectly valid.
Eliminating “calm down” and “crazy” from our social vocabulary doesn’t mean that we can’t hold people accountable or try to encourage them to deal with their emotions in a healthy, positive way. It just means we can’t be assholes when we’re trying to help them.
But for so many women, their emotions are consistently checked by men, in an attempt to keep them quiet, because it’s so much easier to live a life where we demand that the emotions of those around us conform to what makes us comfortable, where accountability only exists when we want it to.
Click Here To Join The E-Mail List For My First Book