“You’re just being crazy!“
Chances are you've heard—or uttered—one of these phrases during the height of an argument.
As your experience likely proved, such statements often trigger a response that's diametrically opposed to the one intended. Upon hearing a (sometimes desperate) plea to cool off, take it down a notch, or stop making mountains out of molehills, the person who's freaking out starts to, well, freak out more.
When we tell someone their concerns aren’t such a big deal or imply that they’re overreacting, what they hear is, “Your feelings are completely unjustified,” says David M. Allen, M.D., author of How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders: A Balanced Approach to Resolve Problems and Reconcile Relationships. This is the essence, Allen points out, of invalidation—the act of mocking, teasing, rejecting, denying, diminishing, or judging someone else’s feelings. (Y’ouch.)
The same sentiment could crop up if you have, say, an illness and an unthinking pal goes, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” notes Jennifer Samp, Ph.D., professor of communications studies at the University of Georgia. These well-meant words can discount the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty you might have about your illness.
Sure, some of us are more sensitive to these threats than others, and those types are more likely to fly off the handle or lose touch with logic. Emotional Hyper-Reactivity in Borderline Personality Disorder. Sansone, R., Sansone, L. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010 Sep; 7(9): 16–20. Emotional reasoning and anxiety sensitivity: associations with social anxiety disorder in childhood. Alkozei A, Cooper PJ, Creswell C. Journal of affective disorders, 2013, Sep.;152-154():1573-2517. That courts further invalidation, since friends and partners may feel even more inclined to bring ‘em back down to earth.
When we’re defensive, we fight for ourselves—instead of the relationship.
After all, even the mellowest among us have been there: Feeling like a friend or partner doesn’t think we’re acting rationally—or, gasp, normally—can hurt. Any phrase that implies we’re too different cuts straight to our core vulnerabilities, Samp says. “When we’re questioned by those who matter to us, we can become defensive,” she explains. “And when we’re defensive, we fight for ourselves—instead of the relationship.”
The result: Actual mountains out of molehills—most of which arise from how difficult it can be to appreciate someone else’s perspective, Samp says.
Since what’s important to one person may strike the next as minimal, opportunities to unintentionally inflame others’ angst are certainly in abundance. Fortunately, there are a few communication strategies you can use to lower the likelihood of making someone else feel 20 times worse. Try these the next time you come up against someone who’s in need of some soothing.
How Not to Handle a Heated Moment
1. "You're crazy."
Rather than reacting to someone else’s intense (potentially overdramatic) emotion, Allen advises seeking what’s true in an upset person’s statements. “Resist the temptation to invalidate them without agreeing to any exaggerated histrionics,” he says. “No matter how crazy-sounding what they say is, there is almost always a kernel of truth in it—no matter how small.”
Example: Your friend tells you, "You've been a really bad friend lately. It seems like you don't care about me at all."
Don't say: "Are you kidding!? What's wrong with you that you can't see how much I care!?"
Do say: "I'm so sorry I did X that made it seem like I don't care. But I wish there was something I could say or do to prove how much I care about you. Because I do. Your friendship is so important to me."
Another example: Your roommate says, "You're so distracting when I'm trying to study!"
Don't say: "What, so I can't ever watch TV in my own apartment? Deal with it."
Do say: "I'm sorry, I know I can be loud sometimes. While I won't be able to cut out my Netflix habit completely, I'll do my best to keep the volume down in the future."
Why this works: Focusing on what’s real and rational in another person’s rant can disarm them, as they relax upon feeling understood, Allen says. They’ll feel reassured that at least one person doesn’t consider them totally bonkers.
2. "You always let me down."
Empathy is key when responding to a friend or loved one who’s freaking out, Samp says. This doesn’t mean just being nice (What can I do to make you feel better?). Nor does it require you to agree about the magnitude of the issue. Instead, empathy involves assuming his or her perspective and letting the person know you see where they’re coming from, Samp says.
Example: Your girlfriend doesn't show up to the happy hour with your co-workers you invited her to.
Don’t say: “You always let me down!”
Do say: “I was hurt by you not showing up today, because I was really looking forward to seeing you. It makes me sad, because I feel like this has happened before. Is it just because you're busy at work, or is there something else keeping you from following through? Maybe we should chat about what’s going on and figure out a way to make this work better for both of us.”
Why this works: “When you acknowledge a friend’s or partner’s reality, you keep lines of communication open—which can encourage constructive dialogue and collaborative problem solving,” Samp says.
3. "Ugh, this again..."
How you say something can be even more important than what you end up saying. “We’re more attuned to the tone of a sentence than its actual words,” Allen says, “which is why something that might sound neutral ‘on paper’ can come across—intentionally or not—as hostile.”
Example: Your significant other complains that you’re not giving him enough of your attention or time. He says, “I feel like you care more about your friends and your work than you do about me.”
Don’t say: (curtly) “You do? That’s sweet.” (Let out sigh of exasperation.) “So, what can I do about it?“
Do say: (calmly, caringly) “You do? That’s sweet.” (Make eye contact; reach your hand out to touch his shoulder.) “So, what can I do about it?“
Why this works: The warmer tone and gestures (combined with the eye contact) communicate: Hey, I hear you. I'm here for you. Without that warm tone and kind gesture, the same words could sound as if they meant, Of course, there you go again. What do you want from me now?
4. "I'm leaving."
Sounds obvious, but storming out when your friend or S.O. is in an emotional tailspin is basically rejection embodied: It sends the message that you don’t even care enough to try understanding the person you just peaced out on, Samp explains. That being said, taking a time out to let hot heads cool down can sometimes be wise, she adds.
Example: A family member is repeatedly saying, loudly, how stressed out they are and complaining that no one ever helps them out.
Don’t: Roll your eyes, sigh, and stomp out the door (slamming it for effect).
Do: Take a deep breath, make eye contact, and say, “I really want to help, but I need to take a breather for a second. Can we call a timeout and resume when we’re calmer—say, in five or ten minutes?”
Why this works: When we’re frustrated with someone, we may cross our arms, position our bodies away from them, or avoid making eye contact while they speak, Samp says. Sometimes this can be passive aggression in action (hey, we’re all guilty), but it can also be our physical response to feeling overwhelmed. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.) So be mindful of your body language as your loved one rides the waves of his or her meltdown.
5. "I'm done."
Finally, don't give up. All hope is not lost if your efforts to calm someone down backfire, Samp says. Once the other person has recalibrated on their own time, you can still try the above tips.
To re-open the discussion, say: “I’m sorry that my response was hurtful. I really didn’t intend it as such.” Or “I didn't really appreciate your perspective before, but after giving it some thought, I see where you’re coming from, and I better understand why you felt that way…”
Once they're in a calm(er) mode, you can raise any concerns you held off addressing when they were crazed (including your own hurt feelings). Having stepped back from an emotional ledge, a pal or partner will likely be more open to what you were trying to say in the first place, Samp says.
Saying “calm down,” “stop being a drama queen,” or “quit making such a fuss” often leads to the exact opposite effect of what you’re going for. Instead, acknowledge the person's pain, refrain from criticizing as best you can, and try to be empathetic. But most importantly, don’t swallow your own feelings just to placate someone else. If you feel that you also need to be listened to, find a time when your friend or S.O. is more level-headed and open up. (Or share this article with them, so they’ll know in advance how to give you the most helpful reactions!)