“Don’t TELL me to CALM DOWN!” Why it won’t work

Ever heard these 6 words when you’ve been upset?   Ever said these words because someone else was upset?

And how did that go for you?  I’m guessing, from personal experience, not well.

I admit I’ve lost it probably more than my fair share of times – You know what that looks like and sounds like:  In my case, a screechy voice, troll-like red dripping nose, zombie-like eyes spouting fountains of tears, hiccups, maybe throw in a foot stomp or two.  Shall we say, not a pretty picture?  I can’t form sentences, at least not ones that are coherent to humans.  But more to the point, I cannot hear you.  Especially if you are calmly telling me to “just calm down.”  Even though I’m guilty of saying it to my own teenaged daughter.  Even though I know it won’t work.

But why is this so ineffective?

When the limbic system takes charge, it hears your pre-frontal cortex command to “calm down” as a personal affront.

When my pre-frontal executive rational logical functioning mind goes off-line because all my mental energy is consumed with anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, fear rumbling like a volcano spewing forth, I cannot hear your words.  At least not the way they are intended.  Those words get filtered through the lava of anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, and fear so what I hear when you say, “Just calm down,” is:

Judgment:  Why are you so upset?

Critique: There’s nothing to be THAT upset about.

Impatience: You are just over-reacting.

Belittlement:  It is not a big deal.

Disgust: What’s wrong with you, anyway?

Dismissal: What you are feeling is wrong, out of control, and not nearly as important as you think it is.  IE: You and your feelings are not important.

Of course this is NOT what you are trying to communicate to the person who’s lost it in front of you!  But what you may be communicating when you say, “Just calm down now,” is:

Your amygdala’s display of such uncensored and apparently out-of-control emotional volatility is making me uncomfortable, and I can’t help you when you are like this, and that makes me uncomfortable, so please calm down and we’ll all feel much better.

So what to do?  Imagine that apparently out of control limbic system in front of you is a scared, wild animal.  Because honestly, it pretty much is.  Soothe it – don’t command it.  Reach out to comfort it – don’t dismiss it.  It’s skittish, and scared, and lonely.  Don’t threaten it.  Let it know you won’t hurt it, you understand, because to them, in that moment, the world is not safe, and they aren’t convinced you are safe.  Under no circumstances say, “Just Calm Down.”  That’s like fuel to the fire.  And no one feels better.

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SONY DSC

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2 thoughts on ““Don’t TELL me to CALM DOWN!” Why it won’t work

  1. The 3 word phrase that might be worse in this situation…”Calm down dear.” The word “dear” might be the ultimate condescension when used in the context described in your post.

  2. OM Goodness, yes. When I’m really upset and a loved one “orders” me to “calm down,” or “relax,” even thought intellectually I know that she means well, emotionally I feel like I’ve been smacked down, halted in the midst of feeling something deeply (anger, hurt, frustration, etc.). I also know that she’s having a hard time with her discomfort of seeing me out of sorts. Finally, you are so right about the nuanced and not-so-nuanced messages this phrase connotes. As usual, you’ve given me food for thought on communication patterns, the importance of words, tone, and timing, and the importance of understanding all of this so that I can evenly respond rather than react.

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