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Why People Need to Stop Calling Each Other "Crazy"

How one simple word causes so much damage and what we can do differently.

Key points

  • Rather than trying to understand the nuances of someone's mental health issues, people often refer to others who are suffering as just "crazy."
  • The term "crazy" is also often used when we don’t fully understand another person’s point of view, emotional expression, or behavior.
  • There are steps we can take as a society to help end the stigma of mental illness and build a culture of empathy, understanding, and connection.
Mix Tape/Shutterstock
Source: Mix Tape/Shutterstock

It seems like it has become something of a national pastime to refer to each other as “crazy.” The term was perhaps initially intended to refer to someone who suffered from mental illness—a catchall phrase that could indicate that an individual was deranged, irrational, and perhaps dangerous. And accordingly, “crazy” has been the word that is at the heart of the stigma of mental illness. Rather than understanding someone in terms of the nuances of their mental health issues—such as someone suffers from depression, anxiety, psychosis, etc.—an individual is holistically dismissed as “crazy.” It is at once dehumanizing and unhelpful. It gives us no insight into the processes by which an individual thinks about the world, experiences emotion, or behaves. And once we have dismissed and dehumanized someone, it becomes that much more difficult to understand, connect with or help them.

As if the use of the word “crazy” weren’t bad enough in the context of mental illness, the use of the term has now expanded to include any time we don’t fully understand another person’s point of view, emotional expression, or behavior. A family member has different political beliefs from us? Crazy. A significant other is angry with us for some reason that we don’t understand? Crazy. A friend isn’t spending as much time with us because they are immersed in a hobby or passion? Crazy. Watching someone on the news who we don’t know speaking passionately about a cause we don’t fully comprehend? Crazy. And sometimes it’s not the word crazy—but some choice synonyms like “deranged,” “unhinged,” or “unstable.” But the message is the same as it has been for people who struggle with mental illness—these individuals are somehow irrational, “less than” and/or dangerous.

Our choice to call each other “crazy” is a curious one. We can dish it out but we can’t take it. No one likes to be called crazy, and yet we quickly refer to others that way when it’s convenient. Why do we do this? Perhaps the most immediate and visceral reason is that when we encounter things that do not make sense to us, it can be uncomfortable and even overwhelming. We don’t understand how we feel, or why our experience of another person is making us feel this way, but we know we don’t like it.

And at that point, it feels like we are playing a game of hot potato. If we feel upset, it means something’s wrong. In effect—we feel “crazy.” We bypass all of the intricacies of the messy processes that lead us to feel this way, and instantaneously decide that if someone is “crazy,” it’s not going to be us. So, we throw the “crazy” hot potato to the other person. We’re not crazy—you are. And perhaps for a moment, we feel better. But our problems are just beginning.

Because at that point, in an effort to soothe ourselves emotionally, we have created an interpersonal culture in which there are “crazy” people, and “normal” people. The crazy people are shunned, mocked and marginalized. The normal people get to have their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors validated and supported. And while feeling normal may seem like a blessing, we now know that we can be considered crazy at any time. It’s similar to being in a world of bullies. We may feel better at the moment that we are not being bullied—or even take some type of pleasure in being a bully. But we know that we can easily be the next target and are, therefore, never really safe.

Further, once we call someone crazy, and believe that we too may drift into craziness at any moment, the constructive conversation stops. We suppress or avoid anything that feels different or uncomfortable. If we feel anxious, depressed, or angry, we try to block it out. And if those close to us feel these emotions, we implore them to “snap out of it.” When we have differing points of view, we don’t see those differences as an opportunity for exploration or a chance to find common ground. We see it as a blood sport where ultimately one person is right and the other person is crazy. And even if we are considering a pursuit that is outside the box, novel or creative, we may not encourage that impulse in ourselves or others for fear of it leading us to a “crazy” place.

Finally, while this may not be the intention when we use the term, the repeated use of the word “crazy” reinforces the stigma of mental illness. It makes it so that everything that is uncomfortable in the world is assumed to have some basis in poor mental health. And it inadvertently deems people with mental illness as being unpredictable and dangerous—to be shunned rather than embraced.

So, what can we do? I have been thinking a lot about this issue since talking with musician George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. During the discussion, Clinton remarked how some people might have considered his irreverent and wholly original sound and stage show “crazy.” And yet he persevered past these judgments to pursue his dream and artistic statement that has now been recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And our conversation inspired a few thoughts on how we might be able to change the conversation, and stop calling each other “crazy.”

First and foremost, in order to stop calling each other crazy, we have to resolve simply to not use that term—or its not so subtle synonyms. We remind ourselves that while it might feel tempting to dismiss someone who makes us feel uncomfortable, we don’t want to create a world where people are called crazy. This may seem tautological and therefore useless. But when we are trying to change a behavior, it is crucial that we keep a simple—although not necessarily easy—focus. In this way, it is similar to other behaviors that are simple but not easy—such as not drinking alcohol, using drugs, or eating sugar. If we keep at the top of our minds that the use of the term crazy is harmful and we want to avoid it, we have a much better chance of it not accidentally slipping under our radar.

Second, once we’ve stopped using the term crazy, we are then forced to confront how we handle those uncomfortable situations that lead us to refer to people as crazy in the first place. And this is where an opening, rather than closing, of a dialogue begins. It starts with our examining and coping with our own emotions when we are confronted with something that causes us distress. Before we go on the attack, we need to understand how we feel about what the other person is saying or doing. This gives us not only the opportunity to better understand ourselves, but also to approach rather than avoid our feelings. At this point, we no longer need to feel as emotionally threatened by others—we can soothe ourselves and don’t need to call anyone crazy to do it.

Next, as we understand how we are feeling, we can approach the person who we would have previously labeled as crazy with curiosity rather than rejection and contempt. It begins a constructive rather than destructive interpersonal cycle in which uncomfortable emotions or perspectives are accepted rather than immediately rejected. We listen first and ask questions later, rather than judge first and ask no questions. This results in our being open to the nuances and processes by which someone comes to a different conclusion than we do, or has a different reaction than we expect.

Finally, once we have become more open to our own emotions and perspectives, and the perspectives of others, we can start replacing the term “crazy” with a more useful and descriptive explanation of their experience. When someone is uncontrollably sobbing, we can understand that they may be feeling a sense of loss. If someone is angry with us, we can see how they are feeling hurt. If someone has strong but differing political views, we can find the experiences, assumptions, and beliefs that resulted in these differing views. And if there is someone with a dream or passion that consumes them, we can try to understand the experiences they had that lead them to their commitment and drive. In contrast to calling people crazy, which ends the conversation, these are all conversation starters. And by giving up our habit of calling people crazy, we can tear down the culture of suspicion and enmity that surrounds that word, and help build a culture of empathy and understanding where we can be different while still connected and included.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Mix Tape/Shutterstock


You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with George Clinton on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at or on your favorite podcast app.