Emotional Health

Do We Really Need to Calm Ourselves Down?

Man: “Would you just calm down!?”

“Oh, thanks. That really helped me feel calmer,” said no woman, ever.

We hate it when someone else tells us to calm down. So why do we make a habit of telling ourselves to do so? Google the phrase “how to calm yourself down” and you get more than 45 million hits. Inordinate media attention is given over to “self-care” designed to soothe and calm. Comfort foods and adult coloring books promise to return us to a docile, childlike state. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t remember being serene as a child.) Yoga and meditation are all the rage, and many practitioners of mindfulness seem to tie being fully present with being calm. It is a preconceived notion that calmness is not only good but the optimum state. Is it?

I have a sneaking suspicion that much of this self-calming is about as effective as distracting cooped-up, restless children and dogs. They may quiet down for the moment, but at some point they still need to run around and get their ya-yas out.

In the broad world of self-care advice and contemporary lifestyle brands, women especially are instructed in ways to self-calm. We are told to do yoga, meditate, use aromatherapy, knit, and take hot baths. (On the subject of women retreating to the tub, see “The Bath: A Polemic,” by Inside Amy Schumer writer Jessi Klein, in The New Yorker: She expresses the absurdity of the act of steeping like a teabag better than I ever could.) Generally, we women are encouraged to seek homey ways to quiet and comfort ourselves. We’re supposed to be serene, to project equanimity. We must take care of ourselves, a book I recently perused told me, so we can take care of others.

Just whose idea was it that we have to drink herbal tea and escape to a hot bath to get through our day? Is there something wrong with our energized selves? And what happens to our natural life-energy when we constantly tell ourselves that a state of arousal—happiness, anxiety, anger, excitement, sexuality, what have you—must be put to bed, cut off, or deadened? Where is the line between smothering and quieting, between destructive and constructive calming down?

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  • Walker Thornton December 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Love this article. After years of being told to soften, to silence, to be more carefree when being criticized or belittled, I think it’s time we look at all the ways our culture, and the men in it, seek to make us smaller and paler. Thank you Amy!

    • Amy K Hughes December 16, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      Thank you for such a nice comment, Walker Thornton! “Smaller and paler” is a great way to put it. So true.