How many times have you heard the phrase ‘psycho girlfriend’ get thrown around? Once, twice, maybe 100 times?
The context is usually the same or similar: the girl has sent one too many texts for someone’s liking, or ‘caught feelings’ when she wasn’t supposed to, or God forbid she’s p*ssed off because she’s got proof her partner’s cheating on her.
The term gets used so much it barely even registers anymore, becoming so synonymous with women it’s almost impossible to avoid such labels, despite the fact it’s always used incorrectly.
The labelling of women as ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’ isn’t a new trend; it’s been going on for years, gradually building to a point where it’s become ingrained in meme-culture.
Not only that, but articles aimed towards men quickly began popping up on our newsfeeds, promising to highlight the warning signs you need to look out for if you think you’re dating an insane/crazy/’insert offensive term here’ girl.
Then, articles aimed towards women started offering advice on how we can avoid becoming the psycho girlfriend, offering handy tips such as ‘don’t nag him’ and ‘cut back on your texts’. Don’t believe me? See here, here, and here.
In fact, the ‘psycho girlfriend’ label has spiralled so much it’s become acceptable for the word to be used by figures who hold positions of power in society.
Enter: the President of the United States, who thinks it’s an appropriate term to use whenever he likes. And what’s everyone supposed to believe when the most powerful man in the world regularly uses the word and yet receives no retribution for it?
The president recently referred to Bette Midler – Golden Globe, Grammy, and Tony Award winner – as a ‘washed up psycho,’ attempting to embarrass the actor and singer-songwriter in a tweet he sent out to his 60.8 million followers.
His intention was obvious – by calling Bette a psycho, he was attempting to discredit her and make her (extremely logical) criticisms of him appear untrustworthy and unfounded. When, in actual fact, her judgement was extremely rational and sound.
The same goes for anyone else using the term; if a guy tells his mates the girl he’s seeing is a psycho who won’t leave him alone, his word is taken as gospel. After all, why wouldn’t they believe him?
‘She’s such a psycho, why won’t she stop calling me?’ ‘Eurgh why won’t she get the message, psycho.’ ‘How psycho can someone be?’… you get the idea.
The girl might have been a bit needy, yes. She might have been a little bit insecure, sure. She might even have nagged him slightly, but none of these traits equate to ‘psycho’ behaviour.
Here’s the thing. A psychopath, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour’.
Aligning a woman’s behaviour with a serious mental health issue just because she feels a different way to you, or doesn’t like something you’ve done or said, is dangerous. There’s no two ways about it.
Why? Because it’s a way to belittle women and knock their self confidence in a way which may actually take years to repair. If someone gets called a psycho for being nothing other than who they are, or for voicing concerns based on empirical observation, they may eventually stop pointing out truths someone doesn’t want to confront.
The term is used as a means of ending an argument by shifting focus onto the accuser rather than the evidence against the subject of accusation. It is an ad hominem, a fallacious attempt to undermine a valid argument.
How many times has that happened to someone you know?
It doesn’t matter if there’s a legitimate reason to be p*ssed off. A partner could have just come home at 6am, smelling of someone else’s perfume and with lipstick smudged down their face – yet the person honestly observing and pointing out the behaviour would still be the ‘psycho’ exhibiting ‘paranoia’.
Even if the stakes aren’t as high and there’s no formal relationship, but a couple are sleeping together regularly. If a woman was confronted with inconsistent behaviour, say days of texts followed by ghosting, then a request to stay over?
Yep, she’s probably getting called psycho if she finally confronts the behaviour – because it’s the perfect way to redirect blame directly while simultaneously subverting the accusers’ ability to call out such issues in future.
UNILAD spoke with 28-year-old Elysia Downings, whose ex-partner used to call her a psycho whenever she’d display any form of emotion.
If she was sad? Psycho. Angry? Psycho. Frustrated at him calling her a psycho? You guessed it, psycho. It happened so much that eventually, Elysia started to feel as though she ‘wasn’t normal’ and that her emotions weren’t valid.
The 28-year-old spoke about one incident in particular whereby her partner hadn’t returned home and, after a few messages from Elysia asking where he was, he eventually replied saying he was visiting a family member.
Her instinct telling her something was wrong, Elysia couldn’t get the thought out of her head that something was up – especially when he didn’t return home until 5am.
Clearly upset and worried, the 28-year-old asked him for the truth when he arrived home. Yet again, she was called a ‘psycho’.
We tend to start believing the labels that people call us.
So if someone always tells us we are ugly, we might start to think we are ugly, or if we’re always told we are intelligent, we believe that and identify with those labels. The same goes for being called a psycho.
It has taken a long time for me to heal from being called these negative words like psycho and crazy. I’m not experiencing psychosis, I’m a human being with human emotions.
If he had called me emotional, that would have been more accurate, but psycho is the wrong terminology to call someone who is simply experiencing and expressing emotion.
Some women have been branded a psycho so many times they’re now afraid to stand up for themselves or confront the person they’re seeing for fear of having the word thrown at them.
Because who wants to be known as ‘that psycho girl who wouldn’t leave [insert name here] alone’? Exactly, no-one.
Yet all too often that’s how we find ourselves in situations whereby we can’t voice our opinions or concerns, or where we can’t call someone out for their bullsh*t, or where we can’t ask where this ‘thing’ is going because they keep blowing hot and cold.
Let’s just press pause on this for a moment to look at how the word ‘psycho’ is also used to describe men, because it’s important to note that it isn’t just men who throw the term around out of context.
No, women do it too. However, the intention behind it tends to be different, according to Dr Sheri Jacobson, founder and Clinical Director of Harley Therapy in London.
Speaking to UNILAD, Dr Jacobson explained why she feels the word gets thrown around so freely:
Unfortunately, we live in a world where, despite recent changes for the better, mental health is still hugely misunderstood and stigma is alive and well.
The reality is that we all at different points in our lives struggle with mental health issues like anxiety, rage, grief and depression. And nobody is some perfectly stable, always happy person all the time.
But because this sort of false dichotomy of ‘sane vs insane’ still thrives, implying someone is unstable mentally is an easy way of diminishing another person.
The psychotherapist stresses the importance of the fact that women call men psychos too; it isn’t simply a one-way street.
However, whereas men use the term as their way of describing someone as ‘too emotional,’ women often use it to imply someone who seems out of control or unsafe.
To be fair, women do call men psychos as well. They often use it to imply a man seemed out of control, or unsafe. But when it comes from men, I’d say ‘psycho’ is often their way of saying ‘too emotional’.
We live in a society where it’s still more acceptable for women to be emotional than men, meaning many men are left uncomfortable with emotions, both their own and those of others.
It’s easier to blame the woman for being ‘psycho’ than to deal with her emotions, or to look at his own, whether that is feelings of fear, overwhelm, or insecurity.
Regardless of why we might choose to use the phrase though, we need to stop. It’s more than just dismissive; throwing such a slur around – whether you believe it or not – is damaging.
Above all, branding someone a ‘psycho’ – along with other offensive terms such as ‘nuts,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘sicko’ – only stigmatises mental illness in such a way that dangerous myths which make sufferers want to hide away are perpetuated.
So even if the label started off as a joke, that joke is long since over.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58, and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).