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What Does "Bent Out of Shape" Mean?

Someone overly upset about a parking ticket might be called "bent out of shape."
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  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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There are many English phrases that, taken literally, don’t make much sense. These phrases are called idioms. Idioms are meant to be taken figuratively, and generally stem from literal meanings of the phrase that are either relevant in other contexts, or have been relevant in the past. Although it may be difficult for non-Americans to understand some of the more complicated idioms, many are easy to figure out.

A popular American idiom is "bent out of shape." The most common context is to tell someone not to get upset over a problem. It is the same as getting worked up, aggravated, or overly annoyed at something that usually can't be helped. For example, a person might be advised to not get all bent out of shape over a minor parking ticket. It is something that can not be changed, and therefore the person should just deal with it and move on.

Another use of the phrase is for something that is slightly off from what it should be, such as a saying that someone's plans are all bent out of shape due to unforeseen circumstances. In this situation, it means that the plans that were made are messed up. Perhaps there was a lot of traffic, or someone became ill. Whatever the reason, the person would not be able to complete their plans in the way that they originally had in mind. This use is not as common as the first, but is still used on occasion.

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The phrase is also common when referring to broken or bent objects, which is where the phrase was originally used. If a nail is bent out of shape, it is useless. That is why the phrase encourages people to not get irrationally upset about small problems. It is easier to solve any issues that may come up when you have a clear head and are able to think rationally. Being upset or very emotional will make it much harder to come up with a solution. Staying calm is usually the best way to approach a predicament.

There are several idioms that are very close in meaning to this phrase. One of the most popular is to advise someone "don't have a cow," or don't get "worked up" over something. If you are very bent out of shape over what someone is doing, there is a chance that you might "jump all over them" or even "blow your top."

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Perdido
Post 11

I got bent out of shape at camp once, and I really felt bad about what I did. I was in the pool, and I had told this little girl who kept swimming between people’s legs and trying to dunk them that I could not swim very well and I would likely panic and drown if she tried to do that to me.

Well, she decided it would be funny to do it anyway. She had no idea how strong my fear of drowning was, and my anger flared up with the enhanced fuel of panic as she grasped my ankles. I reached down into the water and yanked her up by her ponytail.

Once I had her head above water, I said, “I told you not to do that to me.” She immediately started crying. I felt bad for how bent out of shape I had become in that instant, but I still felt like something had to be done to show her that this was a serious situation.

wavy58
Post 10

@cloudel - I agree with you. I believe that being adamant about our feelings on certain issues is a part of who we are. I also think that the way that we handle people who are bent out of shape is important and indicative of our character.

I work for a cell phone company, so I deal with a lot of angry customers. I have never once told any one of them not to get bent out of shape, even if I would have been right in doing so. I make it a point to remain calm and firm without ever losing my cool or shedding tears.

It is best to just let a person vent and get it all out of their system. That way, you don’t belittle their concerns with a defensive idiom.

cloudel
Post 9

It infuriates me when someone tells me not to get bent out of shape about something. When I am really upset, then it is because I had a good reason to be that way.

In fact, I get even more bent out of shape after being told not to be that way. It aggravates me that someone can remain so calm while I am absolutely furious. I expect others to get in on my anger at whatever injustice is being done, but I am often disappointed by their apathy.

I think that apathy is a far more tragic quality to have than the passion that makes people get so bent out of shape over things that are important to them. If you just don’t care about anything, then what do you stand for, telling others that they need to be more like you?

StarJo
Post 8

@John57 - My husband is the same way about the weather. However, he only gets bent out of shape when there are tornado watches and warnings being issued.

He used to get very worried every time that thunderstorms were predicted. He moved down here to Mississippi from New York, so the frequency of severe storms that we have was a shock to him. A tornado did hit the neighborhood that he lived in when he first moved down here, and that scarred him for life.

After having lived here several years and realizing that not every thunderstorm produces tornadoes, he has stopped getting so bent out of shape. He reserves his emotional and physical upheavals for times when the weather is really bad. He actually keeps a survival kit packed and ready to grab at all times, and he snatches it up on the way to the storm shelter in our front yard.

julies
Post 7

My grandson is 6 and it is often very entertaining to see how he reacts to idioms. The first time someone told him "not to have a cow", he had no idea what they were talking about.

You could see the wheels turning inside his head as he was trying to figure out what that meant. I tried to explain to him it just meant he didn't need to get so upset about something.

I don't think he really grasped the concept that day, but I really cracked up when I heard him tell his friend a few weeks later not "to have a cow!"

Learning to understand and process idioms can be difficult not just for children, but also for people who are not familiar with the English language. I would imagine that every country has idioms or slang that would have a similar meaning to not getting "bent out of shape."

John57
Post 6

It seems like I am always telling my mom, "don't get bent out of shape." She constantly worries about the weather and listens to the weather forecast at least 3-4 times a day.

I keep telling her there is nothing she can do about controlling the weather and to just take what comes and go from there. I don't know why she tends to get so bent out of shape about the this.

There are many times when the weather has ruined outdoor plans, but there is not one thing you can do about it. I keep telling her if she would take all that worry and put it towards something positive, she would be much better off.

honeybees
Post 5

I usually find myself getting bent out of shape when my plans get changed. This isn't an easy adjustment for me and it's like I hardly know what to do with myself.

When I have my heart set on doing something and that gets changed, I have a hard time not getting all worked up about it. Not only do I get upset about it, but I have a hard time knowing what to do with the extra time that is now on my hands.

One weekend I was planning on visiting my sister and something came up where she was going to be gone so I couldn't go. I was bent out of shape because I was looking forward to spending time with her, and had a hard time deciding how I would spend the weekend after it got changed like that.

One of the worst things about getting bent out of shape like this is how it affects my family. It might not be so bad if I kept it to myself, but I find that my attitude affects everyone around me when I get bent out of shape like that.

bagley79
Post 4

I used to get bent out of shape a lot more than I do now. I found that I was getting upset over things that really didn't matter that much, or that I didn't have any control over.

Even though I realized this was wasted energy, it was hard to make changes. One day a friend told me not to sweat the small stuff. That really sunk in and made a lot of sense to me.

If I spend my time and energy getting upset over things that don't really matter, I will really be overwhelmed when the big problems come along. When I find myself getting all worked up over something I can't change, I remember what my friend said and try to change my focus.

candyquilt
Post 3

Some idioms don't make much sense when taken literally but I think this is not one of them. Have you ever seen someone who is really upset and angry? When someone is angry, they really do get bent out of shape. Not just their facial expressions, but their posture, the way they stand and move also changes. It's definitely true in my case.

When I get upset, I tend to crouch over. If the person I'm upset with is near me, I can't look them in the eye and will usually stare down. If I'm very angry, I also stutter and have trouble speaking. I not only change emotionally when I'm upset, but physically as well.

burcidi
Post 2

@anamur-- Although someone who is "bent out of shape" is upset, angry and maybe also bitter, it doesn't always mean that they don't have a right to feel that way.

Someone could be "bent out of shape" for no reason but they could also be "bent out of shape" for a very good, legitimate reason. In your mom's situation, it may be that the store employees forgot to do the refund, or the bank employees didn't do what was necessary. So your mom is probably getting "bent out of shape" for a very legitimate reason.

Of course, being very angry, emotional and bitter has consequences and it can cause people to react in inappropriate ways. But we shouldn't assume that this is the case every time. "Bent out of shape" just means that someone is upset enough to lose their composure and patience. The reason why they feel that way is not as relevant in my view.

serenesurface
Post 1
I tell my mom "don't bent out of shape" all the time. She tends to get worked up over everything. Even a minor problem that will probably fix itself in some time will really upset her.

For example, last week, my mom had requested a refund for something she returned to the store. It had been almost a week but she still wasn't seeing the refund in her bank account. She got so bent out of shape, that she not only called the store and yelled at the manager, but she called and yelled at the girl who worked at the bank too. She eventually calmed down and when she checked her account the next day, the refund was there.

If my mom had stayed calm and just waited, I'm sure she would have seen the refund the next day regardless. So I completely agree with the article that getting bent out of shape makes us overreact and treat others badly unnecessarily.

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