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How Can You Be 'Beside Yourself?'

In this 2016 photo taken in Dakar, Senegal, a woman appears to be beside herself. But it's just her reflection. However, "to be beside yourself" is a common English expression.
In this 2016 photo taken in Dakar, Senegal, a woman appears to be beside herself. But it's just her reflection. However, "to be beside yourself" is a common English expression.
How Can You Be 'Beside Yourself?'
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Hello and welcome to another episode of Words and Their Stories.

On this show we explain common expressions in American English – where they come from and how to use them.

Today we talk about being overcome with emotion, both good and bad. We have a somewhat strange expression you can use to describe that situation: “to be beside yourself.”

So, if I say I am beside myself with joy, I am filled with joy! However, I can also be beside myself with grief, anger, or most other emotions.

You can use this expression to talk about others, too. Just change the reflexive pronoun. For example, a woman who gives birth can be beside herself with awe and probably exhaustion. The new father can be beside himself with awe too.

The expression is useful and simple, but strange. It sounds as if someone has become two people. How can you be next to yourself? Being “beside yourself” is technically impossible.

Some word experts say the expression may come from a belief about magical powers of the soul, or spirit. To some, experiencing extreme emotion — whether good or bad — can make people’s souls leave their bodies. In other words, if a person is under great emotional stress, the soul and body could actually separate and stand beside each other.

Now, let’s talk about usage. In American English, you can simply say “I’m beside myself” to mean you are shocked or very upset. For example, if you have a bad fight with a close friend, you might be beside yourself. You might scream, write your friend an angry letter, or just go somewhere by yourself and cry.

Here’s another situation. A high school student applies to several colleges. If they all reject her application, she could be beside herself.

She might stay up all night worrying about what to do next.

Here is another example. If a person becomes seriously ill, he could start talking in a way that does not make any sense. The patient may also start behaving strangely, walking around the room -- back and forth, back and forth. He may think he is seeing someone who is not really there. A doctor might say, “He is delirious with fever. He is beside himself.”

We have another expression that is very similar to “being beside yourself.” We can also be out of our minds. We use this expression in the same way we use “beside oneself.”

So we can be out of minds with fear, with love, with happiness, or with any other emotion. And just like “beside oneself,” we also use this expression on its own without a specific emotion.

So, if someone says or does something crazy -- like learning how to ride a motorcycle on a dark, rainy night -- you can simply say, “She is out of her mind!”

In that example, you could also say the person is crazy or has lost it (as in their mind).

And that’s all the time we have today. But if you join us next week, for another Words and Their Stories, we will be beside ourselves with happiness.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. The song at the end is Ricky Skaggs singing “I’m Beside Myself.


Words in This Story

awe n. a strong feeling of fear or respect and also wonder

magical adj. very pleasant or exciting

delirious adj. not able to think or speak clearly especially because of fever or other illness