‘Living Rent Free in Someone's Head’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on January 6, 2023

Did you see someone use the phrase ‘living rent free in someone’s head’ online? What does it mean, and where does this phrase come from?

‘Living rent free in someone’s head’ means that a person is occupying the thoughts of another in a way that is only detrimental to the person whose mind is perpetually focusing on this other individual.

What Does 'Living Rent Free in Someone's Head' Mean?

The slang phrase ‘living rent free in someone’s head’ refers to a person spending too much time and energy thinking about an issue, situation, or person. The implication is that the person obsessively thinking about something is essentially letting said issue, situation, or person take up space in their mind without any consequence on the other end– i.e., “rent free.”

As an example, let’s say that there is a person you know (we’ll call him Bill) that completely drives you crazy. Everything they say makes you mad or irritates you in some way. You’re frequently thinking about how much they bother you to the point where you bring it up in conversation over and over again with your best friend.

After listening to you vent about Bill for the umpteenth time, your best friend might say something along the lines of “why are you letting Bill live rent free in your head?”

The implication here is that you are so bothered by Bill, but you ultimately are letting him take up your time and energy by thinking about him so much. This doesn’t have any negative consequences for Bill, who might not even know that you’re expending so much energy being irritated by him. Therefore, he is ‘living rent free’ in your head.

This phrase is commonly used online to mock people that allow other individuals to occupy their thoughts, particularly when the circumstance is considered trivial by these critics. The implication of this phrase– whether it is made with a mocking or more sympathetic intent– is that the individual shouldn’t allow the person or circumstance that is bothering them to have such a negative impact on them.

Where Does 'Living Rent Free in Someone's Head' Come From?

The phrase ‘living rent free’ was actually around before the internet existed. It is frequently attributed to Eppie Lederer, an advice columnist that wrote under the pen name Ann Landers. Sometime during the second half of the 20th century, she coined the term in the following quote:

“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”

– Ann Landers

It isn’t exactly clear when the phrase was first used online. According to knowyourmeme.com, an early example of it being used as an insult in a meme-like format showed up in May 2010 in the form of a Pithless Thoughts Blogspot cartoon.

As the years went on, the phrase began to be used more and more on Twitter. At a certain point, a number of news outlets and websites started to notice the fact that it was an increasingly common phrase. It was added to Urban Dictionary in July of 2018, and Buzzfeed published an article in October of 2018, deeming it “The Perfect Insult Of Our Times.”

Examples of 'Living Rent Free in Someone's Head' In Sentences

Now that we understand what ‘living rent free in someone’s head’ means and where the phrase comes from let’s look at some examples of using it in a sentence.

First, though, we want to mention a few notes about how to use ‘living rent free in someone’s head.’ In this phrase, the word ‘someone’s’ can be changed to suit the particular circumstance. For example, if you’re telling your best friend that they should stop fixating on their ex-boyfriend, you might say, “stop letting John live rent free in your head!”

If you yourself, on the other hand, were fixating on a particular celebrity you found irritating and constantly made posts online about it, you might say, “I can’t stand this, I’ve never even met him, and I’m letting him ‘live rent free in my head’!”

  • “Angela, I know your boss drives you crazy, but you’re essentially letting him live rent free in your head. It doesn’t do you any good– you have to stop!”
  • “The last thing my ex-fiance said before he left just keeps repeating in my mind over and over. He basically lives rent free in my head, and I know it’s not healthy.”
  • “You keep talking about Kevin when he hardly even knows you exist. It’s time you stopped letting him live rent free in your head, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.”
  • “Suzie goes on and on about him and has even told me that he shows up in her dreams. Jonathan is essentially living rent free in her head.”
  • “The people on that online forum are absolutely obsessed with our group, and I hope you know. We’re living rent free in their heads, and most members haven’t even heard of that site.”

‘Living rent free in someone’s head’ generally conveys a disparaging attitude toward the person that is perpetually focusing on another individual. The idea is that the person they are obsessing over doesn’t have any control over the situation nor any negative repercussions from it. Therefore, the only person being harmed is the individual that is expending time and energy resenting or otherwise continually contemplating them.

This phrase is a great example of how learning idioms can be incredibly practical when communicating with others on or offline. You’ve likely come across it before if you’ve been scrolling through Twitter, and it’s a fascinating phrase that packs a lot of punch in just a few words.

Interested in learning more idioms and phrases? Be sure to check out our idioms blog.

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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