By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
When I was studying to become a psychotherapist, a professor told me that people generally seek therapy for one of two reasons: They are either having a tantrum or they need to have one! I have actually counseled people for many additional reasons but the tantrum tip has stuck with me over the years. And as I have worked with clients’ issues (as well as my own), I have recognized the importance of an occasional adult tantrum.
Tantrums are usually associated with children and are often considered unpleasant and unwanted. But what about a healthy, grown-up tantrum? What about making a conscious decision to welcome up our emotions rather than stuff them in or lash them out?
We all experience bumps in the road that trigger emotions. These bumps can range from minor irritations to challenging hardships to major traumas. A flat tire, a root canal, lost luggage: not fun, but likely something you’ll get over in a day or two. Your child’s difficulties in school, a rough patch at work, financial problems, marital problems: These can get you down for months. And then there are those life-changing, sucker-punch events that can knock us down for the count: a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, an unwanted divorce, a natural or unnatural disaster. Personally, I’d like to speak to the manager in charge of dolling these out, but there is no escaping the fact that they are part of being human.
Obviously, minor annoyances are easier to deal with and recover from; but what about those ongoing stressful circumstances or the overwhelming realities we have to bare that feel utterly unbearable?
It seems to me that we have several options for how to deal with life’s hard breaks and heartbreaks:
1) Accept the news, situation or disaster as an integral part of life… and carry on. (Usually those who can readily do this are the more spiritually evolved among us. I know a few!)
2) Fight it, hate it, argue with it, chronically complain about it, and refuse to accept the situation.
3) Deny the difficulty of the situation and pretend like everything is perfectly fine. (This is where addictions come in handy.)
4) Allow yourself to have a safe, responsible, healthy, adult tantrum (the kind my wise professor spoke about years ago). This will help you eventually feel ready to accept the harsh reality you are facing.
I remember many years ago when my little nephew Douglas (now a young man in his mid-20s) came to visit me for a sleepover. We had just finished a fun day at an amusement park, and I informed him that it was time to go. He was not at all happy about this new development in our day and he proceeded to have a full-on tantrum. Being a new therapist (not to mention an aunt, which is infinitely less challenging than a mom), I told him it was fine for him to have his feelings but that we were going to need to head home in a few minutes. Well have his feelings he did. That boy let it rip. He proceeded to fling his little body onto the ground, kicking and screaming, punching his fists and rolling around in the dirt. After what felt like a really long time (but was probably about a minute), he picked himself up, walked over to me and with a tear stained, dirty little face said, “I was mad Aunt Andi. And then I was sad. Now I’m ready to go.” From the mouths of babes.
In the therapy world, we call such a tantrum “fully having your feelings” or going through one or more of the natural stages of grief. Practically speaking, a healthy, grown-up tantrum can look like many things: hitting a punching bag, mattress or pillow, talking about your feelings with someone who is comfortable with emotions, crying, wailing, screaming, shaking, journaling, anything your body wants to do to express your emotions as long as nobody and nothing of value gets hurt. A friend of mine will occasionally email me a long string of curse words when life throws her a doozy. No spaces, just one long word. She takes several of her favorite curse words and merges them into one looooong word to emphasize her point. And depending on the difficulty of the news, several or more exclamation points follow it up. This seems to do the trick to get things started!
Whatever your choices of expression are, when you consciously, responsibly, unabashedly, compassionately and safely have an adult “tantrum,” you are more likely to move through your emotions and achieve some form of acceptance. Of course, the more serious the life event, the longer the tantrum may need to last and reoccur. But we all have the options of stuffing our feelings in, blasting them out in unhealthy ways, or fully expressing what we feel in order to eventually come to accept what life has brought to our door.
I have found that when people allow themselves to safely express their anger, sadness, shock and fear while simultaneously practicing compassionate self-care and seeking compassionate companionship, they can navigate the turbulent phases of life without hurting themselves or anyone else. They naturally experience more acceptance rather than stay stuck in denial, depression, anxiety, addiction or acting out.
So how do you respond to life’s curve balls? Do you live in a permanent tantrum that leaves you feeling angry most of the time? Do you refuse to accept what life has brought to your door? Do you stuff your feelings down with substances or other addictive behaviors? Do you feel chronically depressed, anxious or hopeless? Do you pretend that everything is just fine when it’s not? Or are you able to allow yourself to truly and fully express your feelings — to be mad, sad, scared — and then eventually reach an acceptance of your reality?
How about letting yourself have a healthy, safe, responsible tantrum when life throws you a curve ball? How about getting extra support, extra tissues, and extra self-care, until your tear-stained self is ready to move on? May we all, in the face of our adversities, follow in the footsteps of my young nephew: feel mad, feel sad, and then feel ready to go.