My Temper Tantrums
I used to be a neurotic control freak who had massive temper tantrums. I mean, these tantrums were DANGEROUS to myself and others. My screams could break crystal. I threw things, and broke things. Big things. Like the full-length mirror fixed to the back of my bedroom door. Shattering glass made me somehow feel better. And no, I didn’t entirely outgrow them as a child. The last one I had was in 2014 at the age of 41 (then I finally figured out how to manage my sensitivities).
The first tantrum I remember (there were many before this one) was one of those epic ones that became a family favorite story to taunt me with. I was a toddler, not yet old enough to dress myself. It was dead of winter in Minnesota, which means temperatures and windchills in the double digits below zero. So, a family outing to Target was a big deal because it required full winter gear. What my parents didn’t know, but I remember vividly, is that the tags on the snowsuit didn’t feel right on my neck. The snow boots pinched my right pinkie toe, and the mittens made my palms sweaty but didn’t keep my fingers warm enough. The worst was the wool hat that itched my head. Getting me dressed in things that didn’t feel right was always a battle of kicking and screaming and tugging and pulling.
On this particular trip to Target, as soon as we got in the door, I took off all the winter clothing as my mom piled it in the cart. I refused to ride in the cart because the edges of the leg holes in the child seat were too sharp even though my legs were protected by pants. The buzzing lights gave me a headache. It was around Christmastime, so Target was very busy that day. I remember gripping my dad’s hand for fear of being lost among the other customers whose energy didn’t feel safe. The whole shopping trip I was bombarded with overwhelming external stimuli as my parents kept reminding me to “be good.”
I thought that if I was good enough, maybe I would get a treat for being so good. So, I held it all in. And it was a lot to hold in. A lot. Too much for my tiny pint-sized toddler body. As my parents checked out at the register, I fixated on the cookie monster sugar cookie in the bakery case. Cookie Monster was familiar. He was happy. He brought good memories and feels to all the bugging and irritation I had been feeling. I didn’t just want the cookie monster cookie, I needed it to comfort me. I needed it to make everything all better. It was the only thing in the whole store that didn’t trigger me. I needed it.
Mom and Dad said NO.
I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
So it ALL came out.
I flopped on the floor, arms and legs and hands and feet and head flailing in all different directions. I screamed one of those death rattling screeches that made everyone in the store stop and look.
I felt their stares, and they hurt far worse than the scratchy wool hat or the buzzing light fixtures.
My parents just let me kick and flail on the floor until they finished checking out at the register. They knew there was no way to calm me down except to let the tantrum run its course. They had already checked out and paid, so they started the daunting task of re-dressing me in the winter gear. I kicked. I screamed. I bit. I flailed. I wailed.
Eventually, they gave up and my dad carried me to the car, kicking and screaming in sub-zero temperatures. But I didn’t notice the cold because the fire inside me that is my temper kept me plenty warm.
High Sensitivity (HSP)
What my parents and I didn’t know at the time was that I have a hyper-sensitive nervous system. In the 70s and 80s when I grew up, there wasn’t any diagnosis or terminology for what I experienced. Everyone just said I was “too sensitive.” The year I graduated high school, Dr. Elaine Aron started researching the concept of Highly Sensitive People, and many years later the label HSP became understood. But Dr. Aron’s work wasn’t on my radar until very recently, well after I did my own research and studies on what it means to be highly sensitive. For me, being highly sensitive is about how my nerves receive information and impulses, and how my five senses receive and process information. Simply put, being highly sensitive means that my five senses are more touchy than most people.
Let’s go back to my tantrum episode in Target. My whole life, I’ve been sensitive to how clothes fit. My skin and muscle tissues need things to set on my body just right. If something scratches, or tugs, or drapes, or wrinkles just the wrong way, it irritates me, distracts me, and interferes with my ability to function. For my four-year-old self, that meant that winter gear was extremely uncomfortable. For me, wearing winter-gear felt like wearing clothes that were two sizes too small. The pressure coupled with the scratch of the wool fabric and the extra insulation that restricted my body movement was all just too much. My parents were doomed just because I had to be over-dressed to protect against the sub-zero temps that day.
Then, as we entered Target and the fluorescent lights were buzzing, I couldn’t ignore the buzz. For me, it was louder than loud. It interfered with my ability to hear other things. And the occasional flicker and flash which was imperceptible to other people was like a lightening flash jolt to me. Every few seconds my eyes were squinting at the brightness and change in lighting.
When we walked through the candle department, I didn’t need to have a candle right under my nose to smell it, all the fragrances combined to an overwhelming odor that made my nose burn. When a woman dropped a bottle of pine sol in the aisle, I winced and cried in pain like I had inhaled ammonia directly.
Even if my four-year-old self could find the language skills to explain to them that the lights hurt, or the smell burned, or the buzzing bugged, my parents would just shrug off my complaints because those things were normal to them.
While other kids outgrew their temper tantrums, mine continued well into my teenage years. Being sent to my room to chill out was a regular occurrence, at least a few times a month. I learned to control them more by the time I was an adult, but I would still have a massive blow out at least a couple times a year. Well into my early 40s.
As an HSP, I sense and feel a lot of energy. A lot of stuff comes at me, and if I don't have a way to get it out, it builds up and eventually becomes a temper tantrum.
Are you Highly Sensitive?
If you can relate to this story, you are likely an HSP yourself. It helps to identify which of the five senses you have heightened. Of course, avoiding the triggers is helpful, but not always possible. There are times in life when things trigger us, they jolt us, and we have to just deal with them. For HSPs, we often shove them down, and when they get boxed up for too long, they come out sideways, in the form of anxiety, panic attacks, or temper tantrums. There are many things you can do to release that pent up energy, such as working out, walking in nature, yoga, meditation, and more.
But all those tricks and tools require discipline and time.
However, when you learn to get your brain to pay attention to your body, and you recognize the triggers as they happen, and you are MINDFUL about how you handle those triggers in the moment, you don't need to "stuff it" or wait until a panic attack to let it all out. You can let it out instantly, in healthy, mindful, and socially-acceptable ways.
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