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. 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. My great-aunt once caught my two-year-old self crying on the floor two hours after bedtime because my bedsheet had a wrinkle in it.
For my toddler self, that meant that winter gear was extremely uncomfortable. Intolerable. 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 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. I remember gripping my dad’s hand for fear of being lost among the other customers whose energy didn’t feel safe.
The fluorescent lights buzzed, and gave me a headache. 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 I squinted my eyes at the brightness and change in lighting.
It was around Christmastime, so Target was very busy that day. 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.
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.
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. And stare. Their stares 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.
Even if my toddler-self could find the language skills to explain 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. I had my last temper tantrum when I was 41. It felt exactly the same as it did when I was a toddler. Everything in my body felt over-stretched, over-taxed, over-whelmed. It was as if all of the nerves in my body stretched to their tightest, tautest, and pulled and pulled so much that I felt like everything inside me was going to snap like a thousand guitar strings splitting and fraying at the same time.
That time, I don't even know what started the tantrum. In hindsight, I suppose it was a year's worth of built up anger from my divorce process. I had allowed myself to be sad, lonely, scared, and frustrated, but I didn't let myself be angry. Until that fateful day. It felt exactly the same as it did when I was a toddler. Over the course of the day, my nerves just kept winding up tighter and tighter. Everything in my body felt over-stretched, over-taxed, over-whelmed. It was as if all of the nerves in my body stretched to their tightest and pulled so much that I felt like everything inside me was going to snap like a thousand guitar strings splitting and fraying at the same time. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I let them snap. And snap, they did. I threw things, and broke things. Shattering glass made me somehow feel better. Along the top of all my kitchen cabinets I had crystal vases (wedding gifts) and picture frames and ceramic figurines. I climbed up on the countertops and one by one smashed each and every one of them on the floor. The whole episode took about 15 minutes, to break an item, scream, and move to the next one. Shattering glass made me somehow feel better. It was as if I was purposely breaking all the already broken things inside me so that they were beyond repair, so I would be forced to sweep up the debris inside my soul and toss it in the trash.
When I had smashed the last picture frame, and sufficiently ripped up the family portrait inside it into tiny little shreds, the tantrum instantly stopped.
I maneuvered my bare feet across the kitchen island to retrieve the broom and dustpan from the cleaning closet, and swept a space on the floor to safely climb down to without cutting myself, and set to the task of sweeping away the broken pieces of my soul,
I was done.
And somehow, I knew I was done with tantrums for good.
I haven't had one since.
It's been seven years, long enough for every cell in my body to have regenerated.
In the 70s and 80s when I grew up, there wasn’t any clinical diagnosis or terminology for what I experienced. Everyone just said I was “too sensitive" and prone to "temper tantrums." No one expected that my tantrums would last well into adulthood. In fact, very few people knew that they did.
The term "temper tantrum" is so inflammatory that at certain times in my life just the mere mention of it could trigger one in me. The derogatory connotation implied that there was something terribly wrong with me in my ultra-sensitivity.
So today, I decided it's time to reframe this negative term. The linguist in me went searching for its true meaning in etymology.
Temper as a verb comes from the Latin temperare "to observe proper measure, be moderate, restrain oneself." How interesting...that the word that starts the phrase actually means to restrain, even though the concept of temper tantrum is quite the opposite! It also is defined as "to mix correctly, mix in due proportion; regulate, rule, govern, manage." Thus, the first half of the phrase temper tantrum means "to bring into balance." This leads me to believe what my experience of a temper tantrum really was...a means to bring myself back to balance.
Sadly, in searching for the roots of the word tantrum I came up short. According to the word scholars, tantrum evidently has a disputed history with a number of options
Welsh tant meaning "a sudden start" or "a gust of passion"
Latin tendere "to stretch"
And, of course, with my yogic background, I looked to the Sanskrit word tantra which means "to loom or weave" or more generally "a practice."
When I think about what a temper tantrum feels like in my body, I prefer the Latin combined with the Sanskrit: to stretch or weave, as a practice in regulating. Then, if I really think about it, my temper tantrums didn't stop when I had that last one when I was 41. They changed. After that day, I started being MINDFUL in how I feel and express my feelings. I started giving myself permission to express my feelings at the time they happen, rather than stuffing them for another time. I also started practicing little temper tantrums on purpose. Rather than waiting for my nerves to tighten to much until they snapped, I started checking them, and releasing the pressure valve more often, more mindfully.
This Thursday's Membership Blog, I will write about what I do to release the pressure, how I temper my tantrums so they are not explosive anymore.
Tomorrow's Body Wisdom Blog I will write about the tightening of nerves and how that manifests in the body muscles.
This week's Wisdom Wednesday will offer a couple shaman healing rituals that create a healing space for an emotional release that tempers the tantrums.
Are you prone to Temper Tantrums? Do you have fits of rage that you don't know how to control? Book an Appointment for mentoring.