Adult Tantrums

I don’t remember throwing that many tantrums as a kid, but the biggest was when I was about three. I was in a clothing store with my mom. I was being a brat. I don’t remember over what. I remember being inconsolable and rigid and stubborn and loud. I think I was standing on the edge of a round clothing rack, arms folded tightly in defiance, pouty face, and maybe even stomping my feet a bit. I was a three foot tall demon in that moment.

I remember rejecting everything my mom did as she tried to console me. I would have none of it! I remember her being kind and a bit embarrassed. Trying really hart at likely near her wit’s end. I was making a scene. I imagine that other people were looking on. Maybe even some judging my mom. I remember not being able to stop myself. I was just done and loosing it in a way that sometimes happens at that age. It’s not my most proud memory of my childhood.

Tantrums are for kids, right. It’s what gives rise to the phrase, “terrible twos.” Hmm. Wait, perhaps let’s not be so fast with that.

I’ve been thinking about tantrum behavior I’m seeing in fully aged adults. All of us? I don’t think so. Some of us. Definitely. They don’t have to look like stomping feet and folded arms half way lost in a clothing rack. Adult tantrums are tempered by skills acquired through the years of social adjustment and base line maturation. And they definitely aren’t called tantrums. Because, well, that is only for kids.

Tantrums in adult life tend to come with excess volume, incessant urgency, and insisted frequency. None of these are inherently wrong in and of themselves. We all find ourselves in life moments that call for volume, for crisp clarity, and sustained repetition. Of course. There are times, particularly of crisis, when we simply act from essential instinctive judgement. When the violent storm is coming in quickly, it’s go time on securing the lawn furniture.

What turns reaction into adult tantrum is when any of these in adult life are paired with unchecked assertions, ultimatums, and judgements. The ability to notice these are capacities that theoretically we acquire with age and experience. To notice when our assertions are about us rather than about a group or task. To notice when our projections are convenient self ego soothers rather than truisms of the people upon which we heap said projections. I still love the phrase that Christina Baldwin spoke many years ago — “judgement and curiosity can’t exist in the same place.” I think that is mostly true. Unchecked judgements, from simplified “no dah” perspectives of the world that deny inherent complexity — these are just convenient to the individual and not helpful to the groups of people trying to navigate complex and must-faceted environments.

Adult tantrums look like a person saying it louder, and if not heard, saying it louder again. They are about getting bossy, and more and more authoratative and insistent. They sound like imposing a false urgency when not getting the action you want. The taste like what happens when judgement and character assertions leak or pour out of us — “you are lazy; he doesn’t care about his job; she doesn’t care about this family.”

I’m working with a group where “spiritual maturity” is a key value and intent. It’s a bit murky to talk about, but is clear in value. And to speak it with appropriate kindness, I think we are all trying to mature. These times, these days, these environments of utter complexity require a quality of underlaying maturity to find our way through. I’m not sure of what all of that means, but patience, ability to see the big picture, and a keen ability to dislocate from certainty are a few things that quickly come to mind.

Perhaps this maturing is the work for all of us. It’s a myth that maturing only happens in the developmental years. It’s a myth that you’re cooked and fully able when society deems you an adult at 18 or 21. Maturing carries on. Though young adult life. Into midlife. If we are lucky, it might last enough to turn us into elders (not just “olders”) that help others on the path. Wisdom is something that is practiced. Not just acquired in a chronological age certificate.

Here’s to the inquiry to check our own tantrum tendencies. And to going together to mature ourselves for some rather crazy and complex times like these.


2 Replies to “Adult Tantrums”

    1. Feelings are tunnels. We are trains. Simple, yes. But helpful. Thx Dawn. It is quite a process to lean into these feelings and to stay with them for what wants to come through.

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