Listen to Your Temper Tantrum

If you’ve ever felt too frustrated or frazzled to handle a situation calmly, you may have experienced the “adult temper tantrum.”

These outbursts can look a lot like a toddler’s tantrum. We feel our temperature and blood pressure rising, our face flushing, our ears ringing—and stop just short of lying on the ground kicking and screaming, as a three-year-old might. But a little kid’s tantrum serves a real purpose: to release pent-up emotion. And so does yours.

Most of the time, a tantrum-like outburst isn’t about the circumstances at hand. Instead, you’ve run into a big, underlying belief about how things should be, and your tantrum is a sign of that. At meQuilibrium, we call these iceberg beliefs.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine—let’s call her Jen—was at the end of her maternity leave. Her infant and two-year-old would both be in daycare. On the night before her first day back on the job, she realized that her favorite work shoes were stained. She flew into a rage, stomping around her house. Then she stayed up until one in the morning loading her Zappos cart with new shoes.

Of course, it wasn’t about the shoes. Jen’s tantrum represented the weight of her expectations for herself. Without those shoes, she might appear less than put together. The truth would be out: she didn’t know how to be a perfect mom and full-time professional at the same time. And, most importantly, she should be perfect. Her tantrum was a loud, messy message from this deep and likely unconscious belief.

The next time you find yourself about to erupt, follow these steps to get to the root of your emotions. Not only will you dial down a stressful situation, you’ll also be able to find the message in the meltdown.

Take a breath
Your body gets fully involved when you feel tantrum-level upset. Your heart races, you flush with rage, you might sweat. Your first step is to hit pause physically, and that means tapping into the power of your breath. Full, deep breaths actually change your body. Integrative medicine expert Andrew Weil, M.D., calls focused, intentional breathing “a natural tranquilizer.” So as the tantrum starts, close your eyes and, even for just a minute, breathe deeply.

(Read more on using breath to keep your cool.)

Become a detective of your mind
We run into stressful circumstances all the time, but not everything sends us into a tantrum. It’s not the details that get us riled up. It’s the hair-trigger emotions, which are clues that you’re dealing with a bigger issue. Your job, then, is track down the thoughts and feelings running through you during the tantrum, so you can figure out what’s really going on.

In Jen’s case, her first upset thoughts were, “Sheila in accounting is going to see this. She’s going to think it’s baby vomit and that I can’t keep my life together. She’ll think I can’t handle my job. Everything I own is covered in baby blurp. I don’t burp her enough. I’m giving her reflux. I cannot believe this is happening!”

That’s a lot to untangle! But if Jen had observed her thoughts, rather than get swept up in them, she would have had a chance to investigate them. She could dig in and find the iceberg beneath.

(Find out how to keep one bad moment from derailing your day.)

Uncover the iceberg belief
This is the a thread running through Jen’s difficult thoughts: “I can’t do this if it’s not perfect. I need to be a perfect employee and a perfect parent.” That’s her iceberg belief, and it’s a doozy. You likely have a few (or more) that drive you to tantrum. “I must never give up” and “It’s my job to make sure people are happy” are two common ones.

When Jen recognized her iceberg, she could start going easier on herself. She melted that harsh, unhelpful belief with a more supportive one: “I won’t be perfect at all times, especially since I’m new at this, and that’s okay. I’m human, and I’ll get better over time.”

(Read more on common iceberg beliefs and how to handle them.)

Tantrums aren’t easy or pleasant. But they are helpful, if you use them to get to know yourself and your beliefs better. Doing so will help you stop fuming faster and make you that much wiser.