Ever see a three-year-old throw a tantrum? Picture him playing some obsessive game. All of his pieces are on the floor and in perfect order. He’s consumed and in a trance, telling himself a story about pirates or soldiers or train crashes. You walk by, friendly and amused—and accidentally knock one of his pieces off its mark.
A quite amazing tantrum ensues, out of all proportion to the accident. It’s absurd, really, considering that all that’s required for perfect order to be restored is that he move that pirate or soldier or train back a few inches and put it in its place. Absurd or not, out of proportion or not, there it is: a real tantrum that no parent has yet figured out how to soothe or interrupt.
It must just run its course. That’s really not so bad, even if happens in a supermarket and embarrasses you no end. But what about its adult versions? Don’t we see foreshadowed in that three-year-old’s tantrum road rage, domestic violence, family feuds, and war? There, in its adult versions, the inability to forestall or interrupt a tantrum has massive effects. Whole mobs go into tantrum mode. Whole countries go into tantrum mode. And nothing known to man can stop them until the tantrum runs its course.
We are all susceptible to these tantrums and they make a bit of a mockery of the idea that we are civilized or that we can adequately get a grip on our mind or our emotions. But isn’t there in fact a split second—the most micro of microseconds—during which that three-year-old, and adults too, allow themselves the indulgence of the tantrum? Isn’t there that briefest of brief moments that, as brief as it is, is nevertheless long enough for that three-year-old to say to himself, “I am going to throw a tantrum now. Here I go!”?
I think we can change our mind in that moment. I think that we can dispute the tantrum. This sounds like, “I am not going to throw a tantrum now.” Our mate may for the millionth time leave a dirty thing in the exact wrong place. We could throw a tantrum or we might murmur, “I am not throwing a tantrum now.” Are you justified in throwing that tantrum? Who can say. But does it serve you to throw that tantrum? Almost certainly not. No three-year-old, after the fact, and after some privilege has been withdrawn or some penalty exacted, has ever said to himself, “That tantrum was so worth it.” Nor has any adult.
Sometimes we think, “A tantrum will feel so good!” But does it feel good? This is a serious question. If tantrums actually made you happy, then that would amount to at least one reason to throw them—and quite likely the only reason, since they never gain us anything or make a positive difference. But do they actually make you happy? Can you really say, “I’m so happy I threw that tantrum at work!” or “I’m so happy I threw that tantrum with my sister!” or “I’m so happy I threw that tantrum with that customer service representative!” or “I’m so happy I threw that tantrum while driving!” Did any of those tantrums make you happy?
I think not. But even if they did—even if those absurd, childish explosions provided relief that you experienced as pleasure—even then, it would still be part of your program of brilliant mental health to put into practice a rejection of tantrums. You have an agenda—brilliant mental health—and the reason you opt for that agenda is so that you can live your life purpose choices and influence the creation of meaning. Every tantrum, however good it might possibly feel, robs you of precious time and precious energy that you could be using to live well.
Experience tells us that even that three-year-old can gain some mastery over those tantrums and can decide that, given the consequences of indulging those tantrums but also given how bad they actually feel, he will stop himself in his tracks. He will not go wild when that pirate, soldier or train is accidentally and unceremoniously moved. Many a three-year-old has come to that conclusion—and so can you.
Each of us has a tantrum mind. It is part of our inheritance and rather clear why nature thought that feature might serve us and why it would program our selfish genes to throw a really symphonic fit whenever we didn’t get our way. But that genetic selfishness doesn’t serve you or me. Let’s do better; and in that microsecond before a tantrum is about to erupt, let’s say no to it. That outburst you just prevented wasn’t going to feel that delicious anyway. Spare yourself the loss of some essential self-worth and simply skip it.
This was lesson #10 of the Your Best Mind Ever series written by Dr. Eric Maisel.