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Getting Angry vs. Having an Adult Temper Tantrum

Are you having adult temper tantrums and don't know it?

When Rebecca came into treatment, she complained that she kept losing friends and boyfriends because she is a truth-teller and people didn't appreciate being told the truth. It turned out, that what she calls "being honest" and "truth-telling" is actually having an adult temper tantrum.

How do you know if you are expressing anger in an appropriate way or having a temper tantrum? Let's look at what happened when Rebecca was angry at her friend Betsy because she was late for a dinner appointment.

Radu Florin/Unsplash
Source: Radu Florin/Unsplash

#1: Do you yell and scream when you are angry?

When Betsy arrived, Rebecca started yelling at her before she took her seat. "What's wrong with you!"

She could have said, "I'm really upset. I've been sitting here for half an hour by myself and didn't know if you were going to come or not." That would have expressed her anger and explained why she was angry without raising her voice.

#2: Do you curse when you are angry?

Rebecca yelled, "I'm so f*cking tired of this."

She could have said, "I'm really upset that you're so late."

#3: Do you bring up old hurts and use scattershot attacks from years ago rather than stick to the issue at hand?

Rebecca said, "You always do this, you're always late. I can't stand it, you were late for my dinner party last year and even for my college graduation party."

She could have said, "This is not the first time you've done this. It's a pattern."

#4: Do you make broad accusations like "You're a nasty person!" or "No one likes you!"

Rebecca yelled, "None of your friends can take it! No one wants to make dates with you!"

She could have said, "I know you don't mean to upset me, but when you're late all the time, it makes me feel that I'm not important to you. You don't think about how your behavior is going to make me feel."

#5: Do you make high-stakes threats?

Rebecca said, "I'm never making a lunch or dinner date with you again. I can't stand being disrespected over and over."

She could have said, "It makes me reluctant to make dates with you."

#6: Do you let the other person respond or demand a response?

Rebecca finally stopped yelling at Betsy and demanded an explanation, "Why do you do this all the time? What's wrong with you?"

When Betsy didn't respond, Rebecca attacked her. "Well, what's wrong with you?"

She could have asked, "Can you understand why it is so upsetting to me when you're late?"

While Rebecca was completely justified in being angry at Betsy for being late, she was not justified in having a temper tantrum and attacking her. This is an important distinction that many people who have temper tantrums do not understand. Rebecca merged having a good reason to be angry with being entitled to abuse whoever had hurt her. When we discussed it in our sessions, Rebecca kept repeating that she had a right to be angry at being kept waiting by Betsy. It took quite a while for her to believe that I agreed with her that it is upsetting to be kept waiting in a restaurant. Only when she accepted that her anger was justified was she able to separate the two elements: justifiable anger and an abusive temper tantrum.

P.S. Betsy got up and left the table and that was the end of their friendship. Had Rebecca been able to express her anger in a more appropriate way, perhaps they would have been able to finish their dinner and continue their friendship.