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Everybody loses it

The public temper tantrum feels more commonplace than ever. But there’s a way to control it.

By Alix Strauss

My public meltdown happened on Black Friday of last year, when I found myself at a two-story Gap with a line of holiday shoppers that extended around the store — and no cashiers in sight. I calmly asked a manager to fill the unused registers, but ten minutes later, they remained deserted. Coffee- and carb-deprived, hot and sweaty, and now running late, I leaned over the balcony like Norma Desmond bellowing for her Max and called out to the manager, loudly demanding to know why no one was in charge, and didn’t they want to make the sale?

Many customers applauded; others nodded their approval. A few probably whispered to their friends that I needed a Valium, which I would have been delighted to accept, had someone offered. I faced no consequences, except for the shame of knowing what I had succumbed to: the increasingly common, impossible-to-ignore adult temper tantrum.

Generations ago, people raised their eyebrows over public displays of affection. Now, we’re overrun with public displays of emotion, which often become a one-two punch of bad behavior: passions that burn far out of proportion to the situation at hand, plus a willingness to share those feelings with everyone in the vicinity, or possibly the world.

 “People are crying and screaming and having tantrums in what appears to be a public breakdown, and yet when people stop and say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ they don’t want to be questioned. They feel entitled to behave this way,” says Amanda Itzkoff, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

And the rest of us feel compelled to watch. YouTube is littered with videos of people screaming, hitting, and raging at each other — sometimes over a wrongly filled fast food order or a snagged parking space — that can garner four or five million views.

“The media promotes these bad behaviors, while reality TV is turning civilians into cartoon characters. Our emotions are becoming entertainment,” says Charles Coletta, a lecturer of pop culture and media at Bowling Green College.

Apart from the ample internet lists of “Top 10 Meltdowns of All Time,” there are few statistics on the rise of the public tantrum. But it feels like more and more people are losing their self-control, for smaller and smaller reasons. I was entering a Starbucks in Manhattan recently when I heard a woman screaming on the street. Tears exploded from her eyes, leaving a wet trail of black on her cheeks as she spewed angrily into her phone about how disrespected she felt.

Apparently, someone had stood her up for an appointment.

It’s hard to be proud of this new way of being. I wasn’t, seconds after my meltdown in the Gap, when remorse and a sense of foolishness flooded my system. Clearly, I could have handled myself better. Why didn’t I?

I posed that question to Marc Brackett, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He told me that our inability to regulate emotions is no surprise: Many adults today haven’t had role models or guidance for proper ways of handling anger.

 “We haven’t had the opportunity to learn about our emotional life in a systematic way. We’ve learned through happenstance and by watching our parents and people in public or on TV,” Brackett says. Without strategies to regulate our moods, he says, we’re more likely to dwell on “illuminating the injustice we feel, rather than focusing on solving the problem.”

At Yale, Brackett and fellow researchers developed a program that trains children to control their emotional barometers. Called RULER — which stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating”— it has been implemented in more than 1,500 classrooms, from preschool through high school, building an increasingly complex curriculum around a common language for emotions. Techniques include a color-coded “mood meter” on which kids can label their emotions in real-time: Red is angry or anxious; yellow is excited; blue is grumpy or sad; green is focused and confident.

“Your brain is filled with tools for making emotions, and with a little training, you can learn to use those tools like a skilled craftsperson.”

Adults may not have access to that kind of formal training. But a growing body of research suggests that we can still take charge of our responses, as long as we understand where they come from. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, a university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University, says emotions aren’t forces that overtake us, but physical reactions we can learn to control.

“Your brain is filled with tools for making emotions, and with a little training, you can learn to use those tools like a skilled craftsperson,” says Barrett, the author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life the Brain.”

Barrett studied facial expressions and the vocabulary around emotions — her research showed, for example, that the concept of a “smile” didn’t exist until the Middle Ages — and developed a novel theory of how emotions work. The brain is prewired, she explains, to create simple feelings based on physiological changes in the body, such as pleasure, pain, calmness, and agitation. Emotions are your brain’s interpretation of those feelings, based on context and personal history.

“Your brain explains your bodily feelings, creating emotions in the blink of an eye, very automatically,” Barrett says. “In this way, emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you.”

So changing an emotional response, Barrett says, is a matter of changing the inputs. She advises people to develop a vocabulary of “emotion words,” which the brain can use to guess which reaction is right for a given situation — being able to shift, for instance, from “he hurt me” to “we have a disagreement.” And she urges people to cultivate new experiences, since “what you experience today will become the seeds for new predictions in the future.”

Learning to control our emotions internally takes work. Learning when to share them can be equally hard. Generations ago, Itzkoff notes, Americans waged a backlash against repression and pent-up feelings: “It’s all right to cry,” football player Rosey Grier told American children in the 1972 album “Free to Be…You and Me.” But decades later, reality TV brought an avalanche of shows that exploit and reward overexpression, inviting more of it.

Today, social media poses an even bigger challenge; it’s like an open bar to an alcoholic, pushing people toward impulsive responses. Individuals can’t seem to resist, even though they know how easy it is for people to scrutinize and share their social media moves — including employers and customers. In 2014, the Travel Channel postponed the premiere of its show “Man Finds Food” after the host went on a profane rant within the comments on Instagram, in a spat about fat-shaming that spun out of control. Earlier this year, the co-founder of cosmetics firm Deciem went rogue on the corporate Instagram account, threatening the company’s future.

Like a real-life tantrum, a social media eruption has psychological — and physiological — roots. A post that gets a lot of views can actually lead to a dopamine high, says social media speaker and consultant Natalie Zfat.

“We’re used to experiencing that when we exercise, but research is showing that social media can trigger that same rush,” she says. “Social media is more about psychology than it is about technology. It’s really about how to elicit an emotional response out of an interaction.”

Zfat urges clients and audiences to choose their subjects carefully, post discreetly, and understand the limits of the medium.

“A social media feed is not a diary,” she says. “It’s not for emotional highs and lows that are usually reserved for one or two trusted friends.”

And anyone breathing anger instead of air, Zfat advises, should resist the urge to instantly comment, spew, tape, or upload. It’s like that old advice about tantrums: Take a deep breath and count to ten.

“Record what you want, or write out what you need to say,” she says. “But save it, don’t post it and wait until morning. By then you’ve removed yourself enough where you can reassess…whether or not you want to post your feelings and response for the world to see.”

After all, emotions are temporary. But the internet lingers on.

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.


Illustration by Michael Workman/Experience Magazine. Photos from iStock.


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