Seven months into the pandemic and seven hundred years into the election cycle, we’re still being bombarded with messages about self-care: tweets reminding you to drink water or relax your shoulders or stop doom-scrolling, ladies-magazine lifehacks about how to get enough exercise or maintain a routine or start a meditation practice. This is all good advice, of course, whether the stressors you’re dealing with are global or national or smaller. It never hurts to look after yourself physically, emotionally, and (whatever this means for you) spiritually. But I don’t think we’re giving enough consideration to another significant factor, which is that NO! NO! I DON’T WANNA!
I do feel that I’ve gotten a tiny bit better at maintaining equilibrium over the course of These Unprecedented Times, but this hasn’t been a product of personal growth or newly-honed coping strategies. It’s been the result of throwing, and then eventually resolving, a series of tantrums.
They’re not big tantrums, although some are bigger than others. As COVID shut down New York in March and April, I went from drinking one day a week to seven. I stopped going out at all, even for walks, partly out of civic responsibility and partly out of anxiety but partly because I was sad and dramatic. If things are going to be so heavy and dark then why shouldn’t I curl up under them? I also quit flossing, which I’d been getting very consistent about, and started going to bed at 3 a.m. or later, which is my natural state but which I normally only do on vacation when nothing is expected of me. None of these things really made me feel better, but that wasn’t the point. The point was acting out, making a scene, throwing a fit.
If you’re an actual toddler (I’m not), tantrums are a natural part of development. They’re embarrassing for the parent and exhausting for the kid, but they’re also a frankly relatable instinct: you’re very small, you have NO money, you can barely make your needs known verbally, you have very little influence over your own destiny or even your daily activities, plus you’re hungry or tired or disappointed or confused. Why wouldn’t you throw yourself on the floor and scream? It’s partly self-expression—I’M HAVING A BIG FEELING, I MAY NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS—and partly protest: I will not stop, because you can’t make me stop, because I have no control over anything in my life except whether I stop screaming and whoops, maybe not even that anymore. It must be noted that I don’t have kids, but I have been a kid, and also am echoing what everyone says about them: Eventually, they develop better communication skills and more ability to self-regulate, and the instinct towards tantrums fades. (For the most part, anyway.) But at the time, in the moment, all the parenting advice is the same: just ride it out. Just let it burn through.
For an adult, the big, difficult feelings are expressed a little more quietly. I’m not saying I’ve never just laid down on the floor and screamed, but it might be frowned upon if I did it in an IKEA. (Even though being in an IKEA always makes me want to lie on the floor and scream.) Instead, we backslide on our smoking, spend too much money, eat potato chips even though they give us gas. We let the dishes pile up, stop washing our faces, cycle through the same three grungy outfits day after day. It’s not just laziness, or self-indulgence, or fatigue. It’s self-expression and protest: I will act miserable because I am miserable and I want to act the way I feel, and I don’t need to act like I feel better and you can’t make me. It’s a way of externalizing feelings that may be too big to communicate or contemplate on their own: maybe I can’t deal head on with the void of the future, but by god I can sit here refusing to get up until I need to pee REALLY bad. It is, in its own way, a kind of self-care.
And like all tantrums, it’s totally resistant to the other kind of self-care, the one that involves discipline and purpose, healthy bodies and healthy minds. If the whole point of acting out is to show the vastness of your displeasure, the soothing mom energy of morning rituals and limited screen time just makes you more destructive out of pure contrariness. Even exercise, which hurts, doesn’t hurt the right way. It doesn’t telegraph your inner wreckage! It’s good for you! Doing something that’s good for you is not the idea at all.
The classic parenting advice for toddler outbursts—just let them tire themselves out—is useful in handling your own, fully grown human, tantrum. (I did eventually stop drinking on weekdays, and kind of reined in my bedtime, and even started flossing again—but not through force of will. I was just done acting out in that particular way. I did swap in new tantrums, like the period when I was drinking less alcohol but also perversely refusing to drink normal amounts of water. I will probably have some kind of fit in progress until there’s full socialism and a vaccine.) You can try to avoid creating the conditions that breed a fit of pique: make sure that kids (or adults) are physically satisfied and comfortable, that their routines are not disrupted, that they aren’t faced with stimuli they can’t absorb and don’t understand. But when something—say, a grievously mishandled pandemic coupled with a flagrant threat to democracy—throws those plans into disarray, and a tantrum erupts, you just have to ride it out. Yelling doesn’t work, shaming doesn’t work, bribery doesn’t work. The tantrum needs space. The tantrum needs recognition. The tantrum needs, dare I say it, respect. And unlike trying to tamp it down or cover it up, acknowledging and respecting the tantrum helps it dissipate when it’s not serving you anymore.
So yes, we will take care of ourselves and each other, and yes, we will try to get through this, and yes, of course we will plan for meaningful action no matter what. But in the meantime, just for a moment, please join me on the floor, where we will scream.