By: Cristina Schreil
It took a hellish afternoon to realize that my temper wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
When I first visited Amsterdam, I found a city sparkling with charm. My cousin showed me winding canals that flooded with swans at twilight — far from the wilder Amsterdam I’d heard about from other college students. I was excited to bring my friend Emily there later that month. It was Queen’s Day, a holiday where everyone wears orange and the city brims with open-air festivities. People packed the streets and canals, but we didn’t anticipate how the revelry would warp into chaos. It wasn’t long before we got lost. The sun beating, we trudged ahead through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that seemed to stretch for miles. I saw two parents pushing a stroller through the pulsing hoard. The child’s tiny shoes kicked up plastic cups and crushed beer cans. While everyone around us danced through the streets, finding nothing wrong with the disorder, I felt claustrophobia setting in.
It didn’t help that I was suppressing my emotions. Weeks earlier, I had a falling out with a friend. After getting increasingly peeved with her, I snapped. A mature conversation would’ve fixed it. Instead, I let flow a flood of vitriol and did irreparable damage. This was a pattern — one that many find surprising. In new situations, I am calm and cautious, analyzing before revealing my true self. But I wasn’t always this subdued. As a toddler, I was a terror. I was pure id, a tiny Hulk in Velcro sneakers. In preschool, becoming so enraged at a girl who took the tire swing, I punched her in the face, cleaving her glasses in two. I would kick parents like an unbroken horse when it was time to leave the playground. Once, aghast that my brother got to choose a television show, I whipped the remote at his face.
My parents were alarmed, facing a daughter who was mostly pleasant but drew blood without flinching. This wasn’t how people acted. This definitely wasn’t how girls, who should be helpful and kind, behaved. As I grew up, it wasn’t their discipline that restrained my behavior; it was my own shame. I surfaced from rage bouts embarrassed. Sometimes I’d wonder what came over me, a la Dr. Jekyll. My remorse intensified when I realized that, truly, I had nothing to be angry about. Other women I’ve met did have to get mad, out of protection. All I didn’t get was my way. Why couldn’t I control myself?
By the time I was in college, I learned to bottle my temper – or so I thought. I’d gotten so used to tamping things down out of fear, like sparks that could trigger a wildfire. But sometimes my anger would bubble up, often worse than if I’d just acknowledged my feelings in the first place.
On Queen’s Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my recent friendship breakup. I replayed the fallout, berating myself. With Emily, I was hyper-conscious of not being aggressive. But, as the crowd closed in, it was hard to center. I stared straight ahead, miserable. Naturally, this attracted people. One man teased us, poking with an inflatable orange stick. Others hit on us, and cat calling is hard to escape when you’re moving at a snail’s pace. I wanted to scream. But, I knew I would be ashamed afterward if I melted down in public.
The universe sensed this. Out from my peripherals arose some man — pants halfway down — who went too far. He grabbed Emily and leaned in close. “You have such beautiful eyes,” he said as Emily froze. We tried to escape, but he held on, repeating himself and slurring “eyes” into separate syllables. Nope! How dare you I thought. Calling up my rage, I pushed. Hard. My hand struck his chest as I hollered “No!” The force of my yell felt amazing. He disappeared into the crowd. My body looser, I had a clarifying second to regroup. My anger wasn’t whiny. And wow, I also didn’t care that it was unattractive to bark as a woman. “Move!” I commanded the crowd. “We have to get through!” I kept pushing, amazed that the mob parted. For once, I was angry — but I wasn’t ashamed of how I acted. After years of trying – and sometimes failing – to control my temper, I had finally experienced a release that was positive.
I realized years later, after more life experience, how informative this was. Until that day, I had lost sight of the reality that anger is, sometimes, a necessary fuel. Now, I balk at my younger self. Of course I felt angry! Who wouldn’t be upset, getting harassed in a claustrophobic parade? That day, I learned how to discern my unnecessary temper from a more powerful, justified rage. I saw consciously in the moment that I needed my anger, and that it can be focused and purposeful — a tool and an asset to be proud of.
Cristina Schreil is an award-winning journalist with clips in The New York Times, Psychology Today, Hello Giggles, Roads & Kingdoms, xoJane, Acoustic Guitar, Strings, and more. See more at cristinaSchreil.com.