A month after we met, my future husband Michael and I took our first camping vacation near New Hope, PA. The flower, the trees and yes, the romance, were all in full bloom. We walked the quaint town's shop-lined streets, hiked some local mountains (fine, hills) and told one another our dreams for the future.
That is, until suddenly and without warning, I became utterly uncommunicative.
Now, if you know me at all, you know that to get me to stop talking practically requires an act of congress or a roll of duct tape. But on this particular day, I just stopped. I was reduced to mono-syllabic grunts in response to Michael's increasing concern about my growing silence. Had he said the wrong thing? No. Had I spotted a bear? No. Well, then, what was it?
I didn't know, and in fact, had no idea what had happened until we sat down at a local pub and I wolfed down two dinner rolls without coming up for air. Within minutes, I felt my life force re-entering my body. I smiled sheepishly at Michael and announced, "I think I was just hungry."
As relieved as Michael was that this — my hunger — was the only problem in our relationship so far, he was also flummoxed. How could I not know? The answer was that I did know about 20 minutes before the shutdown occurred that I was feeling puckish, but over time, I just focused on feeling tense, edgy and annoyed. And by that time, I had ground to a complete communication halt.
Or shall I say a complete H.A.L.T.: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These four emotions can catch us when we least expect it. And if you're a busy person (whether you’re putting out fires at work, managing the kids’ homework at home, or just busy falling in love) chances are, you ignore or delay the care and feeding of these emotions until you no longer remember why you've gotten crabby, short-tempered, or even teary. That's problem number 1. Problem number 2 occurs when we engage in self-destructive behaviors that don’t address the underlying core need, such as cuddling up with a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk when we’re actually lonely. Problem #3 adds insult to injury when we lash out at or withdraw from others, attributing our attitude to something someone else did, when we simply haven't taken care of our own basic biological and emotional needs. The damage that occurs from constantly abrading ourselves and others because we haven't tended to ourselves can be off-putting at best and devastating at worst.
Why don’t we address these four feelings: hunger, anger, loneliness or tiredness? Here are five common reasons why, and what to do about them:
1. There’s no time. Sometimes, we’re simply too busy to deal with fulfilling our needs. Think about it: how many times have you told yourself that you’ll grab a bite after you finish up the project on a tight deadline – and then forgot to eat? Probably more times than you’d care to remember. (And if you’re reading this instead of having lunch, step back from the computer and go eat something. I’ll wait.) In this case, we need to remind ourselves about the negative impact of not dealing with our needs (like binging later if we don’t eat when hungry) or the positive outcome of dealing with our needs (like having more energy to complete the task) – or both.
2. It would be rude. It can seem impolite to get our needs met if doing so will encroach on others’ needs or even on social norms. Hosting Shabbat dinner is often a challenge for me because I love to have people over (to prevent loneliness, perhaps), but by Friday evening I am exhausted. At a certain point, my fatigue reaches a critical point, but I fear that it is ill-mannered to change into my pink cherry pajamas while everyone helps themselves to a second slice of babka. So I sometimes subjugate my needs in the interest of preventing an awkward situation. (I have, however, been known to advocate for my 11 year old twins’ need to go to bed at a decent hour, which seems more socially acceptable. And if it serves me too? Oh well.) What to do? I suggest dealing with it directly and politely whenever possible. I’m sure nobody in my home would be offended if I said, “I hope this won’t be seen as rude, but the Riegels are running out of steam. Can we wrap up some babka for you?” At work, you might say, “I can feel myself getting frustrated here, and I need to take a time out so that I can think more clearly. Can we resume this conversation in 15 minutes?”
3. It’s unjustified. Too often, when we feel these H.A.L.T. emotions arise, we don’t feel validated to experience or express them. “How can I be angry at what goes on at work,” my client Lou, a real estate developer, asked, “when 20 percent of our staff just got laid off?” Lou’s perspective was that he hadn’t earned the right to feel frustrated about the day-to-day stresses of work because he “should” feel lucky to have a job. But whether he should or shouldn’t feel angry is irrelevant. He did feel angry – and trying to reason it away wasn’t going to cut it. Stop trying to justify your emotions. You have every right to feel how you feel.
4. We don’t know that it’s happening. Hunger can feel like exhaustion. Anger gets masked as fear. Loneliness can be confused with anxiety. Tiredness can feel like sadness. When we don’t have experience checking in with ourselves about what’s really going on, we may not be able to name what we’re feeling. Commit to noticing what your brain and body experience when you know for certain that you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and then commit those signs and signals to memory.
5. We don’t know how to deal. If you’ve never learned to effectively express your anger, or how to reach out when feeling isolated, or how to eat the right amount when you’re hungry, or how to decompress when you’re tired, then you’re less likely to deal with these emotions when they arise. Find yourself a friend, colleague, mentor, coach or therapist who can help you develop healthy strategies to manage these emotions. They’re going to show up again – so you’ll want to learn how to deal when they do.