Several years back, on the eve of a conference where I was due to be the closing keynote speaker, I became gripped by panic and comparison. Shrinking in my seat, I felt as if I was going to be violently ill. Thanks to the layout of the hall, though, I couldn’t sneak out. Afterwards, I wailed down the phone at my husband about what had happened and how there was no way I could do the keynote. His response: “Have you eaten?” It hit me that my meltdown was due to racing around all day on a flapjack. Within an hour, I felt like an entirely different person.
Uncharacteristic behaviour, meltdowns, anxiety, being argumentative, snappy or aggressive, feeling like a fraud — these all-too-often have their root in unmet needs. Specifically, lack of self-care. We’re hangry, overtired, bored, lonely, scared, stressed, anxious, overloaded, or in desperate need of rest and relaxation because we’re juggling other people’s needs and wants, or we’re pushing us to fulfil an ideal version of ourselves.
By deprioritising us, we’re bound to miss early warning signs about our needs. We’ll ignore the tummy ache and lightheadedness; the irritation and frustration we’re suppressing; our need and desire to say no, or the anxiety and overwhelm. As a result, our mind and body call our attention in other ways. Next thing, we feel a disproportionate or even made-up annoyance towards a loved one. We snap, pick and niggle, sometimes feeling guilty and ashamed because we know it’s not about them.
Even when we recognise that someone isn’t responsible for our mood or predicament, if we’re typically out of touch with our feelings and needs, self-care isn’t on our radar.
We don’t connect what we’re thinking, feeling and doing with our need for self-care, and so our behaviour gives us more reasons to dislike us. It reinforces this idea that something’s wrong with our life. The longer we neglect self-care, the more urgent our needs become, the worse we feel, the more uncharacteristically we behave, creating a vicious cycle. And, of course, while loved ones are often helpful in spotting what’s really going on, they’re only human and so might not take too kindly to us taking our unmet needs out on them!
Every single one of us has our own personal bandwidth: the time, energy, effort and emotion–our capacity–to deal with something or to be, do and have the things we need and want. When we’re in deficit, it’s due to lack of self-care, and we often take it out on others. We don’t realise that we’re trying to call attention to our needs.
Spot the warning signs
A game-changer with self-care is becoming aware of what’s commonly known as the HALT system or principle. Being hungry, angry, lonely or tired makes us vulnerable to making poor decisions. Although these seem so obvious, we often lead such busy lives or are so out of tune with our bodies, that we don’t recognise these emotional states for what they are. You’d be amazed at how many people I’ve spoken with who, on reflection, realised that they broke No Contact because of one of these! We’re also prone to taking shortcuts, so we’ll often soothe ourselves with the wrong solutions or neglect self-care in the pursuit of our desires and goals, which inevitably leads to self-criticism.
Noticing when our emotional state takes a dramatic shift and we’re behaving in ways that are counterproductive to our wellbeing or the harmony of our close relationships is crucial.
- Am I hungry?
- Have I skipped meals today?
- Do I need to hydrate?
- Am I pissed off or irritated about something? And if so, with whom or about what?
- Am I feeling a bit neglected due to a need for quality time?
- Am I feeling disconnected because I’m not expressing my feelings and thoughts?
- Have I had enough sleep?
- Do I need time out?
- Have I had fresh air and allowed my body to move around?
- Have I given out too many yeses today/this week?
Sometimes our lifestyle doesn’t leave enough space for us to feel and think. By the time we recognise that something’s wrong, we’re often so far down the road that we don’t know where to begin. Starting each day with the question “How am I doing today?” helps us to tune in. Becoming aware of our personal signs of discomfort and unhappiness, such as savaging somebody over something we’d normally laugh at or eating peanut butter out of the jar in the middle of the night, can also become our cues to get grounded and check in with ourselves about what we need. Self-care isn’t just a means of being kinder to ourselves; it nurtures our relationships, too.
If, like so many of us, you don’t know what self-care means or fear you’re doing it ‘wrong’, check out this podcast episode.