The HALT method is one of the most useful tools I have ever come across as a therapist. Whenever you find yourself heading towards a fight with your spouse/coworker/etc., ask yourself: Am I feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
This simple question has the power to radically transform those conversations. The power of the question is in how it changes our thinking. By taking a quick inventory of ourselves before a fight, we become more aware of other – often unrelated – things we bring with us into the conversation. Each day we are going to focus on one of these four feelings.
The first time I heard that HALT method explained to me, I didn’t quite understand why loneliness made it on to the list. Most of us are aware of the fact that, on some level, being hungry or tired can make us irritable. And it makes sense that if I’m angry about one thing, I might take it out on someone else. But why loneliness? The answer has to do with two concepts: attachment and secondary emotions.
It seems that human beings are hardwired for connection. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first coined the term “attachment” when they were exploring this phenomenon in the 1960’s. With the now famous “strange situation” test, they measured the quality of the connection between mothers and their children. In an experiment that has now been replicated hundreds of times, the quality of that connection has been shown to be a tremendous predictor of the child’s development and maturity later in life.
Several years later, a group of neurophysiologists discovered what are now called “mirror neurons” in monkeys. We have these same mirror neurons operating in our own brains. Mirror neurons are neural networks in our brain that fire the same way when we am performing an activity as when we see someone else performing the same act. In other words, if you see someone eating an ice cream cone, there is a small part of your brain that lights up the same as if you was eating an ice cream cone yourself.
There have been numerous other studies across multiple disciplines conducted throughout history that seem to suggest that – all the way down to a neurological level – we are genetically wired to exist within relationship and connection with other human beings. When these connections are severed, they can wreak havoc on our brains. In fact, there are some studies that seem to suggest that human connection may be just as important for a child’s survival as food or water.
If connection is as important to the development of the human brain as food, it stands to reason that the absence of connection (something we call loneliness) might have just as much of an effect on our brain functioning as the absence of food (something we call hunger).
Primary & Secondary Emotions
In addition to our primal need for connection, there is something a bit more subversive that goes on when we are feeling lonely. When the children in Bowlby’s experiments were separated from their mothers, the researchers observed something they called “attachment protest.” The children would get angry, sad or anxious as they began looking for their mothers. Susan Johnson says we do the same thing as adults. When we feel a perceived disconnection from a loved one, we protest. We can get angry, sad, anxious or any number of other emotions when we perceive that one of our key emotional attachments is threatened.
The problem is, most of the time we do not realize this is happening. We spend so much of our time expressing to each other our secondary emotions of anger or sadness that we never stop to recognize the primary emotions of loneliness or isolation that exist just under the surface. Much of my work in couples therapy is in helping couples recognize the primary emotions that exist under the surface. By recognizing those primary emotions, we can radically transform how the conflict plays out.
An Entirely Different Conversation
For example, imagine that Jane just walked in to the bathroom and found that John, her spouse, left the toilet seat up again. She know for a fact that she reminded him just yesterday how much a clean house matters to her. Her initial response is to go downstairs and tell that slug that he can go sleep outside with the dog. But then she HALTs and asks herself if she is feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
She recognizes that she does indeed feel lonely. John was out of town all last week on business. And he just spent another long day at the office today. As soon as he got home this evening, he went right downstairs and turned on a football game. The more she thinks about it, the more she realizes it is not about the toilet seat. It is about the fact that she does not feel like John is noticing her. The toilet seat feels like just one more reminder that her words don’t matter to him.
Recognizing the underlying emotion radically changed the trajectory of their conversation. Instead of going downstairs and berating her husband for being such a filthy pig, Jane is able to make the courageous choice to open up to him about how lonely she feels instead. John, seeing the pain in his wife’s eyes, finally begins to recognize that its not about the toilet seat. Or the dirty dishes in the sink. Or any of the other small things that seem to drive her crazy the past few weeks. And all of a sudden they are having an entirely different conversation. Just because one of the partners stopped to notice.
So the next time you find yourself getting into a fight with your spouse, stop and ask yourself: Am I feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired? If the answer is yes to lonely, stop and reflect on the other underlying emotions that the loneliness is stirring up. By noticing the other emotions, you can begin to change the direction of your fight and start to talk about the things that matter most.
Eric McClerren, MS, CIT
emcclerren @ growcounseling.com