Self-care: Is it Selfish?

Self-care | Cluff Counseling, Dallas Marriage and Family TherapistLife can be draining. We are constantly surrounded by a barrage of common, everyday stressors like financial strain; employment, unemployment or deployment; addiction; sickness; or familial discord. If we are not careful, life’s demands can overwhelm, frustrate, or discourage us. Self-care is a tried-and-true method prescribed by therapists, and other professionals, to help clients improve their overall health. In this post, I will explain how self-care is not a selfish use of time, but actually one of the best ways to improve your overall health. Keep reading and I will give a few ideas for how you can improve your self-care today!

Any string instrumentalist can tell you the importance of loosening the strings of your instrument when it is not in use. When a violin, viola, cello, or double bass is put in its case to be stored, the strings need to be loosened; then, when it is time to play again, the musician will tighten the strings and adjust the tuneage. This ensures that there is not constant, damaging pressure on the strings or the instrument itself that would impede it from playing optimally. Self-care is to humans what “loosening the strings” is to a string instrument–a rest, a break, a reprieve. It is not selfish, self-indulgence or self-pampering. It is care provided for you, by you. It is taking the time to do some of the activities that nurture you. It is about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. Self care is about taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others. It is vitally important to our overall health, yet we often fail to make time for it.

Most of us, myself included, could improve on how we take care of ourselves. We run ourselves ragged fulfilling our responsibilities and obligations at work, at home, at church, or with our family and friends. We neglect ourselves! When we do this, we see the things that are most important to us–such as our health, our relationships, our career and our life goals–negatively affected. When we live a balanced life, we are able to accomplish our to-do list and not feel emotionally drained, depleted of energy, and lacking in motivation at the end of the day.

So how well are you treating yourself? Use the following questions to identify areas of self-care you are successful in and areas you could improve in:

  • Am I getting between 6-8 hours of sleep a night?
  • Am I eating 3 balanced meals a day?
  • Am I saying “no” to extraneous responsibilities (when applicable)?
  • Am I exercising 2-3 times a week?
  • Am I making and maintaining meaningful relationships with those in my circle of support?
  • Am I making time for hobbies?
  • Am I taking time to relax?
  • Am I keeping my mind sharp by reading good books, playing word puzzles or seeking to educate myself further in areas that interest me?
  • Do I know what triggers my bad moods and am I actively working to remove those triggers?
  • Do I know how to express my emotions in healthy ways that don’t hurt myself or others?
  • Have I established spiritual or religious practices and do I practice them consistently?

If you were able to answer yes to the majority of these questions, then you are well on your way to practicing good self-care. If you answered no to any of them, you know where to start. Be intentional about your self-care–literally schedule it into your day! And please, start small with behaviors you can reasonably implement without overwhelming yourself. Remember, self-care should leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, not more stressed with one more thing on your plate!

I have seen clients make remarkable progress in their sessions with me when they correctly and consistently practice self-care. If your figurative strings are loosened at the appropriate times, you will be able to perform to the best of your ability when you need to. We can all improve our self-care. Let’s start today and give ourselves a little bit of a break from the rigorous lives we lead.

If you have any questions on how you can implement self-care into your life, please feel free to contact me. Similarly, if you would like help formulating an effective and personalized self-care plan, schedule your first session with me today!

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Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Illness

Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Illness | Cluff Counseling, Dallas Mental Health TherapistDo you shy away when you hear the words mental illness? For years, there has been a stigma about mental illness in our society. It was taboo–something uncommon and misunderstood; some even ventured as far as to say it was made up by the “weak” as a ploy to receive attention. However, over the past two decades, much has been learned about mental illness and a fair amount of resources have been developed to educate mental and medical health professionals.  Mental illnesses are very real; in fact, 43.8 million, or 18.5% of US citizens are affected. Mental illness influences the way one thinks, feels, behaves, and relates to others and to his/her surroundings. Those with mental illness often feel tense, anxious, and/or sad to the point that it is difficult for them to function normally.  That is no way to live! If you feel you or someone you love may have an undiagnosed mental illness, now is the time to get help. My purpose in writing this post is to increase understanding and awareness of mental illness in order to help you or someone you know who is suffering. Let’s begin with some basics on mental illness:

  1. What is a mental illness? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Mental illnesses come in different types and with varying degrees of severity. The most common types are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, trauma and eating disorders.
  2. Who has a mental illness? While some studies show that mental illness can be hereditary, we are all susceptible. In fact, 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year! Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, background or other aspect of cultural identity. It can occur at any age, but 50% of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24.
  3. How do you get a mental illness? Although the exact cause of most mental illness is not known, researchers are finding that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of the following factors and not personal weakness or a character defect (as was previously believed):
    a. Heredity (genetics passed on from affected family members)
    b. Biology (imbalance of neurotransmitters)
    c. Psychological trauma (emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; a significant early loss; neglect)
    d. Environmental factors (death or divorce, a dysfunctional family life, changing jobs or schools, substance abuse)
  4. Are mental illnesses treatable? Certainly! Much progress has been made the last two decades to better understand mental illness and how to treat it.  A full recovery from a mental illness is not simply a matter of will and self-discipline. With therapy and/or medication, a full recovery is absolutely possible.

I hope that better understanding mental illness will remove the stigma and allow more people to seek the treatment they need. It is very real and it is very treatable. If you suffer from mental illness, I want you to know that there is hope! There is nothing shameful about a mental illness, and there are a myriad of resources available to you today–the foremost being a trained and experienced therapist to be your coach and advocate along the way.  Start treatment early and be an active participant in your own recovery process. Contact me today to set up your first appointment!


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The Most Forgotten of the Human Needs

The Most Forgotten of the Human Needs: Relationships | DFW Marriage & TherapyHave you ever experienced such pain or heartache in a relationship that you have sworn off future friendships or relationships? Has your trust or confidence in someone been shattered to the point that you never wanted to open up to anyone ever again? I think it is safe to say that all of us have been through a bad breakup or had an interaction with a friend, coworker, or family member that has left us feeling discouraged, rejected, or alone. In the moment we may have thought we would be better off living a life without ties to other people. But in the end, we nearly always end up making friends or falling in love with someone new. Why do we do that? Would you believe me if I told you that we legitimately need relationships in our lives in order to thrive and be happy?

A relationship is defined as the way in which two or more concepts, ideas, or humans are connected–in the case of humans, that connection could be through blood, marriage, sex, or friendship. This state of being connected functions optimally when both parties are mutually striving for closeness; when either side is withholding time, honesty, intimacy, or open communication, the relationship is strained.  I chose to be a therapist and work with couples and families because I deeply value relationships. I have witnessed tremendous healing when a client has strong bonds in their life. Although it takes a great deal of time, effort, and energy to maintain and improve relationships, humans have an innate biological and emotional need to be close to others. Brené Brown said it best, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children.”

Believe it or not, human biology is involved in the formation of meaningful relationships. You may have noticed your adrenaline pump, palms sweat, breathing get shallow, skin feel hot, or pupils dilate when you are with people you care about. Less noticeable biological activity is that our amygdala (the center of the brain where emotion is processed) gets highly active as we interact with others. We produce the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine as well as oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” or the hormone related to bonding.  Interacting with others physically makes our bodies feel good. We are literally wired to connect and form meaningful relationships with others!

We also have an emotional need to form and maintain relationships. I have never forgotten about a particularly interesting lecture where one of my college Professors described a Japanese concept called “amae” (甘え). Amae is the need to belong; the desired to be loved, to have someone take care of us, or even the unconscious need to rely on others. This amae is cross-cultural; American psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary subscribe to what they call the “belongingness hypothesis”, which states that people have a basic psychological and emotional need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior. We would rather have close relationships (even those marked by distress, conflict, or abuse) than permanently separate ourselves from those people (through breakups, divorce, death). Though unconscious, our emotional need to belong is incredibly strong!

Although relationships carry immense emotional weight, we need them in our lives. After all their research, Baumeister and Leary surmised: “It seems fair to conclude that human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” If you are struggling with an important relationship in your life, and you want to make steps to rectify that bond, schedule a session with me today.

P.S. My first post in the month of May will delve into how the lack of meaningful connection can actually lead to addiction. Stay tuned!

University of Rhode Island: “Love: A Biological, Psychological and Philosophical Study”
Science of Relationships: “The ‘Need to Belong’–Part of What Makes Us Human”

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Are You Searching for Fulfillment?

Searching for Fulfillment | Marriage & Family TherapistSteve Jobs once said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” I have found that doing great work is never easy, but it is nearly always fulfilling. As a therapist for 10+ years, I can honestly say that I love my job. I readily admit I do not have all the answers and that my work constantly challenges me, but I find great satisfaction through being a therapist. Although I think being a therapist is pretty great, I am not naive to think it is the only thing out there that can bring fulfillment. What do you do that brings you fulfillment?  If you struggle with answering the question, please do not feel ashamed. You are not alone. Instead, ask yourself, “Where would I like to feel more fulfilled in life?” Common responses are careers and relationships. If those areas seem too daunting, simply start by asking yourself, “What can I do TODAY to begin to feel more fulfilled?” For further guidance, reach out to a counselor or friend.

In honor of Counseling Awareness Month, The Mighty features an article where counselors share their top reason for why they love what they do. These therapists are doing great work, and are finding immense fulfillment because of it. I could relate to many of their responses, and I want to share some of their words with you as an example of people who are fulfilled by what they do.  The overarching theme in these responses was healing; out of these 25 experienced therapists, 11 report that helping others heal and live better lives is what brings them fulfillment. While reading the responses below of these people (counselors) who are passionate about what they do, think about what you are passionate about and why you are passionate about it!

  1. “Rather than just feeling better, my focus is on helping clients live better.” —Deanna Kasper
  2. “I have the privilege of participating in the healing process. By leading people down the path of acceptance and forgiveness, they find meaning in their pain.” —Jennifer Bradley
  3. “Counseling is not just about helping people to solve their immediate problems; it’s about helping them to build a better future.” —Cindy Goehring
  4. “Healing is a combination of honoring strengths, empathizing with difficulties, and challenging someone to grow in spite of their obstacles.” —Cristina Andriani
  5. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to commit to transformation. Let’s take the first step together.” —Alicia Zielinski Straub
  6. “Kintsukuroi: The art of repairing with the understanding that pieces are more beautiful for having been broken.” —Bill ‘Eli’ Owenby
  7. “I can help you learn how to relate to your struggles in new ways, so your thoughts and feelings have less impact and influence over you.” —Charlene Lenkart
  8. “You deserve an opportunity to write your story.” —Christina Vanchina
  9. “Re-framing thoughts and considering behavioral actions proactively are difficult feats. I can empower you with the tools you need to succeed.” —Morgan Rodgers
  10. “Once we are able to connect feelings of anger, fear, anxiety or depression to our grief and loss, the healing can begin.” —Lisa Simon
  11. “Everyone has a source of inner freedom. Counseling can help you find it.” —Margaryta Johnson

If you are looking to feel more fulfilled with your life, spend more of your time doing the things you love.  It really is that simple. Personally, I am passionate about being a marriage, addictions and trauma therapist. It motivates me to do my own work and follow my own counsel, and I enjoy getting to know people at their core level. As I said in my first post a few weeks ago, I find it sacred and rewarding to witness the personal transformations of my clients as they prepare to move on to the next phase of their life–healthier and more fulfilled. There is nothing quite like being a therapist… I love my job!

If you struggle with finding fulfillment in your life or in your relationships, please reach out to me.

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Addiction 101: Analogy of the Driver’s Seat

Addiction Therapy | Cluff Counseling, Dallas Fort WorthWhat do you think of when you hear the word “addict”? Often when I ask this question, I hear responses like weak, lazy, broken, drunk, homeless, selfish, loser.   In my years of treating clients with varying addictions, I have realized that those struggling with addiction are largely misunderstood. I have learned words like resourceful, shame-based, creative, hard-working, tender-hearted, fearful, and powerless are more appropriate adjectives. Through my blog posts, I hope to remedy some of the misunderstandings around addicts and addiction. If you have questions about addiction or about a loved one dealing with addiction, contact me–I would love to help you find some answers.

Addicts are good, ordinary people, like you and me, who have relied on certain behaviors to escape dealing with painful situations or relationships. Truth: we all have appetites that need to be fed–ranging from the food we eat, the entertainment we view, to the sexual needs we have. There is nothing inherently wrong with engaging in a pleasurable activity! Watching Netflix, drinking alcohol, perusing social media accounts, working out, planning your food intake, having sex, shopping, or playing video games in moderation can be used as healthy outlets. But when any of these activities go from something enjoyable we choose, to something we need to escape reality…addiction can occur. In this post, I will focus on the basics of addiction–beginning with defining addiction.

Addiction defined
Simply stated, addiction is defined as having a dependence on, obsession with or being enslaved to something. According to The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is commonly characterized by impairment in behavioral control, the presence of cravings, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Although substance addiction is the most widely known form of addiction, behavioral addiction is another type of addiction that is formed through repetitive processes and habits. The International Journal of Preventive Medicine explains the difference between these two types of addiction:

“Contrary to the commonly held belief that holds addiction to be a particular kind of dependence on drugs and chemical substances such alcohol, nicotine and heroin, behavior science experts believe that any source which is capable of stimulating an individual, could become addictive. The change of behaviors such as gambling, drug abuse, computer gaming or chatting and internet browsing from habits into obligatory behavior, can be considered as the development of addiction.”

Imagine you are driving your parents car with your high school friends. One of your inexperienced, underaged, uninsured friends, begs you to let him take the wheel. You know there could be some serious negative consequences, but you don’t want to be a “party pooper”, so you give him the keys. After a little while of touch and go/figuring out the pedals, he goes nuts! He starts cutting off other cars, speeding excessively, weaving dangerously through traffic… Addictive behaviors are like the friend who took over the driver’s seat; not only can they start innocently, but they can quickly escalate and take full control of your life. Although the behavior was invited (by your initial consumption of the behavior), it is quickly unwelcome because you lose complete control of where, how fast, and how far you will go. Unless you take back control of the driver’s seat (through therapy, support groups, healthy coping skills), your addiction can negatively impact every aspect of your life.  Imagine if your friend crashed the car–your financial life would take a downward dip. If one of your other friends in the car got hurt, your social and relational life would suffer.  If you were penalized by the law, your future occupational goals could be severely hindered by having a record. If you got seriously injured in the accident, your physical, mental, and emotional life would forever be changed!

Where to go for help to overcome addiction
Addiction does not have to be a dead end–as portrayed in this analogy. It is possible to take back the drivers seat and avoid a host of negative consequences that can accompany addiction. Please refer to the resources at the end of this post, as well as the “Resources” section of my website.  While those resources can be incredibly informative and helpful, meeting with a highly trained and skilled addiction therapist can be invaluable to your recovery or to your healing process. If you are exhausted from struggling with an addiction, or with a loved one’s addiction, schedule your first session with me today. It’s time to take back the driver’s seat.

And be sure to stay tuned for future blog posts on relationships, mental health, and self care. I’ll be posting each Saturday!

YouTube, “The Opposite of Addiction”
Addictions and Recovery, “What is Addiction?”
American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Definition of Addiction”
International Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views”
Addiction Recovery Guide (12 Step Program)
Psychology Today, “Living a Healthy Life”