Cutting Shame Off at the Knees

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family Therapist“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” -Brené Brown

Regardless of age, gender or nationality, we all experience shame from time to time. Dr. Brené Brown, an author and researcher, explains in her book Daring Greatly, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” And that is what I want to focus on today–cutting shame off at the knees.

Dr. Brené Brown has dedicated her career to researching shame and vulnerability. She describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. The dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We all feel it; in fact, it was recently found that even babies can experience shame!

It is important to note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. While shame means, I am bad, guilt means, I did something bad. Shame is debilitating, it can shut us down or emerge in ways destructive to ourselves and others. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make adjustments or restitution, and create new paths.

Let’s talk about real life examples of shame. How many of us have ever scrolled through social media to see someone doing something we wish we could do–affording a luxury vacation, building their dream home, accepting a prestigious position, holding a difficult yoga pose, cooking a beautiful multi-course meal for friends, reaching 10k followers, etc? We all have. What was our next thought? For many of us it is, I could never do that, I’m not smart, rich or talented enough! This is shame. Shame holds us back and debilitates is. It tells us we are “bad,” which can prevent us from changing or doing better. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change or progress. Further, it can lead to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Because of the powerful implications of shame, we must identify our feelings of shame, understand them and build healthy coping skills against it! Here are five ways to cut shame off at the knees:

  • Bring shame to the light. Know what it is and what it feels like. Recognize when it sneaks into life. TALK about it. Awareness is the first step!
  • Recognize triggers. Shame is good at hitting us where we are vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A husband who worries about providing may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation. We must know where our armor is thin and work to strengthen and protect those areas.
  • Stop striving for perfection.  Dr. Brown has said that perfectionism is like a process addiction–the more you do it, the more you feel compelled to do it. Perfectionism is a common ailment among many of my clients, and it is corrosive. It tells us nothing we do is good enough…so why try?  Perfectionism and shame go hand-in-hand. When we work to stop one, we will find there is not room for the other!
  • Practice positive self-talk. The first option for positive self-talk is positive affirmations. These are powerful; by voicing what we believe (or want to believe) about who we are, and what we are capable of, can decrease our feelings of shame. By literally repeating something (out loud) enough we will start believing it. The second option is simply speaking more kindly to ourselves. If we were to talk to ourselves the way we would talk to our children…we would never speak to them as negatively as we do to ourselves! Be kind. Practice self-love through our inner dialogue.
  • Deeply root self-worth. If we define ourselves by what we do, we put the power of our happiness in the hands of others. When separate what we do from our sense of self-worth we will find freedom. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we can look at both praise and condemnation with the perspective each deserves, absorb any helpful critiques, and move on.

Shame is one of the most debilitating emotions humans can feel. It can stunt growth and corrode motivation. It is always looming. Unfortunately, we cannot “beat” or overcome shame once and be done with it. Instead, we must view our relationship with shame as ongoing: recognize when shame is creeping in (know our triggers), speak kindly to ourselves (affirmations), and remember that we are so much more than what we do or look like. Working to cut shame off at the knees is one of the most common subjects among my clients–everyone is feeling it! I fully understand that shame can get in the way of the important things and relationships in life. If you want to more fully understand how shame is holding you back, or if you have questions and would like additional help, I would be more than happy to assist you. Feel free to contact me or schedule a session!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


Sleep Like a Baby: Nightly Routines

Sleep Like a Baby - Cluff Counseling - North Texas Therapist

“Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.” -William Blake

Just like young children, adults thrive off of routines. Children learn that bedtime is near because they consistently have a bath, put on warm jammies, have a bottle, read a book, sing lullabies, rock in a dimly-lit room, etc. Adults can do the exact same thing–in principle–as they signal to the brain that bedtime is approaching. How? By consistently doing things that relax the body and mind around the same time each day.

For varied reasons, many of my clients struggle getting quality sleep. I have found the common thread to be that we work, do chores, or are on a screen right up until the very last minute of our day. We get in bed and expect our bodies to know that, like a switch, it is time to turn off! Then we get frustrated when we toss and turn for hours.

The key is to take the necessary time winding down to let our brain and body know it is time to sleep–essentially preparing ourselves to rest. Taking 30-60 minutes to decelerate at the end of a hectic day by doing things which calm our minds is one of the most helpful sleep habits to practice! The benefits to having a nightly routine are many; I would like to name just a few: First, we will calm our overactive minds. Second, as we decompress, we are preparing our brains to avoid rumination (contemplating or stewing over things when we should be sleeping instead). And third, by regularly repeating our nightly patterns, we will condition our bodies and minds to realize that it is bedtime, so it will begin to happen more naturally with time.

Everyone is different. There is no single set nightly ritual that will work perfectly for everyone. But here are some helpful guidelines as we begin creating a routine:

  • Switch off the electronic devices. These stimulate the brain, interfere with our internal body clock, can be addictive, and can induce stress (like by checking emails right before bed). Some sources even recommend leaving your phone in another room or switching it airplane mode in order to avoid EMF (electromagnetic field) emission. I would suggest turning off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Relaxation exercises: meditation, breathing & mindfulness. I have written before about the power of meditation as a form of self-care. Meditating before bed is particularly effective as it calms the mind and helps prepare us to slow down and sleep.
  • Wins/gratitude. Think through the day and write down the wins, the things that went well, or the things to be grateful for. It is powerful!
  • Read. I would dare to say that many of us have a goal or New Years Resolution to read more books–I know I do! Sneaking it into the nightly routine is a great way to reach your goals while simultaneously reducing stress and boosting brain power.
  • Listen to music. (Refer to number one.) Listening to calming, peaceful music can have a soothing effect which will prepare us for bed.
  • Write down worries and reminders for the next day. Prepare a to-do list for the next day. Get organized. Think through things that must be done, prepared for, or accomplished. Write it down. Then put it on the backburner and relax. Another idea: To avoid lying awake worrying about things that may need to be done or people to get in contact with, keep a notepad near the bed. Write those ideas and impressions down so the mind can let them go and sleep.
  • Have a relaxing drink or light snack. While it is important to avoid large meals before bed, having a cup of herbal tea or warm milk can be a soothing, welcome pre-bed ritual.
  • Bring your temperature down. The ideal bedroom temperature for sleeping is between 65-72 degrees. The body associates a lowering temperature with a signal for sleeping, so avoid hot showers and cool down in order to wind down.
  • Spend time with family, friends or partner. For many, this time right before bed may be their only alone time with a spouse. Spend a moment talking and connecting with him or her as part of your nightly routine.
  • Don’t lie awake for hours. This is key: It takes most people between 20-30 minutes to fall asleep. We have to remember that if we are still awake after half an hour, it could be that we are not quite ready to sleep yet. Get up, repeat aspects of the nightly ritual, and try again after some time passes.

Here is an example of a nightly routine:
9:30 PM: Review day’s work, review goals (long term and short term), plan tomorrow’s schedule
10:00 PM: Get ready for bed; take vitamins.
10:15 PM: Write in journal
10:30 PM: Read a book
11:00 PM: Lights out.

The most important advice I can give is to be consistent. Whatever we decide to do for the nightly ritual, do it, and do it every night. Be consistent! If we start the wind-down ritual each night at 9:00 p.m., our bodies will quickly learn what is coming next, and the process will begin to happen more organically.

I fully understand that demanding work schedules or taking care of kids can make it difficult to take any time to relax at night. I can assure you that a nightly routine will not only help you fall asleep quicker, but it will help you sleep better. Additionally, if anyone regularly faces sleep problems, taking even just a few minutes on a nightly routine can work wonders! If you have questions or need additional assistance, please feel free to contact me. My door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


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Trichotillomania: The Hair-Pulling Urge

Trichotillomania The Hair-Pulling Urge - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville TherapistHave you heard of trichotillomania? This is a hair-pulling disorder that serves as an anxious response. The individuals with this disorder may sit to watch TV and involuntarily pull out all their eyebrows!

Just the other day, a friend posted on Facebook about the irresistible urge to pull out all her eyelashes. There she sat on her bed, smiling and eyelashless, asking for help. Do you or someone you know struggle with the urge to pull out hairs? If so, this post is for you.

What is trichotillomania?

Trichotillomania (pronounced tri-ko-til-o-MAY-nee-uh), is a mental disorder that involves recurring, irresistible urges to pull hair out from the scalp, eyebrows or other areas of the body. Those with trichotillomania know it is unnecessary (and painful!) to pull out hairs, but they often cannot stop on their own. This is different from the occasional urge you may feel to rid yourself of an ingrown hair or that one chin hair that plagues you. It is incessant. It never goes away. And it provides an odd sense of satisfaction. The common symptoms of trichotillomania include:

  • Repeatedly pulling out hair from the scalp, eyebrows or eyelashes (and sometimes from other body areas)
  • Tension while resisting or before the actual act of pulling, accompanied by a sense of pleasure or relief once the hair is pulled
  • Noticeable hair loss (bald areas on the scalp or other areas of the body)
  • Biting, chewing, eating, or playing with pulled-out hair

Many people who have trichotillomania also pick their skin, bite their nails, or chew their lips. Pulling hairs from pets or dolls or from materials like clothes or blankets, may also be a sign. Most of those with this disorder try to pull hair in private to hide the disorder.

For people with trichotillomania, hair pulling can be either focused or automatic. Focused is when the hair pulling is done intentionally in order to relieve tension or distress. Other times it is automatic–it simply happens without the person realizing what he or she is doing. Regardless of the intent behind the hair pulling, the result is noticeable hair loss, scarring and other damage (like infections) to the skin on the specific area where hair is pulled. Healthy regrowth may also be stunted due to excessive plucking. Regardless of whether the hair pulling is focused or automatic, it is indicative of a mental illness–an anxious response–that can affect anyone.

What causes trichotillomania?

Although it is unclear exactly what causes trichotillomania, it is likely due to a combination of genetics, age, stress, and other present disorders. More often than not, those struggling with trichotillomania also face depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. With such, anyone could be prone to this disorder. Studies show that the age of onset for trichotillomania is varied, but commonly manifests itself between 9 and 13 years of age. Trichotillomania seems to be more common in children than adults, but that is because adolescents and adults are more likely to hide the disorder and not admit their need for help. With preschool-aged children, both boys and girls are equally affected, yet 70-93% of preadolescents and young adults are female. There is no reported difference between ethnic groups.

Is there a cure for trichotillomania?

Without treatment, trichotillomania can be a long-term disorder. Symptoms can worsen over time with triggers such as stress and chemical changes (like hormonal changes of menstruation in women). Many clients with this disorder have tried for months or even years to stop pulling their hair without success. Relapses nearly always occur because this is such an involuntary and easy-to-practice disorder.

If you read and relate to this post, contact me today. I know that you want to stop pulling out your hair! So many individuals with trichotillomania feel embarrassed or ashamed by their appearance as a result of hair pulling. Trichotillomania is a habit and a mental health disorder you can work through to overcome, or help your child overcome.  As always, my door is open! Click here to schedule a session now.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage

Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage - Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyIn Western culture, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50, but then 40-50% of U.S. marriages end in divorce (with the divorce rate for subsequent marriages being even higher). Marriages are being attacked on every side, and I want to help you protect yours. This post covers the three greatest threats to marriage that can exist even before the marriage does.

I recently read an article from the Huffington Post about overlooked threats to marriage. This article resonated with me, and I found its contents to be refreshingly true. I cannot tell you how often I hear couples blame communication as the root cause of their problems in marriage. While there may surely be some truth to that, I have found that there were problems existing even before the couple got married or started communicating about bigger issues. Allow me to elaborate.

As a therapist, I can teach a couple a lot about how to communicate in an hour. It really is not complicated to follow simple patterns of listening, sharing, and responding. The real issue at hand is that we all enter into marriage with baggage–which is normal and to be expected. But then we take that baggage and expect it to either magically go away or to have our spouse wave a wand and fix it for us. When that does not happen, couples begin arguing, and they mistake their baggage as the inability to communicate as a couple. This is why communication in marriage is often seen as the common culprit for hurt or failed marriages. The following are the real threats to marriages today:

  1. We do not account for change.

    Yes, you fell in love with your partner back when he had a perfectly-chiseled six pack, or she had that flat tummy. Or appearance aside, maybe you fell in love with his/her personality 10 years ago, and things have since changed. Not accounting for changes that come with time will inevitably lead to resentment and frustration. We need to remember that time changes people. Think about it. You have almost certainly changed since you got married…and not all of those changes are bad! I would like to suggest that you appreciate your partner for who they are working to become, and not get attached to who he/she was when you got married.

  2. We do not have realistic expectations for marriage.

    I know too many girls who think they will never feel lonely or less-than or discouraged (or anything less than sublimely happy) once they get married. They think marriage is a cure-all. But the truth is that your spouse is bound to be an imperfect person and sure to do something that rubs you the wrong way–and you will certainly do the same to him/her. Life will get hard and you may feel disappointed and deflated with your marriage at times. That is normal! This is one of the biggest threats to marriage, and I will dedicate an entire post to unmet expectations in the future. The truth is that marriage, like any important relationship, takes work! It takes LOADS of work, time, and effort. We cannot expect this rich and deeply satisfying relationship to happen on its own. Expecting marriage to be easy is a sure-fire recipe to wind up disappointed. Plan on it being tough, but worth it, tiring but fulfilling.

  3. We lack problem solving or basic communication skills.

    Early on in life we learn to defend ourselves–it may be from other kids at school, from friends, or from our own family. We practice self-preservation and self-defense. We learn how good it feels to be right and we prove ourselves whenever we get the chance. When we get married, the arguments inevitably come. If we never learned how to practice openness instead of defensiveness, forgiveness instead of vengeance, apology instead of blame, and vulnerability instead of strength before marriage, we are bound to continue that pattern with our spouse. Learning basic problem solving and communication skills will benefit all relationships in your life, but most especially your marriage.

Regardless of our marital status, these are things we can all work on as we strive to be a better companion–whether that is now or in the future. Remember that people change (plan on changes happening in both your significant other, as well as, yourself); remember that no relationship is perfect (have realistic expectations for your relationship); and work on your ability to communicate and overcome disagreements. If you are already married or in a serious relationship, remember–it is never too late to adjust expectations and learn new skills, like communicating, apologizing, problem solving, etc. I can assure you that as you focus on adjusting these three areas, you will be prepared to have meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

These three threats to marriage are common. The good news is that there is hope. It is possible to account for change, to love who your spouse is now, as well as who he/she is becoming. It is possible to adjust expectations (in a healthy way) so that they align with your partner’s expectations. It is possible to learn new communication skills or problem solving strategies that will enable you to be more transparent with your spouse. As you seek to improve yourself and let go of some of that baggage you brought into your marriage, you will see that your marital communication will improve tenfold! You will be able to see eye to eye–or at least hear each other out!–and come to a conclusion that did not require raised voices, slammed doors, or hurt feelings. Your marriage does not have to be at risk. As always, feel free to contact me to overcome these three common threats to marriage today, and you will watch your most valued relationships flourish and exceed your greatest expectations!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


I Don’t Have Trauma…or Do I?

I Don’t Have Trauma...or Do I - Cluff Counseling - North TX Couples TherapistMost people associate trauma with terribly difficult and disturbing events like war or a natural disaster. Because of this, you may think you have never experienced something traumatic. However, any distressing event that falls beyond your normal scope of human experience can be considered traumatic! Odds are high that you HAVE experienced trauma. How have you dealt with it?

I was recently talking with a friend who told me she had never been through anything traumatic in her life. Although I knew she was referring to the fact that she had not experienced a death of a loved one, abuse, an accident, or something of like nature, I silently disagreed with her. While those experiences are incredibly traumatic for any individual who faces them, trauma is not limited to life-changing events like those. Trauma can happen every day in the normal course of your day without you realizing what you are up against. In this post, I will focus on the two different types of trauma and how we are all affected by trauma’s expansive reach.

Let’s start by defining trauma. What is it really? At its Greek core, trauma means to wound or to pierce. A search for this word will yield a definition much like this: “A disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset, an agent, force or mechanism that causes high distress.” Basically, trauma is intense emotional distress resulting from stressful life experiences. Oftentimes when describing trauma, it is divided into two major categories: Big “T” and little “t” traumas.

Big “T” trauma

Big “T” trauma, or complex traumas, are events that involve physical harm and/or a threat to life or physical safety. Big “T” trauma is trauma in its most severe form, and can often result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Examples of big “T” trauma include being in a combat/war zone, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, immigration, rape, sexual assault, abuse, death, sickness, moving, financial stress, a car/plane accident, etc. These are extraordinary and significant events that leave us feeling powerless, helpless, and as if we have little or no control in our environment. This element of helplessness is a key difference between of big ‘T’ traumas and little ‘t’ traumas–feelings of helplessness being much greater in big ‘T’ traumas. These events can forever alter a person’s life, and may influence our ability to make/maintain relationships, and function later in life. One big ‘T’ trauma can be enough to cause severe distress and interfere with our daily functioning–which is intensified the longer treatment is avoided.

Little “t” trauma

Little “t” traumas are life events that are more common experiences that, although upsetting to an individual, are less severe or dramatic than big “T” traumas. A few examples of little “t” traumas include being teased in elementary school, always being picked last for a team, divorce, death of a beloved pet, losing a job, or losing friends by moving from school to school during childhood.  It is not necessarily the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event. If an individual experiences an event as life-altering or upsetting in such a way that it changes the way they think about themselves or others,  it is likely a little “t” trauma.

The term little “t” trauma does not imply, however, that the emotional impact of such an event is insignificant compared to big “T” traumas. The emotional wounds can be as lasting and severe as big “T” trauma wounds!

Trauma’s reach

Everyone has endured some sort of trauma in their lifetime. Both big “T” and little “t” traumas have a strong influence on our view of the world and shape how we cope in life. For example, the little “t” traumas of being teased by peers and being picked last for the team can leave us feeling inadequate or insecure amongst our peers. Big “T” traumas may leave us orphaned, severely dissociated, or less physically capable than we may have previously been. The four core signs of trauma include the following:

      • Hyperarousal: These symptoms can be difficult to manage and can vary from person to person. In general, hyperarousal includes having a difficult time falling or staying asleep, feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger, having difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance (constantly being on guard), and being jumpy or easily startled
      • Dissociation of body and mind: This includes feeling disconnected from oneself, problems handling intense emotions, sudden/unexpected shifts in mood, depression or anxiety problems, derealization (feeling as though the world is distorted or not real), memory problems, concentration problems, and significant memory lapses.
      • Constriction of body and perceptions: Which may include the skewed notion that the individual was responsible for causing the trauma.
      • Feelings of helplessness: The inability to act or think for oneself, or to act effectively.

When symptoms of trauma continue for more than three months, it is considered PTSD or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Fortunately, all symptoms are not permanent if addressed properly–which means that healing for both little “t” traumas as well as big “T” traumas are completely treatable. Receiving treatment can truly reshape the way we view both the world and ourselves!

Trauma is treatable

Treatment for trauma consists of specialized counseling techniques and practices that will help you cope and deal with trauma and its effects on your life. I use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) , as well as Pia Mellody’s inner child framework to treat trauma. Because trauma contributes to negative thinking, negative behaviors, and difficult emotions, counseling for trauma can help you change your thinking and behaviors, which will, in turn, impact your mood. Counseling with me is a safe place where you can explore some very difficult issues that are hindering you from the life you want to live or the person you wish to be. If you think you may struggle with trauma, please reach out to me! Untreated trauma can lead to serious life consequences, the longer it is left untreated.

As always, the take away that I want you to remember (and cling to) is that treatment is available. Healing is possible! No matter where you have been, I can help you get relief from your trauma symptoms. Remember that everyone responds to traumatic situations differently; you may be experiencing only a few of the aforementioned symptoms, or you may be experiencing many. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his/her specific trauma event. What may affect one person may not affect another person in the same way. Counseling can help you explore your trauma and find the healing you may still need. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.  I look forward to working with you!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.