Avoiding the Silent Killer in Relationships

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” ~ William Shakespeare

We all have experienced disappointment in a relationship before. There are a million reasons we may be let down by our friends, family members, or romantic partners. In our most important relationships we often feel our most painful feelings. When we have been hurt by those that love us, we may start to believe that getting disappointed is inevitable and unavoidable. What if I were to say that there is something we could do to lessen the disappointment we feel in our relationships? Such a thing exists, and it may seem almost too simple! Almost.

Allow me to paint a picture to demonstrate this point. Kathy had an idea of how things would go for Valentine’s Day last month. She dreamt of breakfast in bed, maybe a voucher for a massage, some roses delivered, a bit of extra help with the kids, a fancy dinner, and chocolate with a lovey card from her husband to top off the day. Unfortunately, her reality involved nothing from the above scenario; instead, a brisk hug as her husband rushed out the door for work, a long day at home with fussy children, no card, no flowers, no chocolate. She was left disappointed and discouraged.

What happened? Her expectations went unmet. While this was somewhat of an extreme example, the point is clear. Kathy’s expectations did not match reality, and it led to dissatisfaction in this important relationship.

Having unmet expectations is not just a marriage problem. It is a LIFE problem. All of us have important relationships. It does not matter whether we are single, married, working, unemployed, old, or young. Having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone in any kind of a relationship. No one is immune.

So what can be done? This may seem like a very obvious solution, but what if we tried communicating our expectations? I have a very wise client who asks his wife what she expects for her birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, any holiday, and even ordinary week nights. He will say, “What do you want tonight to look like? What can I do to help you?” That way, they are on the same figurative page and team, and no one is left feeling frustrated because the night did not go as planned. And for those important holidays, his wife has had to learn to really use her words and communicate that she wants a mushy card and some one-on-one time. This type of direct communication has satisfied both of their needs and helped them to avoid unmet expectations.

We can do the same! Communicating our expectations is a sure-fire way to avoid the grief and frustrations that come from unmet expectations. It really can be that easy.

There are some who say to not have any expectations at all — that if we do not have any expectation for our spouse or partner on any given day, we will not be disappointed. While I can kinda see the logic there, I would not apply this advice to important relationships. We get what we expect, so if we expect nothing, we will settle for less than what we ultimately want or deserve. I advise having firm, yet realistic expectations in any given relationship — whether that is with a brother, friend, neighbor, parent, or lover. I encourage expectations of respect, honesty, trust, support, and communication. It is realistic for each of us to hope for and expect these core elements in our relationships!

Healthy, realistic expectations, that are communicated, are essential in a relationship. You deserve it! When we come into a situation where our expectations are not met (as we assuredly will) let’s take a breath, discard our expectations for how that moment should have gone,and deal with the reality at hand.  Later, have a conversation with the other party involved, about what was expected and why, come to an agreement about each other’s expectations, and discuss how any misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

It is noteworthy to mention the need to not expect perfection. We need to remember that our siblings, friends, and partners are imperfect beings doing the best they can. When Kathy (from the story above) berated her husband for the unremarkable Valentine’s Day, he was not only surprised by her expectations of him for the day, but also discouraged about her uncommunicated idea of what the “perfect husband” does. We all need to set goals in our relationships, and it is equally important that those goals be realistic and clearly communicated.

Having unrealistic expectations or not voicing our hopes for a given circumstance/situation can lead to frustration, resentment, and disappointment. But if we have realistic expectations that we verbalize to one another, we will watch our relationships flourish due to this honest and open type of communication. Should you have questions or concerns, click here to contact me. My door is always open. Click here to schedule a session today.

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

Resources:

Two Secrets for Making 2019 Your Year

“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” —Earl Nightingale

What do we do each January 1st? We think about New Year’s Resolutions–hobbies we would like to pick up, physical feats we would like to accomplish, places we would like to travel… Some we achieve, some we abandon, and others we half-attempt and get mediocre results. If we want to make serious changes in our lives, build confidence, and grow as individuals, we need to have a plan. Without a clear endpoint in mind, we are wandering aimlessly. A plan allows us to proactively create our destiny, and our goals serve as the springboard.

Last year I wrote about the ins and outs of setting resolutions. Most of us are familiar with the process of setting goals; if you need a refresher course, check out the references included below.. Having or setting goals is not the hard part, though. The hard part is following through with and reaching our goals. We have all had a goal that went unreached for whatever reason. I want to focus this post on what we can do to stay motivated to reach our goals in 2019.

How can we stay motivated to reach our goals? To quote Zoolander, “What do we do when we fall off the horse? …We get back on!” I have two simple suggestions that will help us pick ourselves up and get back to work WHEN we may fall short of our goals:

  1. TRACK PROCESS, NOT PROGRESS. This is an interesting yet intentional combination of words. Have you ever gotten fixated with the before and after pictures of home renovations or of physical transformations? What these pictures do not show is the vast amount of time and effort that went into achieving those results. We must remember that progress is a process. Growth and improvement takes time! We are growing accustomed to thinking we should have a six pack after a week of clean eating or exercising. The truth is that progress takes much, much longer than we like or expect. Instead of obsessing over results, we need to track how many times we did what we said we were going to do. How many times did we get to the gym? How many times did we bring a healthy lunch to work? How much money have we put into savings? If we keep doing what we said we were going to do–going to the gym, eating better, spending carefully–we will inevitably get closer to where we ultimately want to be. 
  2. PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION. Beating ourselves up for our mistakes and punishing ourselves for not reaching our goals will nearly always backfire. This promotes shame, which is limiting and uninspiring. When we are too tough on ourselves we actually hinder our ability to perform. Multiple studies (see references below) show that treating ourselves with more kindness is the best way to gain better results. Those who practice self-compassion are more likely to achieve their goals because they realize that mistakes are bound to happen, but that does not mean they should give up. As we implement more self-compassion into our daily walk and talk, we will find greater happiness, confidence, and progress as we reach our goals. (Look out for a post on self-compassion at the end of this month!)

Those who succeed in achieving their dreams always have one common characteristic: They never give up. This persistence is a mindset we can establish from the beginning and nurture throughout the journey of working towards our goals. Yes, we may fall down or fall short, but we cannot allow that to let us lose sight of what we are working towards. When we are tempted to give up on our goals, let’s remember to enjoy the PROCESS, and to practice a little more self-compassion. Just remember that every day is a great day to try again. Let 2019 be your year!

Something I love about the New Year is that it gives us courage to change. New Year’s Resolutions are revitalizing and we often find a great deal of motivation to do the hard things we may have been putting off.  If current addiction issues, unresolved trauma, or a strained relationship is not allowing you to make the changes you want to make, please do not hesitate to contact me today with questions and/or schedule a session with me. I absolutely love what I do, and have years of experience as a trained, qualified therapist. Please come see me this year and allow me to help you make 2019 your year!

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

Resources:

“Bookending” Your Day With Morning and Evening Routines

We are all aware of using either morning or nightly routines to be productive and either jumpstart our morning or end the day on a positive note. But how many of us use both morning and nightly routines with the intent of reaching our goals? In September, I wrote in detail about nightly routines, and in November I wrote about morning routines. In this post I want to combine the elements from these posts to demonstrate the powerful concept of “bookending” your days with morning and nightly routines in order to reach your goals. It’s almost 2019–it is the perfect time to start being intentional with your routines!

Let’s start by talking about the bigger picture. Many of us have goals or resolutions that give us a trajectory in a given direction–towards what we want to accomplish or who we want to become. In my opinion, goals play a necessary role in our growth; without them we will almost certainly fall short of our potential. On that same vein, just because we have goals written out does not mean we are sure to reach them. We need to be actively aware of what we are striving towards; that requires dedication and focus in order to reach them.  How many of us are giving our goals the attention they deserve?

Bookends are a support used to keep a row of books upright; without them, the books lean one direction or another, or fall down completely. Consider this analogy: Your day is like the row of books on a shelf, and the bookends, or supports, are the morning and evening routines.  A successful person’s morning and evening routines are the “bookends” of a productive life. How so? Because what they include in their routines ensures the really important things get done each day. While we may be unable to control what goes on in the middle of a day, we usually can control how we begin and end the day. We can take advantage of this fact by incorporating our most important tasks, actions, goals and/or behaviors into our morning and evening routines.

For example, many businessmen refuse to check email first thing in the morning–for fear of getting prematurely sucked into work. Instead, their morning routine consists of waking up, getting dressed, and dedicating an hour or so to working on important tasks or working towards a higher goal before going into the office. This may include reading, meditating, exercising, meal preparation, etc. These people are ensuring they accomplish what they want to before the chaos and interruptions of the workday get in the way.

For me, if I fail to exercise first thing in the morning, it is very unlikely I will be able to find time to exercise later in the day. So, daily exercise is part of my morning routine. Similarly, being a better journal writer is another important goal for me. If I do not set aside a specific time for journaling, it simply will not happen. Thus, I have incorporated journal writing into my evening routine (which also serves as a great way for me to unwind before bed!).

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make or review goals, life plan, bucket list or resolutions
  2. Incorporate elements from step one into morning and evening routines
  3. Adjust routines as life happens (this will become even more vital when you have kids, not the other way around!)

Sounds simple enough, right? Here is a real life example: At the end of 2017, my friend made a goal to participate in a race during 2018 (step one). That goal could have remained written down for her to occasionally glance at, and she may or may not have reached it. But she decided to use her daily routines to reach her bigger goal. Each morning she would review her goals as a reminder for what she was working towards. She broke down her goal to run a race into achievable increments which she then incorporated into her morning routine of exercise (step two). Then, each night, she would make plans for the following day’s exercise goals, and so on and so forth until she was able to run, bike, and swim the assigned distances for her race. She successfully “bookended” her days to reach a goal by incorporating it into her morning and evening routines. She said it was exhilarating to accomplish something so seemingly unreachable through consistent baby steps! This is possible with any goal–whether it be increasing your physical flexibility, mastering a language, learning a new hobby, or traveling to somewhere on your bucket list. No matter the goal, you can reach it as you use routines to bookend your progress.

How can we possibly expect to reach our goals or cross things off our bucket lists if we are not actively working towards them? The concept of bookending our days with morning and nightly routines ensures that we will be consistently focused on our goals on a daily basis.  None of us want to look back and see that we failed to reach our full potential or have missed out on valuable experiences. Make your dreams a reality in 2019 by bookending your days with effective morning and nightly routines. By being intentional with your routines, you will make more progress than ever. And, as always, should you feel you need the help of an experienced therapist to become the person you want to be, schedule a session today. My door is always open–especially for those looking to make 2019 a fabulous year!

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

Resources:

How To Rise and Shine

Cluff Counseling - How to Rise & ShineWhether we are facing depression or anxiety, love to sleep, or are just plain exhausted, we all have days where it is hard to find the willpower to get out of bed in the morning. The rigors of school, work, parenthood, and life may be all too daunting, and we end up staying in bed or indoors all day. Keep reading for ways to help make those rough mornings a little more bearable.

Are you a morning person? I will be the first to tell you that I am absolutely not. I love and cherish my sleep. But I also love a beautiful sunrise, the crisp morning air, and the quiet stillness of the city before everyone else wakes up. Some mornings are easier to pull myself out of bed than others. Have you ever had a morning where all you want to do is stay in bed all day? To some degree, we all struggle leaving our warm, comfortable beds in the morning–but it is especially challenging for those facing a mental illness. In this blog post I will give some counsel to help make those tough mornings a little easier.

Many of us lack motivation in the morning. We find it hard to get out of bed, get dressed, take care of our children or put in a full day’s work. This lack of motivation is exacerbated for those struggling with a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, trauma and eating disorders. In a previous blog post I explained how a mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feelings, mood, ability to relate to others and function each day. Mental illness is much more common than many of us think; 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year (and anyone is susceptible, regardless of age, gender, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or background)!

This article is intended for all readers, not just those who face mental illness. As I previously stated, we all have days where we would rather stay in bed all day and not face life. So what can we do when we find ourselves dreading getting up for the day?

  1. Build a routine.

Building a routine is incredibly helpful to maintain stability and avoid unexpected stressors! Here are a few ideas:

  • Go to bed and wake up around the same time each day.
  • Have a morning ritual. Start with something you love like a warm beverage or a hot shower); be in control of your mood (if you start off on the wrong side of the bed, recognize that you have the ability to change that!); eat a nutritious breakfast; go to the gym (you will feel better all day if you just get it over with!); send a thank-you email to someone; plan how you will react to challenges you may face during the day; kiss someone you love; etc.
  • Get ready for the day. Even if you are unemployed or have no set plans to leave your house, get ready. Shower, brush your teeth, apply makeup, get dressed, etc. It increases feelings of productivity and also boosts confidence!
  • Structure your time. Being employed and working steady hours each day helps tremendously. Then, when you are not working, use your free time wisely; set goals and have places to be and things to do. Knowing that you have somewhere to be makes getting out of bed easier than if you have no commitments or engagements.
  • Take your medication and/or supplements. If you have been prescribed medication, have a set time each day to take it. It is there to help you. If you are experiencing side effects or want to considering changing your dosage, talk to your doctor.
  • Have a consistent end-of-day routine. Just like children, adults thrive off of routines. Signal to your brain that bedtime is approaching by consistently doing the same things before bed–it could be watching your favorite show after dinner, reading, taking a hot bath, brushing your teeth, meditating, praying, writing in your journal, etc.
  1. Give yourself a time limit.

Try the 3600 second challenge–basically, you have an hour from waking up to get out of bed. Literally set a time you need to be up and compete with yourself to meet that goal.  Ellyse Rafferty, writer of mental health from The Mighty recommends 60 minutes, and calls it the one hour rule:

  • Give yourself an hour to get up.  With 60 minutes or 3600 seconds you can try to muster the inner strength to get up and bravely face reality.
  • Applaud yourself for baby steps. Some mornings you may get up from your bed only to make it onto the floor or into the shower. But that is progress.
  • Know your limits. Some days it is okay to stay in bed if that is what you truly need (this could be true when getting over an illness, recovering from overworking, raising energetic children, or even after moving).

You may find that setting a time limit will motivate you enough to move quicker than you would without having a goal set in place. You really can do a lot with 3600 seconds!

Having a routine in place and giving yourself a time limit are simple tools that can work hand in hand to help make those hard mornings a little smoother. Try these suggestions! I have found that they work in my life, and I am certain adding more structure to your life and using a time limit can help you get going in the morning. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you or someone you care about needs extra coaching–either with establishing a routine or dealing with a mental illness. Remember, mental illness is not a life sentence. You can do this one morning, one hour, one second at a time. I am always here to help!

(**A note for those facing mental illness: Although these two tips will greatly help, they are not intended to replace the need for therapy, support groups or when necessary, medication. Please consult with a trained, certified therapist if you believe you may be struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.)

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

Resources:
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: “Morning Ritual: The 7 Steps That Will Make You Happy All Day”
Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
Cluff Counseling: “Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Illness”
HereToHelp: “Dealing with a Mental Illness Diagnosis”
The Mighty: “The ‘One Hour Rule’ I Use on Days When Mental Illness Makes It Hard to Get Out of Bed”
Mayo Clinic: “Coping and Support”
National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Mental Health by the Numbers”
National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Mental Health Conditions”
PsychCentral: “Building a Routine When You Have Bipolar Disorder”

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The Swinging Pendulum of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder | Cluff CounselingWhat do Sinead O’Conner, Demi Lovato, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the late Carrie Fisher all have in common?  They are some of the 5.7 million American adults who suffer from bipolar disorder.  This is not a rare condition; 2.6% of our population experiences the markedly different mood swings that characterize this disorder–the prolonged state of depression coupled with feelings of intense euphoria.

A few months ago I wrote about decreasing the stigma of mental illness. While we are growing increasingly aware of the implications of bipolar disorder, there is still a stigma attached to this mental illness that I hope to alleviate. Bipolar disorder is identified by intense mood swings–and not the type we experience on a day-to-day basis. You and I can go from feeling absolutely defeated after failing a test to completely elated after winning the lottery all in the same evening. Or, on a less intense scale, we can feel discouragement after an argument with a loved one, and shortly thereafter feel calm and content once we reconcile. Such mood swings come with life and should not alarm us. The mood swings I am referring to are high levels of positivity followed by striking levels of negativity and depression that last for a time.

I recently got lunch with a dear friend that I had not seen for awhile. During our hour together, she explained why she had fallen off the map–she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At first I was surprised…I never would have expected her to be bipolar! However, as I listened to her talk about the past several months of her life, I realized she was a textbook example of bipolar disorder and I had been completely blind to it. My post in May hit close to home for many of you; nearly all of us know someone who is affected by the intense sadness and defeating thoughts of self-deprecation that come with depression. But how many of us overlook the possibility of our loved ones being bipolar because we simply peg them (or let them peg themselves) as “having depression”? My intent of this post is to increase awareness so we can recognize when we ourselves–or our loved ones–suffer from more than depression and need the assistance of a mental health professional.

My friend told me about how she had started a massive social media campaign to help the youth of her church, signed up to sell beauty products, and became a decent boxer all in the month of February. Then came March and she completely erased all of the material she poured thousands of hours into for her social media campaign, literally threw all of her beauty products in a dumpster, quit boxing altogether, and promptly gained 25 pounds. My friend’s experience reflects the common symptoms of bipolar disorder–alternating periods of elation and depression. The highs for those with bipolar disorder are HIGH, and the lows are extremely low.  Individuals who are bipolar will experience heightened euphoria and happiness, followed by drastic depression and guilt. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these distinct periods are called “mood episodes.” Mood episodes come with extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep that are drastically different from the typical moods and behaviors of the affected individual. The low period is called the depressive mood; the high period is called the manic mood; and the in-between or buffer stage is called “hypomania” (mild manic episodes which do not significantly interfere with the patient’s everyday responsibilities and behavior). The following are symptoms associated each mood-type:

Depressive mood:

  • Feeling sad, tearful, hopeless, or empty for the majority of the day on a daily basis
  • Loss of interest in all aspects of life
  • No pleasure or interest in day to day activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue/mental sluggishness
  • Chronic pain with no known cause (and curiously anti-depressants seem to help  the most)
  • Weight fluctuations – including significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Sleep disturbances – sleeping too much or other sleep problems, such as insomnia
  • Restlessness or slowed behaviors
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Indecisiveness
  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Psychosis – being detached from reality; delusions or hallucinations
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Suicidal thoughts, planning, or attempts

Manic mood:

  • Long period of feeling “high” – an overly elated, happy, and outgoing mood
  • Euphoria
  • Rapid speech (as well as jumping from one thought to another when talking)
  • Racing thoughts
  • Inability to focus
  • Increased physical activity
  • Careless use of drugs/alcohol
  • Decreased need for sleep (often mischaracterized as insomnia)
  • Being easily distracted
  • Taking on a lot of new projects
  • Restlessness
  • Boundless energy
  • Sleeping very little
  • Unrealistically believing you can do something
  • Engaging in impulsive, pleasurable, and high-risk behaviors (e.g., poor financial investments, sexual indiscretions, shopping sprees)
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Inflated self-esteem (overestimation of one’s own abilities)
  • feelings of grandiosity
  • Increased goal-directed activity
  • Detachment from reality (psychosis that may include delusions or hallucinations)

Both depressive and manic moods:

  • Mood swings
  • Feeling extremely irritable
  • Inability to keep a schedule (missing work/school)

Manic periods can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, as can their depressive counterparts. This can be extremely dangerous since bipolar disorder also commonly includes compulsiveness. A person feeling despondent to the point of suicide may suddenly attempt to take his or her own life. It is important to note that there is also Bipolar II disorder; the main difference between the two types of bipolar disorder is that a person with bipolar I has manic episodes, while someone with bipolar II has hypomanic episodes… it’s the severity of the mania that distinguishes these two types. If these symptoms present themselves in yourself or someone you care about, seek medical or professional attention immediately. Patients suffering from suicidal ideations or suicidal behavior need prompt and aggressive interventions to defuse the risk of tragic consequences.

Just like I did, you may be failing to see the pendulum of bipolar disorder swinging from the depressive stage to the manic stage in those closest to you. It is often easier to recognize when our friends or loved ones seem depressed than when they are seemingly “on fire”, or having a manic episode. If you believe you or your loved one has more than seasonal depression, please seek the needed medical attention in order to live a healthy, balanced, and safe life.

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The Cure for Loneliness

Cluff Counseling - Anxiety & Depression CounselingAmericans are lonelier than ever. According to Public Radio International, about 50.2 percent or 124.6 million American adults are single today. In the 1950s, that number was around 22 percent! What has caused this great rise in isolation?

In a recent article, featured both in Forbes and Psychology Today, author Caroline Beaton shares a compelling argument that millennials are among the loneliest in American History. She deduces that loneliness is literally contagious, and that we exacerbate the issue by our addiction to social media. It is easier for us to stay at home, glued to our phones alone in our warm beds than to be out socializing with friends, neighbors or acquaintances. These days, social connection does not require a car, a phone call, or a plan… just a click. When we feel isolated, depressed or anxious, it is convenient for us to go online in search of connection. Basically, we use the Internet to alleviate our loneliness…

But that satisfaction is temporary…fleeting, even!

So you may think that the answer is to simply use less internet in order to overcome societal loneliness. While there is definitely some truth to that, there is more to the equation. If we click out of Instagram and put our phones down, we may instead be inclined to reach for the remote and begin another mindless, solitary activity. My advice is simple but timeless, and it goes along perfectly with Caroline Beaton’s follow-up article, “The Solution to Millennial Loneliness.” The cure to loneliness is simply alter your priorities. Place relationships and connection at the top of your list.

I fully recognize that technology and social media are addictive. This is why I recommend we change our priorities and focus on those around us–to be present in the moment. Imagine what would happen if you put down your phone while your parent or partner was talking to you. Or if you actually conversed with all your friends over pizza instead of sharing a meal together while just staring at your phones. I am absolutely guilty of this myself! We need to be assertive with our time. If we are not being intentional about where our focus goes, we will ultimately end up sucked into the distractions all around us.

The solution is to prioritize relationships into your day. Do not let the Internet and social media gobble up your prime and extra time. Make the decision today to forego the next episode of Downton Abbey until a time that your significant other is not looking to connect with you. Set aside time to chat with your father before beginning your homework. Schedule a time (even weeks in advance!) to grab lunch with a friend. A valiant and consistent effort is required to make and preserve relationships…but it can be done.  Prioritize. Schedule time for the ones you love and be present when you are with them. This is the cure for loneliness. Watch out– its effects will be more far-reaching than loneliness itself!

Resources:
Cluff Counseling: “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?”
Forbes:  “The Solution to Millennial Loneliness”
PRI: “Singles now outnumber married people in America — and that’s a good thing”
Psychology Today: “The Loneliness Epidemic and What We Can Do About It”
Psychology Today: “Why Millennials are Lonely”

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The Power Behind Vulnerability

The Power Behind Vulnerability | Marriage & Family Therapy Dallas, TX

“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen… to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee… to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, ‘Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?’ just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’”

-Brené Brown

Vulnerability is a powerful, yet misunderstood concept. In our society, vulnerability is viewed as a weakness–something we should avoid and not learn about. When I think of vulnerable individuals, however, I do not think of downtrodden, susceptible, needy, or neglected beings. Instead, I think of my amazing clients: a husband leaning on his wife for support while he battles debilitating depression; sex-addicts relearning how to have an emotionally intimate relationship with their partners; battered women re-adjusting their paradigms to see themselves as valuable; or teens challenging peer pressure to realize their worth. I see those who are “vulnerable” as brave, open, and authentic; willing to be comfortable in their own imperfect skin and take life on as they are. It is this vulnerability that allows these individuals to have meaningful, honest relationships–both with themselves and with others. I refer to vulnerability as the “underlying, ever-present, under-current of our natural state,” as David Whyte puts it; the ability to show our raw, true selves–flaws and all. My purpose of this post is to explain how welcoming, instead of numbing, vulnerability can cure most relationship ailments.

Brené Brown did a quick poll on Twitter asking people what made them feel vulnerable; within 90 minutes, she received 150 answers of common situations we can all relate to–having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. You will notice that each of those are interpersonal examples–meaning each is an instance where at least two people are interacting. This is because vulnerability is at the very core of relationships! Unfortunately, too often we become consumed by how others perceive us or how we measure up compared to those around us…so we let our automatic defense mechanism kick in: we numb our emotions. We block out painful feelings like embarrassment, grief, shame, fear, and disappointment to combat being vulnerable. The issue with doing this, however, is that there is no such thing as “selective numbing”–it is physically impossible to block out only negative emotions without blocking all emotions. Brené says, “When we numb those [hard emotions], we [also] numb joy, we numb gratitude,…we numb happiness.”

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, one of my areas of expertise is relationships; I find fulfillment in helping my clients strengthen and improve their relationships with others and with themselves. I have seen countless clients who have resorted to numbing their emotions because they do not know how to care for themselves when they experience pain. Consequently, they miss out on the full spectrum of feelings that meaningful relationships offer, including and especially positive emotions. Yes, being vulnerable opens us up to feelings of hurt, rejection and sadness, but it also means we can have more happiness and satisfaction in our relationships. Our relationships can be so much more fulfilling as we welcome our imperfections and allow ourselves to truly be seen!

How does one begin to welcome vulnerability? First, adopt the unquestionable notion that you are worthy of love. There is nothing you had to do to earn it, and thus there is nothing you can do to take that worthiness away. Second, know that you (and your friend/sister/partner/spouse) are imperfect beings, prone to mistakes, misdeeds, and miscommunication; expecting perfection is the quickest way to extinguish vulnerability. I will expand on these ideas further in upcoming blog posts.

Brené says, “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.” Believing this will give us the courage we need to be authentic (read: vulnerable) in our relationships–to be honest about who and how we are. I have seen firsthand how numbing emotion to curb vulnerability stifles relationships, whereas welcoming vulnerability makes relationships thrive and progress. If you would like to learn how to be more vulnerable in your relationships, contact me today to set up your first session.

Additional Resources:
David Whyte, “Vulnerability”
Ted Talk: Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability