Self-Compassion: A Neglected Form of Self-Care

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha

When we look in the mirror, what do we see? We may notice our frizzy hair, crooked teeth, short eyelashes, thin lips, uneven eyebrows or a plethora of other things. Yet when others look at us, they are more prone to see what we overlook–that we are friendly, optimistic, outgoing, hard working, strong, resilient, creative, kind, sensitive, thoughtful… Why are we so much harder on ourselves than we are on others?!

I recently opened a “Marriage Minute” email from the Gottman Institute and read about self-love. This is something that has been on my mind over the last several weeks, and I thought it would be helpful to dedicate a post to a powerful form of self-care that we often overlook: Self-compassion.

Compassion itself is defined as the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” In order to have compassion, we must first notice that someone is suffering, and then we feel moved by their suffering so that our hearts respond to their pain. When we extend compassion, we feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means we offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Compassion is the realization that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Even though we all need it, self-compassion is so much easier to show someone else than it is to show ourselves! The time has come to focus on extending this kind of compassion to others as well as ourselves.

Practicing compassion towards ourselves is really no different from having compassion for someone else. Self-compassion is…

  • Acting the same way towards ourselves as we do others when we are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something we do not like about ourselves.
  • Being gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences.
  • Cutting ourselves some slack instead of ignoring pain or judging ourselves harshly.
  • Being kind and understanding when confronted with imperfections.
  • Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating (punishing) ourselves with self-criticism.
  • Recognizing that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable.

To be clear, self-compassion is NOT self-pity (being immersed in our own problems), self-indulgence (unrestrained gratification of our desires), or self-esteem (our perceived sense of worth or value).  

Ultimately, self-compassion is an ongoing process of honoring and accepting our humanness, and recognizing that things will not always go our way. It is knowing that we will inevitably encounter frustrations, make mistakes, and fall short of our ideals. This is the human condition–a reality shared by all of us! The more we open our hearts to this fact–instead of constantly fighting against it–the more we will be able to feel compassion for ourselves and all our fellow humans in the experience of life.

Here is my challenge to you: The next time you are tempted to put yourself down, practice self-compassion instead. Recognize that you are doing your best, and that your effort is what counts. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Celebrate your progress. Be kind to yourself. I can assure you that implementing more compassion (towards yourself) into your life will have a powerful and positive effect on how you view yourself, others, and the world. Should you find that you need help working through self-deprecation, please do not hesitate to contact me today. I am always accepting new clients!

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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Phobias: When Fear Becomes Debilitating

Scared woman covering mouth Free Photo

You are probably aware of the more common phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces). But did you know there are also words which describe the fear of dawn, glass, and poverty? Read on to learn the 411 on over 200 phobias in existence today.

I sometimes joke that I have arachnophobia. I hate spiders. I am honestly sheepish to admit how much they terrify me and that I often need help to get rid of them! I know that my fear is irrational, but I cannot help it. I also recognize that my small fear of spiders is nowhere near as debilitating as any of the actual phobias that an estimated 19 million Americans face. Today I want to give an overview of phobias and urge you, or anyone living in fear caused by a phobia, to get help.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes an individual to experience extreme, irrational fear about a situation, living creature, place, or object. The way you know you have a phobia is if you are organizing your life around avoiding whatever causes your fear. The impact of a phobia can range from annoying to severely disabling. People with phobias often realize their fear is irrational, but they are unable to do anything about it. Such fears can interfere with work, school, and personal relationships.

What causes a phobia? As with most mental illness, both genetic and environmental factors can play a part. For instance, a child who has a close relative with an anxiety disorder is at risk of developing a phobia. Distressing events, such as nearly drowning, can bring on a phobia. Exposure to confined spaces, extreme heights, and animal or insect bites can all be sources of phobias. People with ongoing medical conditions or health concerns often have phobias. There is also a high incidence of people developing phobias after traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse and depression can often be connected to phobias.

We are most familiar with a phobia connected to a specific trigger, or a specific phobia. Aside from this, there are two additional types of phobias recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

  • Specific phobia. An intense, irrational fear of a specific trigger, like snakes, spiders, or heights. Specific phobias are known as simple phobias as they can be linked to an identifiable cause that may not frequently occur, thus not significantly affecting day-to-day life.
  • Social phobia or social anxiety: The idea of large social gatherings is terrifying for someone with social anxiety. This is a profound fear of public humiliation and being singled out or judged by others in a social situation. Social phobias are complex, as it is harder to avoid triggers, such as leaving the house or being in large crowds.
  • Agoraphobia: This is the fear of a situation that may cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You may fear using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd. This is also a complex phobia because day-to-day life is surely affected.

Phobias are diagnosable mental disorders. There is hope in overcoming them! In saying so, I do not wish to minimize any one phobia. Phobias are more serious than simple fear sensations. Many individuals are aware that their phobia is irrational, but they cannot control the fear reaction. Some phobias may even cause physical symptoms like sweating and chest pains.

The beautiful news is that treatment is available. Phobias are much more widely understood today, and treatment often includes medication and behavioral therapy. If you have a phobia, it is critical that you seek treatment.  You do not need to live your life at the mercy of your fear! With treatment, you can learn to manage your phobia and live the happy, free and fulfilling life you want to. Please contact me today or click here to schedule your first session. You know I am more than happy to help!

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

Resources:

Oxford Dictionaries: “List of Phobias”

Strengthen Your Relationship With This Simple Checklist

“The gifts of caring, attention, affection, appreciation, and love are some of the most precious gifts you can give, and they don’t cost you anything.” ~ Deepak Chopra

We often think we need to go to great lengths in order to please our significant other. It is not, however, necessary to bring home a bouquet of roses every night, or spend hours perfecting our physical appearance. The truth is that both women and men respond well to small, consistent acts of love that we can literally do every day, and for zero dollars. I give you…the “Triple A Checklist.”

The Triple A Checklist consists of three actions to focus on in a relationship: attention, affection, appreciation. We all need attention, affection, and the feeling of being appreciated. As human beings, we crave meaningful connection with others; it is hard-wired into our DNA. So if we can fulfill those needs for our partners, the end result will inevitably be increased relationship satisfaction for both parties…and who doesn’t want that?!  Let’s look at each “A” in greater detail:

Attention

We all have millions of distractions vying for our time and attention. Giving attention means deep listening, being totally present, having empathy, and trying to see from our partner’s perspective. It means we are not in a hurry to give advice and react; not in a hurry to interrupt; not in a hurry to get back to the Bachelor or our text messages. This means putting the phone down, making eye contact with our partner, and really, really interacting with him/her. Our body language shows we are deeply listening. For those whose love language is quality time, having their partner’s full attention is incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. Giving attention in this manner can do wonders for any and all relationships!

Affection

The literal definition of affection is a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. Affection is deep caring and commitment. There are a myriad of ways to express affection–from a sincere compliment, to quality time spent together, to physical touch, and everything in between. Studies have found that the amount of affection we express to our partners best predicts our commitment; and, conversely, the amount of affection we receive from our partners best predicts our satisfaction. Just give a few more kisses throughout the day, offer a back rub or head scratch, hold hands, cuddle during a movie, or hold on to that embrace a moment longer than normal. Affection is powerful. And it can be so easy to give!

Appreciation

In the beginning of a relationship we appreciate everything about the other person. They seem perfect in our eyes and even those crazy things they do are somehow endearing. But after a few years of leaving the cap off the toothpaste (even after repeated requests to change this behavior), this “cute” behavior suddenly becomes deliberate disrespect. Appreciation means focusing on what they do well or what wonderful attributes they have, instead of the little things we dislike about them. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” Appreciating the good in our partners will overshadow whatever quirks they have that we dislike. This type of appreciation is necessary to ensure relationship longevity.

Giving attention, affection, and our appreciation to our partners can do wonders to a relationship. I have seen it firsthand; these small steps can be repeated daily to communicate love and commitment to our partners. I encourage you to resolve today to do the “Triple A Checklist each day. If we give our significant other the attention he/she needs, the affection he/she longs for and the appreciation he/she deserves, the end result will undoubtedly be happiness!

(As always, should you find your relationship needs a little more work or attention, my door is wide open. Start by scheduling a session today!)

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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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.

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“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

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Life is Hard–Choose Joy

Life is Hard - Choose Joy - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh

Life is hard. We all have bills to pay, relationships to strengthen, jobs to keep, and hardships to overcome. These things are constant. Similarly, the choice of how we will respond to those difficulties is always there. Will we choose to be frustrated, angry, sad, or apathetic? Or will we choose to be happy, cheerful, and strong, ready to face whatever life throws at us?

That choice is ours. We have to choose how we will respond to the rigors of life each and every day. Something I have been focusing on this year–and will continue to focus on in 2019–is being more joyful. Despite whatever circumstances you or I may find ourselves, we can each choose to seek joy. It truly is a choice! And that is a choice we can each make starting today.

But how can we do that? How can we rise above the stresses of life and the contentious times in which we live? Here are some simple actions that will help us in our endeavor to choose to be joyful

  1. Acknowledge worthiness. We each deserve to feel joy. No matter what imperfections we have, we are all worthy of joy and happiness. I firmly believe that life is meant to be enjoyed and that we are meant to be joyful creatures. Acknowledging that we deserve joy is the first step to letting it in.
  2. Stop comparing. Theodore Roosevelt was spot on when he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The moment we stop comparing our efforts with those of another is precisely when we will be more content with ourselves. If we want to feel joy on a more consistent basis, we need to stop using others as our measuring stick. We must do our best and follow our dreams.
  3. Practice gratitude. This is one of my favorites. Practicing gratitude is so simple, easy, and accessible, but is also an incredibly powerful way to welcome joy into our lives. Whether we do so by writing what we are grateful for in a gratitude journal, a thank you card to someone who has made a difference in our lives, or by verbally expressing thankfulness, practicing gratitude is akin to seeking joy. There is a direct correlation between the two.
  4. Put a positive spin on your negative thoughts. Instead of “Ugh, I hate my job,” try to re-frame it into, “I’m grateful that I have a job so I can pay my bills.” Responsibilities that seem drab or inconvenient will suddenly be seen as a blessing or a conduit for happiness.
  5. Slow down and be present. This one is so important but simultaneously so easy to overlook. We often think that we will be happier with more–more money, more things to have, more things to do…that sometimes we get in the way of our own joy by overfilling and over-complicating our lives. In so doing we miss what is right in front of us. So slow down. Put the phone down. Be present. Find joy and happiness in what we currently have.
  6. Do what we love. Going along with number five, we need to do what we love. We each have twenty-four hours in a day, so we must be cautious and decisive with how we use it. Meditate. Focus on self-care. Practice a hobby. Paint, dance, cook, read, write, play basketball…whatever it may be, we need to do what we love. When we fill our lives with things and people we love, we are sure to feel joy.
  7. Connect with loved ones. Just as we sometimes fail to make time for the extracurricular activities we love, we similarly prolong or deny ourselves the blessing of being with those we love. Joy is much more likely to be found in a stimulating conversation with a friend or a family member than at the gym or the office. Meaningful relationships bring joy. In like manner, we experience joy when those we surround ourselves with inspire us to be better. When we connect with people who lift, inspire, and bring out the best in us, we cultivate joy.

Joy is not some fictitious feeling in fairy tales or something we can only feel a few times in our lives. No, joy is something we can find and feel each and every day. Joy is a state of mind, it is being content with where we are and with whom we associate. Joy can be constant; it is something we can feel whenever we choose to let it in.  Should you find that it is particularly difficult to feel even fleeting joy or happiness, please contact me today. It is estimated that 16.2 American adults experience some form of depression, and I am here to help decrease that statistic. My greatest goal as a therapist is to help each of my clients find the happiness they seek and deserve. My door is always open; click here to schedule a session.  Let’s welcome joy into our lives today and every day.

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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Living with Anxiety: 5 Suggestions to Thrive

Living-with-Anxiety-Cluff-Counseling-Lewisville-Therapist

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” -Leo Buscaglia

We all experience some level of anxiety from time to time. In fact, anxiety is a completely normal reaction to a stressful situation. The cold sweat of anxiety is the fight or flight response that kept our ancestors safe from grizzly bears and other dangers. That adrenaline rush still serves us well under some circumstances today; anxiety can even be helpful in certain instances! We worry about the common things in our lives–like finances, work, friends, and family–and this worry has the potential to help us make good decisions in these areas. Anxiety can motivate us, prepare us for things we have to face, and even give us energy to take action when we need to.

It is very possible, however, for anxiety to have an unmistakably negative affect. Serious anxiety may mean procrastinating to the point of being afraid to take a step at all. You may be so nervous about going to your child’s school to talk to the teacher that you do not go at all–you miss the appointment altogether. Your anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day activities, it keeps you from going places, and from doing things you need to do. If you are experiencing worries that are excessive, uncontrollable, or irrational, and have been experiencing these worries for an extended period of time, you may be suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.

Regardless of the level or intensity of anxiety you are experiencing, it is important that you manage it properly. Anxiety can take a serious toll on your mind and body. You may have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. You may get headaches or have an upset stomach. You may even have a panic attack, a pounding heart, and/or a feeling of lightheadedness. So what can you do when you are feeling anxious? Here are five simple suggestions that you can do anytime, anywhere:

  1. Label your emotions. Figure out exactly what is bothering you by giving a name to what you are feeling. Naming an emotion is the first step in being mindful of it. This activates your prefrontal cortex and can help you balance and self-regulate by creating a relationship with the experience.
  2. Drop the story. Emotions are often driven by the stories you tell yourself. For example: You have an important presentation in class. Your anxiety escalates this assignment into a fantastically worrisome story where you mess up, everyone laughs at you, you fail the class, never graduate college, have to live with your parents forever… and on and on. My suggestion here is to drop the story. Separate the real risks and dangers that a situation presents and those your imagination is making worse. Cut out negative thoughts. No need to worry unnecessarily!
  3. Focus on the task at hand. What can you control? In the class presentation example, what you can control is your preparation and delivery. Try not to stress about peripheral factors–like how others may react or respond. It is a twist on the old adage: “Take control of the things you can, and accept those you can’t change.”
  4. Relax. Stop what you are doing and take deep breaths. Meditate. Do yoga or get some exercise–this is a terrific outlet for anxiety! As you focus on calming your mind and body, you will become more proficient with managing ongoing anxiety.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Feeling anxious is uncomfortable. A good dose of self-care can go a long way to bringing relief and perspective. This may mean practicing a hobby like painting, hiking, singing, baking, exercising, reading, taking a long bath or even sleeping. Whatever self-care looks like for you, make the time to take care of yourself.

Very often, it is possible to get past an anxiety cycle with the help of friends or family to help you sort out your problems. But when anxiety becomes overwhelming, it may be time for you to consider seeing a therapist, taking medication, or both. Anxiety is the most common mental illness among American adults–with women experiencing it at roughly twice the rate as men–and only half of those affected receive treatment.  Please do not be part of that statistic. Get the help you need and deserve in order to find happiness. Many of my clients face some form of anxiety, and I have been able to help them overcome the negative effects that come with this mental illness. If you or someone you care about could use help living with the effects of anxiety, please contact me today. Additionally, you can click here to schedule a session.

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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Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season

Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation

The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year!  With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.

Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:

Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.

Set boundaries.  This one has several parts:

  1. Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
  2. Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
  3. Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!

Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!

Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.

The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!

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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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today 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.

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Getting Up With the Sun: Morning Routines

Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, started his days off asking himself, “If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’m about to do today?” Ensure that you are starting your day off on the right foot with a productive morning routine!

You snoozed through your alarm to work out, woke up late, had no clean underwear, got toothpaste on your shirt, grabbed a fast, non-nutritious bite to eat, and rushed into work. You meant to wake up early, hit the gym, have a protein-packed breakfast, and beat the boss into work, but–yet again–it did not happen. Does this sound all too familiar? If you feel you are stuck in a cycle of good intentions and consistently disappointing follow-throughs, this post is for you. By making a few tweaks and additions to your morning, you can be on your way to a happier, healthier life–one where you are in control.

Last month I posted about nightly routines and promised to follow-up with a post on morning routines. We all know that starting the day off on the right foot is actually quite indicative of how the rest of the day will go. A morning ritual or routine can consist of many activities; whatever you choose, consistency in those activities is the key to jumpstart your day!

The hardest part of starting a morning routine is just that, getting started–both literally and figuratively. Do you know where to start? What type of morning ritual do you want to have in place? What types of things do you want to do? I scoured the internet and read blog posts about all sorts of morning routines, and I found the following six suggestions to be the most recurring:

  • THE GYM. We all know someone who is slightly smug about the fact that he/she made it to the gym before the sun arose. While getting exercise in to start the day does come with various health benefits, there is an additional benefit we all could use:  Focus. A friend of mine who has dealt with ADHD her entire life recently told me she got through the most stressful job she ever had by waking at 5 a.m. to go to barre class. It calmed her down, helped her focus, and allowed her to wean off coffee–which, in turn, reduced her jitters. Hit the gym in the a.m., or simply get out for a walk. You will never regret it.
  • MEDITATION. I have written about the benefits of meditation. Though often used to slow down and relax (before bed, for instance), it can also be used to focus the mind and prepare oneself for productivity. Whether your meditation includes actual yoga and stretching, prayer, spiritual study or simple breathing exercises, being in tune with your psyche will start your day off on the right foot. Meditation lowers stress levels and boost productivity and creativity.
  • NUTRITION. This one will be different for all of us depending on preferences and allergies. Some may have oatmeal, chia pudding, a green smoothie, or maybe it will be eggs, toast and sausage. Give yourself nutrient-rich food and you will be sure to notice heightened energy levels. Fuel up in preparation for a productive day. Take a few extra minutes and pack some healthy snacks to take with you. And don’t forget the vitamins!
  • APPEARANCE. My dad always showers at night because he likes to go to bed clean; but then, he will shower in the morning as well. Showering in the morning wakes him up and helps him feel refreshed, awake, and ready for the day. Whatever you choose, be sure to make time to get yourself looking and feeling presentable. Shower/wash your face, brush your teeth, do any necessary ironing, coordinate your outfit and accessories, so that you can leave your house feeling good and confident.
  • GAMEPLAN. Many nightly routines include making a plan, schedule, to-do-list, etc. for the next day. The reason for that is to streamline that process in the morning. During your morning ritual, review that game plan for the day, add in any specifics, and prepare yourself for any responsibilities you may have. Plan what you will need to take with you when you leave the house, as well as anything you may need throughout the day. This may seem obvious, but taking the time to sit and plan this step will help you feel less like a chicken with its head cut off as you haphazardly grab things while rushing out the door!
  • PRODUCTIVITY. Get right to work. Instead of wasting time idly catching up on your Facebook or Instagram feed (which has been proven to decrease overall motivation and productivity when done at the start of the day), get to work. Start your morning routine immediately.  It will reduce your stress!

Here is an example of a morning routine:
5:30 AM: Wake up, put on gym clothes, contacts, drink 8 oz. ice cold water
5:40 AM: Hit the gym (M/W/F: Weights; Tu/Th: Interval Cardio; Sa/Su: Walk)
6:40 AM: Return home, eat protein shake, shower, brush teeth, get dressed, etc.
7:10 AM: 20 minutes of meditation/prayer/spiritual study
7:30 AM: Review goals and day’s schedule, prepare to leave
7:45: Leave for work

Remember, this is just an example. Your morning routine should work best for you and your lifestyle, and should incorporate your goals. I have covered the basic suggestions to fuel productivity and focus throughout the day.  While this post contains six of the most frequently occurring ideas on the internet, there are so many other options out there! Through my research in writing this blog, I found a neat website, My Morning Routine, where you can sign up to receive a brand new morning routine idea in your inbox every Wednesday. The key is finding what works best for you and implementing that into a pattern you can consistently and happily follow. Should you find yourself with questions or desiring additional help, please don’t hesitate to contact me or schedule a session. And be sure to tune in next month as I talk about ways you can use your morning and nightly routines to help you reach your New Year’s goals!

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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