Letter Writing-a Path to Self Discovery

Connection. It’s a word we hear a lot today, but what does it really mean? We’re all so “connected” digitally–we text, we chat and share photos via social media, we FaceTime…but are those really the best ways we can connect?

During these unprecedented and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to not only stay connected with the people we love, but to stay connected to ourselves and what is most important to us. Writing letters, especially writing a letter to ourselves, is one wonderful way to do that. 

On January 1, 2019, I started a rather unusual project: I set out to write one letter every day for an entire year. I wrote to my family, dear friends near and far, authors who have influenced me and even an old college professor. The project changed me. I became more likely to send thank you notes and letters for all sorts of things I typically took for granted. I noticed traits that I love about people I know and then told them about those things in a letter delivered right to their house. 

But the letter I wrote that made the most impact was the letter I wrote to myself. 

At first, it seems a bit odd. Sit down and write a letter…to myself? How could that make a difference in my life?

A letter to yourself helps in a few different ways. First, it helps you remember. We are so forgetful, aren’t we? We want to change our lives and improve our habits and stop wasting time on the unimportant things, but time slips by and we inevitably find ourselves back in our old grooves, doing the easy things we want to stop doing. It can feel so hard to change that it seems impossible at times. 

When you write a letter to yourself, include what is important to you–truly important. If you’re embarking on a big goal (like I was when I wrote my letter), write about why it’s important, and how you expect to feel once you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be very specific. The more details you include in your reasons why you’re trying to change or achieve a specific goal, the more motivating it will be to re-read that letter. Which you should do, often. Read the letter every day if you’re serious about achieving your goal!

A letter is tangible–you can hold it in your hands and store it somewhere safe. I know that some people like to write important things on the notes app in their phones, but I think a hard copy, a handwritten letter is much more powerful. How many notes have you written to yourself on your phone that you’ve never read again? A letter in your own handwriting feels more personal, because it is more personal. A note on your phone is easy to ignore; a handwritten letter is impossible to ignore. And because it’s in an envelope with your name on it, it feels like a small gift to yourself (which it absolutely is). 

A letter to yourself is one of the most powerful antidotes against the hard, depressing times that are inevitable for all of us. When I first set my goal to write a daily letter, I was elated. I thought it was going to be wonderful to start on my project and write my letter each day. However, as January 1st approached, and the date when I had planned to begin the project drew nearer, I started to have serious doubts about the whole thing. I felt afraid of what other people might think of me. I wasn’t sure I had what it would take to see my goal through to the end.

Throughout 2019, my attitude and thoughts towards my letter writing project ebbed and flowed. Some days I thought I was amazing for writing my letter each day! Other days (and even weeks, or longer) I wanted to quit because it got hard. But because I had that letter to myself reminding me of why I started the project in the first place, it was a simple but powerful motivator to just keep going. Because the letter to myself reminded me of my why behind the project, reading it propelled me forward on the hard days when I just wanted to throw in the towel and leave the whole thing behind.

I hope you feel inspired to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter to yourself, today. Write about all the things that are going well in your life. Write about your recent successes. Then write about what your goals and dreams are, and remember to include your why behind those goals. And lastly (and perhaps most importantly)–read the letter you wrote again and again, especially on the hard days. 

I would love to hear about your letter writing to yourself if you choose to do it! Feel free to email me at: shannon@aforeverletter.com and tell me your story. 

Shannon Hood is the founder of A Forever Letter, a blog focused on inspiring people to set aside their phones and pick up a pen and write a letter to connect with the people they love. She also started a line of elegant stationery for letter writing which you can browse on her website. Find her online at www.aforeverletter.com or connect via Instagram @aforeverletter.

Staying Close While Quarantine Keeps You Far Apart

“Connecting with others is rewarding; it makes us feel like we’re not alone in the world.” 

~ Jonah Berger

My friend recently told me that when quarantine started, she found herself checking her phone more than she ever had before. She thought about it for a moment and realized that she was feeling lonely and was craving connection with others. She decided to find distancing-appropriate ways to be in touch with her people, and has been doing much better in quarantine ever since. 

Have you found yourself craving connection during quarantine, or other times in your life? What ways have you been using to connect with others? I have several quarantine-safe suggestions for you:

  1. Pick up the phone. Call your mother or your friend or family member. There are few things that fill the void of human interaction quite like having a real-time conversation.
  2. Let them know you are thinking of them! Send that text. Shoot off that email. I cannot tell you how many times a day someone pops into my head and I wonder how they are doing. I want to be better about letting them know they are on my mind! It does not take long to send a text or email, but if you are in the middle of work or something you cannot pause (like when I am in a session), simply make a note of it or add it to your to-do list. Then you will be sure not to forget about it!
  3. Use your socials to be real. I am not one to put my life on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, but I have been one to find out about someone else’s life because they were vulnerable and honest. And I appreciate those brave souls who post real life–who does not connect with that?! If you are struggling, reach out. Ask for help. Isolation is hard!  Or, if you come across a real, raw post that you can relate to, comment and let that person know he/she is not alone. We have amazing technology that can help us connect with our friends and family near and far, but we need to use it authentically in order for it to render the desired connection!
  4. FaceTime/Google Hangouts/Zoom. I know several Grammas are surviving off of FaceTime these days! These video call services make it easy to see the people you care about and is a great stand-in for face-to-face interaction. My group of friends organized a FaceTime call to wish one of the girls a happy birthday, and some of my neighbors have been using Zoom to exercise together during quarantine!
  5. Marco Polo. This app is extremely useful for larger groups or busy friends and family members who find it difficult to coordinate a time for a live phone call or facetime. You are able to record video messages and watch/reply at your convenience. 
  6. Snail mail! You may find this suggestion to be slightly outdated, but hear me out. How many times have you gone to the mailbox only to find junk mail and bills? How would you feel to find a nice note addressed to you from someone who was thinking of you? I have been the recipient of some of these as of late, and it has inspired me to pass on the favor for others! I promise, a letter a day will keep the loneliness monsters away!
  7. Distanced walk. I am close with one of my neighbors. So on sunny days, we both go on walks outside together. We never touch; in fact, we are never less than four feet apart (she walks on the sidewalk, I stay by the gutter). It has been a great way for me to connect with the outside world and feel like a human again!
  8. Coordinated, over-the-fence chat. I happen to live quite close to our neighborhood mailboxes. Sometimes I am outside when a neighbor swings by for their mail, and we chat over the fence while I stand on some bricks. Though it is not the most stable means of communication (literally), it has been great to briefly connect with the people I used to see regularly.

As I said before, none of these ideas are groundbreaking. None of them require great amounts of time, effort, or money. Yet each suggestion will enable you to connect meaningfully with the people you care about in your life. Remember that connection is a universal human need; you are wired to have relationships with people. That is what is going to carry you through these crazy times!

I have adapted to the times and now offer online sessions. Please do not hesitate to sign up online or contact me with any questions you may have. I am here for you!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Date Night at Home: Quarantine Style

Quarantine might be hard, but don’t let it be hard on your love life. Whether you’ve been dating a short time or have been married for years, I have some stay-at-home date ideas that will strengthen your relationship!

I know I have written about quarantine the last couple weeks now…but can anyone think about anything else other than how crazy things are in the world?! It is tough, but I know we can make it through this with our most important relationships intact!

One thing that I have heard frequently during this quarantine is that couples are needing a way to reset and reconnect; lovers are wanting to feel more love during this difficult time. So while all of the usual ideas (eat out, see a movie, etc.) are off the table, let’s explore what the two of you can do from the comfort of your own home:

  • Prepare a candle-lit dinner
  • Read a book together
  • Make a music video
  • Watch a movie (don’t forget the popcorn!)
  • Have a picnic
  • Order take out
  • Enjoy a themed dinner/movie (I once did this with the movie “Prom Night”–prom dress and all!)
  • Make fondue
  • Have a bonfire
  • Roast smores
  • Have a dessert bar
  • Throw a backyard movie night
  • Watch a sports game
  • Watch a concert
  • Battle with a video game night
  • Have a board/card game night
  • Do a puzzle
  • Create a DIY photo booth
  • Decorate your living space for an upcoming birthday/holiday
  • Go indoor camping
  • Have a “no electricity” night
  • Be artistic: Draw, do watercolor, paint, etc.
  • Play Twister
  • Karaoke night
  • Dance party
  • Turn your home into a spa
  • Talk about dreams and goals
  • Plan a vacation
  • Dream together about travel destinations
  • Make a bucket list
  • Take a personality or love language test
  • Play a conversation starter game like Would You Rather…?
  • Walk and talk
  • Watch home videos
  • Go through old photos
  • Create a photo book
  • Make delicious food: Homemade ice cream, bread, pizza, donuts…!
  • Have a nerf gun war
  • Start a movie marathon
  • Decorate mugs for each other
  • Go star gazing
  • Peruse Pinterest for fun meal ideas
  • Cuddle
  • DIY together
  • Go indoor bowling
  • Play music together
  • Build a fort (throwback!)

Of course these are just a few of millions of ideas! What you and your partner choose to do is up to you, and there are endless possibilities. Remember that the goal is to connect. Sitting near each other while you are each on your devices does not count as a meaningful date or quality time. Yes, a movie night is fun, but be sure to spend time talking to your partner too. I selected the above activities because they encourage you to put away the distractions and give each other your undivided attention. Some of these do not require much time, but would be greatly beneficial to your relationship. No matter what you choose to do for your quarantine style date night, remember that the purpose is to connect with each other. Humans are literally wired for connection! We all need it! It will help you more than just survive this quarantine.

When you set aside time, specifically for your partner, I promise you will feel more connected and happier.  Please comment below if you end up doing one of these suggestions, or if you have another creative idea you would like to add to the list. And if you feel you and your partner could use some help connecting with each other, I offer online sessions. Please do not hesitate to contact me to schedule a session!

Hang in there this week of continued quarantine craziness! I am right there with you!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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Questions to Get You Out of the Quarantine Slump

The days seem to blend together in this Groundhog Day that is COVID-19 quarantine. I would like to suggest six questions that will cause introspection and perhaps prompt you to certain actions that will lift your spirits. 

Hi, again. It’s me, still in quarantine. How are you doing? Hanging in there? I know, this entire situation is crazy and uncertain and continues to cause anxiety for everyone on so many levels. Hopefully we are getting closer to having some light at the end of the tunnel!

Until then, I want to urge you to continue to take good care of yourselves. I have spoken with friends, neighbors, family members and clients who have collectively said that the days blend together and leave them in a slump. It is so easy to feel that way when you are living the real Groundhog Day! Here are some questions to ask yourself daily to help make the most of this time in quarantine:

  1. What am I grateful for today? I have written at length about gratitude because I firmly believe in the power gratitude has on the mind. Seeing the silver lining, or the good in any given situation, can change your attitude or feelings about something–even something difficult like being in isolation for weeks on end. So ask yourself, what good has come from today? Was there a peaceful moment with children? Did you enjoy a nice meal in which you were not rushed? Were you able to be productive while working in the quiet of your own home? No matter your circumstances, you can find something to be grateful for–even if it is simply being healthy and alive. I encourage you to do this exercise every day!
  2. Who am I checking in on or connecting with today? I spoke with a friend who told me she was checking her phone more often than usual. She thought about why she was doing this, and realized it was because she was hoping to hear from someone. She was craving interaction with another human. I have written about the Japanese concept of amae which describes the human necessity to connect with and feel love from others. We are all hard-wired to have meaningful connection with those in our lives, and it can be challenging when the natural occurrence of physical contact is completely removed from your life. So, be like my friend: Instead of wallowing in your loneliness, recognize that you want contact with the outside world, and make contact. Check in on a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor. I promise you that connecting with others will give you a helpful emotional boost!
  3. What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today? Whew, this one has been hard for me.  I thrive off of being productive–which I thought came from being outside the home working, running errands, meeting up with people, etc. I have had to adjust my expectations and set aside some of those past perceptions. My big shift came when I realized I could be productive at home. I do not have to be outside the house to be productive, and neither do you. I have actually found it nice to hunker down and enjoy some time at home!  So, if you are feeling frustrated because of the changes isolation has brought, try to let go of some of your expectations (and then refer to number one). Leaning into this new isolation “normal” is really all we can do right now! Just for the record: I am not suggesting we let ourselves go and Netflix + chill all day. As an example, my brother is feeling depressed because he cannot go to the gym and work out. I urged him to let go of that expectation of his old daily normal, and adapt/adjust. Go on a walk or a bike ride, create a home gym with what you have, or access any of a million free at-home workouts. Resenting quarantine will do you no good; let go of your past expectations for a moment and make the most of what you have today.
  4. How am I moving my body today? I wrote about quarantine exercise last week.  The fact is, physical exercise can and will be your saving grace during quarantine. The benefits to exercising in general are endless: Reducing your risk of disease, increasing energy levels and boosting productivity, ameliorating mental health, enhancing sleep quality, boosting creativity, upgrading sex life, raising mood and body image, and fostering happiness. This is because exercising has a beneficial physiological effect on the brain and the body. Whether you have a vigorous exercise regimen, or take power walks around your neighborhood, there are many ways to exercise and your day will certainly be brightened as you make time to do so!
  5. How am I getting outside today? I will admit, the first part of quarantine was particularly difficult for me. Amidst all the confusion and worry that came with COVID-19, the weather was crummy and I was not able to spend time healing in nature. But now that things are literally brightening up with springtime, I invite you to spend more time outside. Being outdoors can clear your mind, lift your spirits, motivate you, improve your mental health, and better your mood. Rest assured, getting outdoors during quarantine will do wonders for you! Just today I enjoyed exploring some new trails by my house and found a new secret place of beauty. I can not wait to go back and visit it and find other hidden gems that I have missed.
  6. What beauty am I creating or inviting into my life today?  I follow a DIY extraordinare on Instagram who lives by the phrase, “Less scrolling, more creating,” and I love that. She recounts a time where she scrolled through her feed a lot. Though she was admiring everyone else’s home DIY accomplishments, she realized it totally zapped her creativity…as well as her confidence and happiness. Once she realized this, she started limiting her social media time and coined that phrase she now lives by. Happiness comes from being creative–either by creating it or viewing it. So ask yourself–how can I be creative during quarantine? Is there an activity that you used to wish you had time for that you can do now? Maybe it’s painting, calligraphy, writing, playing a musical instrument, or a million other creative outlets, spending time being creative is sure to boost your happiness!

I have been using these six questions as a trial run in my personal life, and I can attest to their efficacy. There have been several times when I used these to check in with myself, and I realized that getting outside or connecting with someone was exactly what I needed at that moment. So please, write these questions down on a sticky note and place it somewhere you will see it often. As you continue to take good care of yourself, you will make the most of this uncertain quarantine time. Let’s be able to look back on 2020’s quarantine and know we did the best we could with the time and resources we had!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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Sanity-Saving Exercises During Quarantine

While the “See 10, Do 10,” push-up challenge is circulating the internet, I have another suggestion for four crucial exercises that will strengthen your physical, mental, spiritual and creative senses during this crazy time of quarantine. 

Push-ups are hard. I had a couple friends tag me in the #See10Do10 push-up challenge on Instagram and it got me thinking. This is a crazy and unique time for everyone; we are all trying to figure out how to let go of our expectations of normal, while simultaneously settling into the new normal that quarantine requires. I am in the trenches along with you, and I have felt it take a toll on me. I send my thoughts and good vibes your way. We can make it through this!

We are all stuck at home, the world is uncertain and even a little scary. It can be overwhelming! I want to share some ideas of things that we all can DO during quarantine that will bring some semblance of normal, foster happiness, and lift us up. Here are four types of exercises that we can incorporate into our daily quarantine-life and beyond :

  1. PHYSICAL EXERCISE. Exercise has so many benefits. Exercise not only helps us control our weight, but it also lowers the risk of heart disease, manages blood sugar levels, improves  mental health, sharpens brain and thought processes, and enhances sleep. We all know exercise is good for us; normal life often presents obstacles to squeezing in time for a good workout…but our current situation has likely lessened some of those barriers. We need to move our bodies. We need to exercise–for our mental health and our sanity! So however you want to move your body, do it. There are endless possibilities for at-home workouts. You can subscribe to MindBody, BeachBody, FreePay App, and a million other paid options; or, you can hop on Pinterest, YouTube or Google search for at-home workout ideas. Or you can go on a walk or a run outside (while practicing safe social distancing, of course). Maybe you live near mountains or trails–go walking, hiking, or running! Just do something everyday to exercise physically. I promise it will make a big difference!
  1. MENTAL EXERCISE. Challenge yourself mentally each day. Turn off the screens and pick up a Sudoku puzzle. Try your hand at crossword puzzles. Read a book. Write a book. Listen to a podcast. Do a puzzle, or anything that will stimulate the brain and sharpen mental engagement.  
  1. SPIRITUAL EXERCISE. This exercise will look different for everyone depending on their belief system. The purpose of this exercise is to connect with something greater than ourselves; maybe that is God or Jesus, Buddha or simply the Universe in general. Practice gratitude, journal, pray, get out in nature, read sacred text, meditate, memorize scripture, whatever it may be. Remember that everything going on in the world is so much bigger than us. We can only control ourselves and our circles of influence and leave the rest to whomever or whatever is in charge. That act is liberating; anytime I exercise my spirituality I am bettered and uplifted because practicing spirituality invites peace into my life. Doing so daily will be invaluable to each of us during these quarantine days.
  1. CREATIVE EXERCISE. Finally, we need to be exercising some creativity while we are cooped up. Just today, a friend encouraged me to try macrame (a boho-inspired art of knot-tying to create beautiful wall hangings). I was skeptical at first but then I thought, “Why not?!” If Coronavirus does not teach us to slow down and appreciate normal life, I hope it at least teaches us that life is short and we need to be doing things and cherishing the people we love. So TRY MACRAME. Pick up watercoloring. Start a blog. Practice photography. Give calligraphy a shot. Sew something. Experiment cooking with food in your pantry. Whatever it is, be creative! Try something new! We have the time; we cannot let the only thing hold us back from exercising more creativity be ourselves. Go for it!

These four types of exercises do not need to be huge undertakings nor do they need to take up tons of time. And the best thing about each of these exercises is that there is no right or wrong way to exercise physically, mentally, spiritually and creatively. What is important is that we are doing it. Each exercise can be personalized to any individual’s circumstances and interests. Regardless of how the exercises are done, what can be assured is that by doing them, we will surely get a boost and feel more connected to ourselves!

As I have made an effort to do these four exercises, I have felt my tank fill up and last throughout the day during these difficult times. Quarantine does not need to be an unbearable time of life. We can make the most of our new normal as we take care of ourselves by exercising physically, mentally, spiritually, and creatively each day.  Now, more than ever, we need to make sure our own needs are being met, and these four exercises help with that. We can make it through this! Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions you might have. I am cheering you on!

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

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Understanding Your Child’s Love Language

Love Languages

“It’s not enough to love your kids. You have to know how to communicate love to a child so that he genuinely feels loved.” ~ Dr. Chapman

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of “Aha! Parenting,” clinical psychologist, and mother says, “The kids who thrive are the ones who feel loved, accepted and cherished for exactly who they are.” One of the most important things you can do for your child–if not the most important–is consistently show genuine love. I am a believer in Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. I have written about them at length in the context of adult relationships, but they also apply to the way children receive love from their parents and caregivers. Today, I want to put a new spin on it, though; I have never before talked about how to understand and apply the Love Languages with your littles. Though there are slight differences in the Love Languages between adults and children, the basics remain the same. Read on to know how to identify your child’s Love Language, as well as ideas for how to speak it, and pitfalls to avoid. 

TOUCH

“Mama, come snuggle me.”

If your child is constantly in your space, touching you, trying to sit on your lap, or playing with your hair, there’s your signal that he/she thrives on physical touch. Some children do not like hugging or snuggling; do not make the mistake of thinking all kids crave physical touch! While children in general enjoy being physically close to their parents, it is much more pronounced in children with this Love Language.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: Snuggle on the couch. Let your child sit on your lap. Offer foot massages. Give high fives. Hold hands. Make a secret handshake (one mother squeezes her daughter’s hand three times to nonverbally say, “I love you”). Wrestle or try other sports that require jostling. 

Warning: Spanking or hitting any child is damaging in any and all cases, but it is particularly so to those children whose primary Love Language is physical touch. Also, according to Dr. Markham, research has shown that dads grow increasingly less physically affectionate as their daughters develop; she suggests making a habit of good-morning and good-night hugs, so it is already in place as kids get older.

GIFTS

“Daddy, will you get me a toy?”

For those children whose Love Language is gifts, they see a present as a symbol of your love. They love when you give them things. Children with this love language tend to care about how a present is wrapped. They often remember who gave them what for months or years after the fact. They also may have trouble throwing out things they have been given, even if they hardly use them. Now, before you freak out thinking your child is materialistic or that you are going to go broke buying all the things, let me talk you off that cliff. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: You do not need to buy a million toys to let your child know you love him/her. A gift can be anything from a very smooth stone to a ball of yarn in her favorite color. You could leave an origami creation on your child’s chair or a wildflower on her pillow. One grown woman with this love language said, “Every year since I left for college, my mom has mailed me leaves from Wisconsin so I can enjoy a bit of fall from home while living in California.”  Stickers and star charts are also concrete ways of making these children feel valued, says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Low-cost options, people.

Warning: Avoid accumulating meaningless things. Give gifts that bear some meaning or are special to your child for some reason. Also, try to give gifts that are age-appropriate (for example, give your three year-old something that will stimulate her brain and encourage her to develop creativity, etc). When you are on the receiving end, be sure to make a big deal of any gifts your child gives you by hanging artwork or creating a “precious things” table for those tender presents from your youngster.

WORDS

“Mama, listen to me!”

These are the kids who listen intently and speak sweetly. They beam whenever you praise them, always have something to tell you about, and live for your loving words in return. For these children, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. They know when you are distracted or halfhearted, and it deflates them to the core.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: 

Leave little notes in their lunch box, send texts, or even give a bracelet with something like “my hero” printed on it. Generously praise your child and let them know you see the good in them. One mother, Auburn Daily, will get down on her toddler’s level, stare into her eyes, and say, “You are the best thing in my life. You are so important to me.” Dr. Karp suggests telling a stuffed animal or anyone who will listen about something your kid did well, since research shows we all believe more of what we overhear than what is told directly to us.

Warning:  Regardless of who you are, insults cut deep. Try not to make blanket statements about these children being “bad listeners,” “bad sharers,” or anything of the like. Also, Dr. Chapman says it is particularly important for these children to hear the words “I love you” standing alone, rather than, “I love you, but …” 

SERVICE

“Mama, can you put my shoes on?”

These children may beg you to tie their shoes for them, fix a broken toy, or fluff their pillow. They like having your help–even with things they are capable of doing on their own. While it may feel like servitude to you, it is the deepest expression of love to these children!

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: One mother reports that helping her daughter get dressed in the morning is one way of doing this. Another mother says her son exclaims, “Tank you, mama, das so nice of you!” anytime she serves him food. Basic things like that show your children you love them. You can also go above and beyond by doing things like warming their clothes in the dryer on a cold morning, helping them clean up their room, or getting a stain out of a favorite shirt. 

Warning: Parents of these kids often end up feeling like servants. Obviously you want to encourage self-reliance and obedience to household rules, so picking up after your child over time may prove to be a hindrance. As with all children, it is important to encourage self-reliance and expect them to do what they can for themselves at each stage of development. The best act of service you can provide is walking your child through a new process and teaching him, step-by-step, how to be more capable.

TIME

“Daddy, come read me a story!”

These children feel most valued when you choose to spend time with them. A child who often says, “Watch this!” or, “Play with me,” is begging for quality time. Dr. Chapman’s own daughter would say, “Daddy, come to my room! I want to show you something.” They spell love t-i-m-e. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language:  For these kids, time can be spent together doing anything. Reading books, building a tower, wrestling, snuggling, watching a movie, baking, eating, swinging, etc. All they want is you….and your undivided attention. This does not mean that you need to scrap your to-do list in order to show your children your love; instead dedicate blocks of time to your child. Dr. Markham calls this “special time,” and says it can be short, but let your child choose the activity, and be fully present the whole time. 

Warning: If your child’s love language is quality time, banishing him or her away for time out in isolation is the severest of punishments. If you have done “special time” but your child still seems to be craving your attention, try having him/her play at your side while you read or work. 

Can you see the 5 Love Languages through the eyes of your child? As you pay attention to what your child asks for, you will pinpoint his/her love language. If you are still struggling to figure out what your child’s language is, take this quiz. And remember that love languages can morph and change over time. As you embark on this journey to understand and speak your child’s language, they will feel your love, and your connection with them will grow. As always, should you find that you need help, please do not hesitate to contact me!

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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Debunking the Myth: Men CAN Have Anxiety

“No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside,” he wrote. “Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need.” 

~Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers 

There is much conversation about women experiencing anxiety in the workplace, in forming and maintaining relationships, all throughout motherhood… It is well understood that women of all ages across the globe undeniably face anxiety in nearly every stage of their lives. But why are men so quickly excluded from the dialogue on anxiety? In today’s post, I would like to do my part in creating an open conversation on men and anxiety!

Do men experience anxiety, too? The short answer is a resounding yes! Anxiety is no respecter of person; men and women alike are vulnerable to its effects. Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Not only is it common, but it is actually important that humans have the capacity to feel anxious because anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that there is a threat that needs attention. (Note: With an anxiety disorder, a person may repeatedly respond to situations as if there is a perceived threat, although there is not one.) While both men and women can feel anxious during their lives, they tend to respond to their anxiousness differently. 

The facts about men and anxiety:

  1. Studies have found that about 1 in 5 men (and about 1 in 3 women) will have an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. On top of that, only half of the men experiencing anxiety will be diagnosed and untreated! (In a recent Wall Street Journal article, it was reported that mental health professionals fear these figures grossly under-report male cases.)
  2. It is more common for men to experience anxiety than depression
  3. Men and women are prone to different types of anxieties. For instance, women are more commonly affected by generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and panic disorders than men. When it comes to social anxiety disorder specifically, men and women are equally affected. 
  4. Suicide rate among men is four times higher than the suicide rate among women. This is important to note because suicide is often set in motion by indicators of anxiety–narrowing of vision, a hopelessness, the sense that things are not going to get better, etc. 
  5. Anxiety manifests itself differently in men than in women. Women tend to manifest anxiety through nervousness, excessive worry and avoidance of frightening situations. Men manifest their anxiety in ways that often seem unrelated to anxiety which can lead to many instances going undiagnosed. Researchers and psychologists are finding that men report headaches, difficulty sleeping and muscle aches and pains. Or their anxiety is masked by anger, irritability, and aggression. Men are also more likely to use alcohol and drugs to cope with anxiety, so what looks like a drinking problem may actually be an underlying anxiety disorder. 
  6. It is more socially acceptable for men to employ strategies such as substance use and alcohol to suppress their emotions than to admit to anxiety. There needs to be more talk about productive resources like men needing a good friend with whom to talk, the benefits of self-care in combating anxiety, the power of communication instead of bottling up (or ignoring altogether) feelings of anxiousness. 
  7. Men are socialized to not ask for help or be vulnerable. An informative study found that when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident. And when men make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status. This is problematic as it becomes a vicious cycle where men needing help are not able to admit to it, let alone treat it. 

In my research on men and anxiety, I came across an example that perfectly illustrated the stigma around men and anxiety: A construction worker, who worked on scaffolding 30 feet high, described daily panic attacks that would come on quickly and would make him feel dizzy, nauseous, and disconnected from reality. This went on for ten years before he sought treatment. When he finally got help, he was asked why he had waited so long; he said he felt his ‘episodes’ were a manifestation of a weakness on his part. He believed he could control them (“mind over matter) but he tried for ten years without success. This construction worker did not free himself from his debilitating anxiety until he admitted to needing and sought for help. This is the case for any man or woman struggling with anxiety: Healing and balance is possible but often requires getting professional help. 

If you struggle with anxiety, reach out. Talk about it. Get help from a trained professional. Anxiety is not a weakness. Anxiety disorders are real–often a chemical imbalance of the brain. It exists in men and women. Men, you are not alone and it is okay to get help! Everyone deserves to live their life with tools to face anxiety and be in control of their life. Healing is possible! Please do not hesitate to contact me and schedule a session.

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

References:

Breaking Up With Your Relationship Anxiety

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” ~ Kahil Gibran

You are dating someone wonderful. You are happy. You are strongly attracted to your partner. There is a deep level of trust, commitment, and enjoyment in your relationship. Yet, despite it all, you find yourself ruminating… what if she is not the right one for you? What if she is hiding some deep, dark secret? What if she is perfect but you worry about her sticking around? You fear that you are incapable of maintaining a healthy relationship and that your partner will soon find out and leave you. 

This downward spiral of thought is known as relationship anxiety. If you can relate, raise your hand. You are not alone! Relationship anxiety is actually quite normal. You might feel anxious at the beginning of a relationship–before your partner shows mutual interest in you. Or maybe you feel anxious even in the most established of relationships. You may wonder if you matter to your partner, if he/she will always be there for you, if he/she is still attracted to you, etc. The doubts can creep up in all aspects of your relationship at any given moment, really.

Oftentimes, the relationship anxiety is not necessarily caused by anything in the relationship itself (though it certainly can lead to behaviors that negatively affect your relationship). Relationship anxiety may be caused by negative experiences in previous relationships, low self-esteem, and the attachment style you developed during childhood. 

The good news is, if you are experiencing relationship anxiety, there are some simple things you can do to choose your relationship over your anxiety: 

  1. Do not pull away. An overarching theme I have seen in research and in my clients is that when you are feeling relationship anxiety, you will be inclined to pull away from your partner. You distance yourself for fear of appearing weak, overly sensitive, or a myriad of other untrue perceptions. Though it is in self-preservation, this step often damages your relationship. Do not pull away!
  2. Connect with your partner. Instead of physically and emotionally closing yourself off to your partner, work to draw closer to him/her. Connect with your partner in ways meaningful to your specific relationship; spend time one-on-one together, go on a date, do a fun activity, be intimate…whatever it is, connect with your partner. Also, be up front about the relationship anxieties you are experiencing. Express your feelings and emotions, and describe what you are going through. Being honest and open about your anxieties can quiet your fears/worries about your relationship, and will bring you closer together. This type of vulnerability inevitably leads to meaningful connection, which breeds relationship security and satisfaction. 
  3. Express your feelings. use your words…express yourself! Relationship anxiety comes from within and often has nothing to do with your partner; if, however, something specific is fueling your anxiety (ie: your partner playing on their phone when you talk or not wanting to visit your family for the holidays) try bringing it up in a respective and non-accusatory way. Use “I” statements. Through their research, Kashdan et al. found that relationship closeness is enhanced when negative emotions are openly expressed. Though you might initially think the contrary, expressing your feelings can actually lessen your anxiety and help you connect with your partner!
  4. Keep your self-esteem tank full. As I said earlier, oftentimes relationship anxiety sprouts from a lack of self-esteem. Remember that your partner likes YOU for who you are. Work to maintain your identity instead of being who you think your partner wants you to be. Be true to yourself! Practicing self-care and mindfulness help immensely with the constant effort of keeping your self-esteem tank full. See the plethora of self-care posts on my blog for more ideas on how to do this! 

In addition to the above ideas, counsel with a therapist. In therapy, you learn tools that will help you express your feelings, stay true to yourself, and connect in meaningful ways with those you love. As a trained, experienced therapist, I see individuals and couples battling relationship anxiety fairly often. I am here to help. Please contact me today to get started!  

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

Sources:

Cluff, Melissa:  “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”; “The Key to Slowing Down in a Fast-Paced World”; “Love Languages: Showing Love Through the Gift of Quality Time”; “The Power Behind Vulnerability”; “Self-care: Is it Selfish?”; “Self-Esteem & Self-Worth: Two essential Components of the Self”

Kashdan, Todd B.; Volkmann, Jeffrey R.; Breen, William B.; Han, Susan (2007). Social anxiety and romantic relationships: The costs and benefits of negative emotion expression are context-dependent. Journal of Anxiety Disorders: 21(4), 475-492. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.08.007.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., MacDonald, G., & Ellsworth, P. C. (1998). Through the looking glass darkly? When self-doubts turn into relationship insecurities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(6), 1459–1480. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.6.1459

Porter, Eliora & Chambless, Dianne L (2013). Shying Away From a Good Thing: Social Anxiety in Romantic Relationships. Journal of Clinical Psychology 70(6), 546-561). https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22048

Q&A: Is My Anxiety Curable?

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.” ~ Helen Keller

Everyone feels worried from time to time. You may worry about a presentation you have to do in school or work; or perhaps you worry about your spouse on a work trip, or your child away from home for the first time. Feeling worried is a normal emotion. Feeling anxious, however, is different. Maybe you have experienced both sentiments, but presumed them to be synonymous? Join the club. These two terms are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but, in reality, they are quite different. Read on to learn the fundamental differences between worry and anxiety, if anxiety is a curable or not, and four everyday tools anyone can use to manage anxiety.

How are worry and anxiety different?

In a study where 189 university students were asked about the differences between anxiety and worry, worry and anxiety were defined very similarly. However, certain negative outcomes–like depression and confusion–were more related to anxiety than to worry, and problem solving was more related to worry than to anxiety. Other key differences include the following:

Worry…

Is experienced in the head. 

Is specific

Does not provoke mental imagery elicit a cardiovascular response.

Is accompanied by problem solving. 

Creates mild emotional distress. 

Is caused by a specific concern.

Is often controllable. 

Is temporary. 

Does not impact one’s overall functioning. 

Is considered to be a normal/common emotional state. 

Anxiety…

Is manifest in the body.
Is vague or general.

Provokes mental imagery and elicits a cardiovascular response.

Is not accompanied with problem solving.

Creates severe emotional distress. 

Is a non-specific, broad fear.

Is difficult to control. 

Lingers. 

Does impact one’s overall functioning. 

Is not a normal/common emotional state.

Are you beginning to see the difference between being worried and experiencing anxiety? Though there is some overlap, the two emotions are actually quite different. If I could add one more, it would be that being worried occasionally usually does not lead one to see a therapist, whereas therapy can be very helpful with prolonged anxiety.

Is anxiety a life sentence? NO!

I always tell my clients, who are battling anxiety, that what they are facing is not a life sentence! While you may feel seriously burdened by your anxiety at present, you do not need to be controlled by it. The goal of therapy is not to get rid of everything that may be causing you anxiety, but rather to give you the tools to face your anxiety and to learn from it. 

Four things you can do TODAY to get relief from your anxiety:

  1. A deep relaxation technique. There are several options for this tool. I would recommend muscle relaxation, visualization, or meditation to start. Force yourself to slow down, take deep breaths, relax, and release some of the tension you are feeling. Here are some helpful apps: Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; UCLA Mindful.
  2. 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. This suggestion may seem obvious as regular exercise is recommended to achieve optimal health. Exercising is an amazing tool in combating worry and anxiety. Exercising releases a feel-good hormone in the brain and nervous system that positively affects you physiologically–naturally combating worry and anxiety. Additionally, vigorous exercise during the day will lead to better sleep at night which has many benefits. There is great power found in exercising!
  3. Good nutritional habits. Similar to exercise, having a balanced diet will benefit you in many aspects of your life. When you fuel your body with a well-rounded diet to sustain yourself throughout the day, your overall health with be positively influenced. You will have more energy to deal with life’s stressors, you will be less likely to fall sick, and you will be able to think more clearly. All of these outcomes will aid you in the process of rising above worry and anxiety.
  4. Replacing negative self-talk with positive affirmations to counter mistaken beliefs. Self-care is a major focus with my clients, and one form of that is positive self-talk or affirmations. You are your own worst critic. When you change your self-talk from negative and degrading to supportive and loving, you will break negative patterns to see life (and yourself!) through a different lens. This is a major step in working through anxiety.

Your anxiety does not have to be a life sentence. Seek out an experienced, qualified therapist. Develop a daily practice of deep breathing/mindfulness, get up and move your body for 30 minutes a day, eat a colorful and balanced diet, and speak kindly to yourself. Implementing these four tools in tandem will yield astronomical results in combating anxiety. Let’s get started today!

References:


What to Expect When You Are Expecting…To Start Therapy

Starting Therapy
Starting Therapy

“Psychotherapy can be one of the greatest and most rewarding adventures, it can bring with it the deepest feelings of personal worth, of purpose and richness in living.” ~ Eda Leshan

In 2018, 56.7% of U.S. adults with a mental illness did not receive treatment. Maybe you are thinking about seeing a therapist…but you have no idea what to expect, or where to start. You may wonder what happens during sessions, how long will you be in therapy, how you will know that you are done in therapy, or a million other questions. These are common and completely valid concerns, and my goal in this post is to cover that basic information so you will know what to expect when you are expecting…to see a therapist.

What to expect before you start. 

Before going to therapy, it is important to identify the areas in your life that need help and healing. Consider whether it is an individual or relational issue. This step is huge because it requires humility and courage to admit that you need help and to be vulnerable. The next step is finding the right therapist for you. Brainstorm what qualities (such as experience or personal characteristics) are important to you in a therapist; not everyone is looking for the same thing when starting therapy. For example, researchers Susan Hardin and Barbara Yanico asked men and women what they looked for in a potential therapist and found differences in genders: Men tended to want an efficient counseling process, for the therapist to be directive and self-disclosing; while women have higher expectations for the therapist to be open, accepting, genuine, attractive, and trustworthy. Regardless of gender, these researchers found that prospective clients expect empathy, expertness, and concreteness from an experienced therapist, and a positive outcome. What are you looking for?

What to expect when choosing a therapist.

Once you have found a potential therapist, you may experience trepidation about meeting and disclosing your private struggles to this stranger. To help the matter, I urge you to familiarize yourself with the therapist(s) you are considering. Here are three helpful suggestions:

  1. Look at their google listing and familiarize yourself with their website. For example, on Cluff Counseling’s page, I have a section entitled “About Me” where you will find information about me like my hobbies, interests, educational experience and training. I also have a “Frequently Asked Questions” section that will give you insight to my structure and style as a therapist. 
  2. Do not be afraid to ask for a phone consultation before setting your first appointment.
  3. Ask your questions! Create 3-4 questions you would like to ask each of the potential therapists that you are considering. Common questions I hear are: Do I take insurance? How much is each session? Does it cost more for couple sessions? Do I have experience treating ______? Do I have a sliding fee scale? What is my cancellation policy? Do I do couple therapy if that is needed down the road? How long is each session? What do you need to bring to the first session? 

Remember, you are the client and so it is important that the therapist is a good fit for you. If the first one you talk to, or meet with, does not feel right, reach out to the next one on your list. 

What to expect when you start.

Many people are curious about the frequency of sessions, as well as what typically happens during a session. I schedule one 50-minute session a week–unless a client requests to meet more or less frequently, or needs longer sessions.  In the initial session, I always ask why the person decided to start therapy now, rather than a few weeks ago, or months down the road. The response to this question helps shed some light on the process the process went through to get to my office.  

Next, I begin to gather some history on the problem. If I am seeing a couple, I may ask how they met, what attracted them to each other, the highlights and lowlights of their relationship history. If I am meeting with an individual, I may ask how long the problem has been present, what they have tried, what has given them some relief, and who is in their support system. I spend the first several sessions gathering more information and helping the person feel comfortable with me. 

Lastly, I ask how they would know that therapy can help them. Their response helps me understand what they specifically want to address during our sessions together, and orients me to establish measurable goals for the client. I do not want a client to feel they are committing the rest of their life to therapy; setting goals ascertains that there will be an end to therapy!

What to expect during regular sessions.

Once the initial phase of information gathering is complete, we will get to work on meeting the goals. Often, I will give homework assignments to be completed between sessions that will support the work we are doing in session. We will work on coping skills and tools that can be practiced and applied to any unhealthy patterns in the client’s life. Areas where trauma work is needed are identified and a plan is created to do that work. Goals are continually assessed to  make sure they still fit the needs of the client. I remind my clients that the time spent with me is theirs and I invite their feedback; I do not want my clients to ever feel they have wasted their time in a session. Please do not hesitate to speak up to your therapist if your needs are not getting met!

What to expect when therapy is nearing an end.

One of the ways I know a client is close to graduating therapy is when a client or I suggest less frequent sessions. This speaks volumes about the progress and signifies they are feeling more grounded, are reaching their therapy goals, have established a support system outside of therapy, and are ready to put what they have learned into practice on their own. I find great joy when my clients no longer need my help…my goal is to work myself out of the job! My door is and will forever be open to my clients should they need a tune-up. My final question for clients, during their last session, is how they will know if/when they need to come back to see me. The message I want them to hear is that I believe in them and that coming back to me is always an option. 

If you have been considering getting into therapy, I highly recommend you to do so now.  If you are ready to schedule a session but feel nervous, remember that it is completely normal to feel a little anxious about starting something new! It is the therapist’s job to create a safe, comfortable counseling environment where you can begin to address your individual or relational worries. If you think you may need medication, a therapist can refer you to a psychiatrist, and together the therapist and psychiatrist can address your concerns. 

I love my job. You will find the best version of yourself as you shed the weight of trauma or addiction and work through any relational issues you are facing. I am here for you! Please contact me today to get started!

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

References: