Escaping the Fear Trap

In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless.

The first time I remember really feeling fear was when I was in the second grade. The cold, dry winter air did not couple well with my asthma, and one night I found myself struggling for air in the middle of a terrifying asthma attack. Usually my mom or dad would grab my albuterol to calm my panicked breaths, but this time, my medicine was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t catch my breath despite all effort, and I began to worry that I never would. My mom found my medicine after some relentless searching and my breathing settled before the situation became desperate, but I still vividly remember the feeling of fear that petrified me as I searched hopelessly for air to fill my empty lungs. 

Fear is the central nervous system’s physiological and emotional response to a serious threat to one’s well being. While fear can prepare us for fight or flight responses in dangerous situations, it can also become a roadblock to progress and peace if prolonged. 

After the events of 9/11, unprecedented fear and terror filled the lives of millions of Americans. Curious how such an intense fear could spread so rapidly, researchers began to study the roots of fear. Their findings completely changed my perspective of fear and how it is cultivated. 

The study found that the roots of human fear stem from what researchers call risk perceptions. Risk perception suggests that we attribute fear to things that pose any risk toward us– the more the risk, the more the fear. This explains why humans appear to fear similar things (like heights or spiders), why we subconsciously decide what we are afraid of (like skydiving, even if we’ve never done it), and why our responses to risk are not always internal or rational, but rather emotional (screaming in a scary movie), reflecting our values and perceptions of a risk itself.

What are the Fear Factors?

What I found most interesting from my research about fear was that there were common underlying factors which seemed to alter how risks are perceived, ultimately increasing the fear experienced by populations at large toward a particular risk. I’ll share a few of these factors and invite you to consider how they may affect your risk perceptions and consequent fear. 

Factor 1: Awareness

As our awareness of a risk increases, so does our fear. Awareness can be generated by the media, word of mouth, and even personal experience.

Factor 2: Uncertainty

The more uncertain we feel of a risk, the more afraid we are. Where did the risk come from? When? Who? Is it likely to affect me? 

Factor 3: Newness 

We are more afraid of risks that are new rather than those that have been around for a while. After we’ve lived with a risk for a while, we gain a better perspective and understand the real dangers posed by the risk. 

Factor 4: Control

The more control we feel we have over a certain risk, the less fear we feel. Less control over a risk brings about greater fear. This is why people ride bicycles without helmets and rarely hesitate to drive their car; they are in control. Does this lessen the risk of injury or harm? Perhaps not, but it establishes a sense of control. 

How can we Escape the Fear Trap? 

I present these factors in hopes that you may realize, like me, that sometimes our fears do not match the facts. Whether your fears are work, school, home, family, or world-related, they can be pressing, consuming, and heavy. Yet, as we look at these factors, it’s clear that we can choose to escape the fear trap by making small, simple decisions that align our fears more with reality:

Monitor Awareness

While the media presents incredible information and benefits, it can also be a fire hydrant of facts. Monitor the sources you trust, limit your time on social media, and seek information from reliable sources. 

Discover What You Know 

There are so many uncertain things in life, but there is so much that is certain! Although there may be aspects of risk that we cannot find the answers to, there are truths and facts that can help us to feel more certain about our future. Focus on the things you know and the things that don’t change as a result of risk. 

Practice Patience

When risks are new, they feel more threatening. We can avoid the tendency to overreact by reminding ourselves to be patient. Even when others respond fearfully to news risks, we can recognize new ways to learn, live, and grow as we become familiar with risks, instead of being afraid of them. 

Control the Controllable

While some things will always lay outside of our control, we can focus on the things we can control. Study for your upcoming test; make an emergency preparedness kit; wear a seatbelt in the car. We will never be able to eliminate all risk, but we can decrease our fear as we focus on the things we can control. 

In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless. Although it takes great effort, we can handle the fear we face by heightening our awareness, focusing on what we know, learning to live with risk, and recognizing our control. Risks may always abound, but we decide how we will react to them. Let us choose courage and conscience as we encounter the risks that raid our lives. 

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. 

References: 

Comer, R. J., & Comer, J. S. (2018). Abnormal psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning.

Gray, G. M., & Ropeik, D. P. (2002). Dealing with the dangers of fear: the role of risk communication. Health Affairs, 21(6), 106-116.

Making the Most of This Quarantined Spring Break

Family Time

“You will never look back on life and think, ‘I spent too much time with my kids.’” ~Unknown

A good friend of mine recently posted a darling picture of her family–toddler and all–hiking along a trail in the foothills of Utah. She said their family had a goal in 2020 to spend 1,000 hours outside. You read that right, one thousand hours spent outdoors. I love that idea so much! She found what helps her family connect and they have made a goal to do more (lots more) of it this year. Since Spring Break is nigh upon us, I want to talk about ways to connect with your family and create meaningful memories together, even with everything that is happening in the world right now!

Let’s first define connection so we all know what we are working towards. Connection in relationships means closeness, mutual trust, empathy, respect, loyalty, and love. This connection is what enables any relationship to continue on and deepen. When you feel connected or close to someone, you know you can rely on one another, and the relationship is meaningful. Connection is not a one-time occurrence; rather, it is a continual connection that strengthens any relationship.

What relationships could be more important than those you have with your family?  What can you do to connect with your family members this spring break? Here are some steps to ensure you spend quality time and create beautiful memories together:

  1. Be present. It is impossible to have connection if you are distracted or multi-tasking. Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. Hide the iPad. You and I live in a world filled with any and every distraction imaginable; yet all your children truly want is to be seen, heard, and noticed. They want your time and attention.  They want YOU. You are your child’s role model, best friend, biggest fan, and hero. You may unintentionally make your children feel like second best if your texts or Instagram take priority over what your children have to say or show you. So start connecting with those who truly matter to you by first disconnecting from what does really not matter.
  2. Explore hobbies. My friend’s family found a common hobby: they all enjoy spending time outside hiking. Maybe your family enjoys family bike rides. Or going to the park. Or grilling up delicious kebabs. Some families love playing board games, making cookies, doing chalk art, going on walks, reading together, watching movies, upping the ante a bit and making movies (aka filming, editing and whatnot; it is quite the creative process!); playing with legos, going on a drive, exercising together, playing sports, going swimming, traveling, etc. There are infinite possibilities for ways your family can spend time together. If you are unsure about what your family likes doing together, you can take turns trying someone else’s hobby! For example, if Gramma enjoys watercolor painting, perhaps you could try that activity as a family. If Dad likes bird watching, the family can try that together. Find a family hobby and do it this spring break!
  3. Make life skills fun. You can teach your children important and helpful skills and also have fun together. Give each child a chance to pick the menu for a meal and do the whole process together: come up with ideas, make the list, buy the food, prepare the meal, then sit down and eat together. Or you could spend time working together in the yard; maybe that spot you clear weeds out of is where you sleep or star gaze together one night? Declutter your home. Spring cleaning can be fun; help your children appreciate that fresh feeling that comes from deep cleaning! Wash the car and have a water fight. Have a competition picking up litter off the beach or in your neighborhood. Doing these types of activities together is simultaneously instructive and fun. Surely a great use of your time!
  4. Make a family bucket list. It is relatively early in the year; you still have time to seize 2020! What are some things you want to see, do, learn, or experience as a family? My friend made a goal to spend 1,000 hours outside. A great bucket list goal! Another friend has several family bucket list items for 2020: Making it to Redwood National Forest, visiting Four Corners Monument, going camping several times, taking the family fishing, learning to make ebelskivers, and painting and organizing the garage. A family bucket list does not mean that every item has to be expensive or time-consuming. Tailor your bucket list to your financial situation and interests as a family, and then make it happen! 

Spring break only comes but once a year. Make the most of it by connecting and making memories as a family! Be present, participate in fun hobbies, learn life skills, and make a family bucket list. Spring break will fly by, and you will be left with beautiful memories and a fun bucket list to keep you busy the rest of the year. Happy spring break!

Best,

Melissa

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

References:

The Good, the Bad, and Motherhood

Guest blogger, Karlin Davison, writes a personal account on her experiences with new motherhood.

When I started writing this, I was sitting on a plane headed for Idaho with a lively, almost-one-year-old, baby boy that was supposed to sleep at least 2 hours but woke up after only 45 minutes. This was not his first flight, but it was our first without my husband to help keep us both calm and entertained. Was I panicking? No. Actually, I stayed very calm the whole time. This realization, 11 long months into this journey called motherhood, felt like a miracle.

I am the oldest of 6 children, and number 6 of 41 grandchildren to my maternal grandparents. I spent countless hours of my adolescent life begrudgingly babysitting my siblings and cousins; taking care of babies was not a new concept to me. As much as I hated it growing up, I have always loved children and especially babies. As an adult I was grateful for those experiences and I thought that it would serve me well when I decided to start my own family. I had dealt with some anxiety as a teenager and adult, but nothing that had ever stopped me from living my life. I was 24 years old when my husband graduated with a bachelor’s degree and we moved to Texas. Soon after that I experienced some more serious anxiety and even saw a therapist a few times, but I wasn’t prescribed any medication and it was resolved fairly quickly.

Our baby was carefully planned for and wanted, but I was still a little leery when we found out we were pregnant. I had always dreamt of a big family, but after 5 years of marriage I was so happy just spending time with my husband and doing all the things that I knew would be much harder once we had children. The day our son was born was a joyful day, but it was also exhausting and a little scary. When they finally placed him in my arms after 2.5 hours of pushing, I knew I loved him, but I was not overwhelmed by the kind of love it seemed many of my friends and every mom on social media had described. As soon as we moved out of the delivery room and the nurses started teaching me to breastfeed, the anxiety set in. The first 24 hours were such a blur with nurses coming in and out, a baby boy we were busy getting to know, and trying to catch up on sleep. When the doctor came in and said that our sweet little guy had jaundice, would need to stay another night, and be tested again in the morning I felt my anxiety get stronger. I had a hard time eating or sleeping, and it felt like every hour we were stuck there at the hospital those anxious feelings got even stronger. We ended up having to stay 4 nights in the hospital before the doctors were comfortable sending us home. I felt much better when we finally got home, and I was sure that everything was going to be great from that point on. 

It only took a few days for me to realize that my anxiety was still there and getting worse. There were days when the hair on the back of my neck would be standing on end all day. I would feel out of breath and panicky like I was about to have a panic attack, except that the attack itself would not come; I would just sit right on the edge of it all day until my husband got home. If I was around someone who was pregnant or had more than one child, it was all I could do to not get sick. I was so obsessed with keeping our apartment clean that I couldn’t rest or sleep when the baby was sleeping. I didn’t know how to answer when people asked how we were doing. I am not a good liar, but I also didn’t want to unload my heavy burden onto their unsuspecting shoulders. Every time a well-meaning friend asked if we were getting any sleep, I just wanted to slap the look of concern off their face. I was constantly checking on my baby to make sure he was breathing, but I would also think that if he wasn’t breathing then maybe my life would go back to normal and I wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. 

The first time I experienced what I would later learn were passive suicidal thoughts, we were staying at my in-law’s house for the weekend and I was sitting up in bed at 2:00am trying to comfort a crying four-week-old baby while my husband slept soundly next to me. I had already fed, burped, and changed him but he just wasn’t having it. I sat there with tears streaming down my face, trying not to punch my husband, and contemplating jumping out the window and running away. My in-laws live in the middle of nowhere though, so it would have taken me too long to find a bus or airport to actually take me somewhere far away. I then found myself pondering other possible scenarios that involved me getting out of the situation. I’m not sure how much time passed before I caught myself, terrified, and thought “am I suicidal?” I had no idea what to think. All I knew was that I was miserable and having a baby wasn’t supposed to be this hard. On top of the anxiety, I was angry. I felt like I had been lied to by all my friends, family, and anyone who had ever said that having a family was a good decision. I was so intensely angry, even though I am a woman – whose body was designed to bear children, that this was all so incredibly difficult and exhausting.

When our son was six weeks old, we took our first trip as a family of three to Idaho to introduce him to my extended family. I was a basket-case on the plane, of course, but we made it. I had hoped that being home in Idaho around my family would help me feel better, but it didn’t. Feeling like I had to put on a smile for everyone just made me feel worse. We happened to be there over Mother’s Day, and I remember laying on my bed in the dark scrolling and scrolling through Instagram in tears as I read all of the sunshine-and-rainbow stories about motherhood. I couldn’t understand how these women were so happy and I hated that I couldn’t feel the same way. I had been pretty open with my ever-so-patient and loving husband about how I was feeling, but it was on this trip that he finally convinced me to call my doctor. My doctor and her nurses talked to me and called in a prescription for me to pick up the next day. When I got in the car alone to drive to the pharmacy, I kept thinking about how easy it would be to just run the next red light and hope someone ran into me. 

When we got back to Texas two weeks later, I had a follow up with my doctor and she referred me to a therapist who works specifically with women experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms related to pregnancy and the postpartum period. Just walking through her door, with the knowledge that I was taking the first step forward for myself, made me feel a tiny bit better. Ladies…that funny, sweet, knowledgeable therapist was amazing! I learned that I was indeed experiencing postpartum anxiety, and that things were going to get better. We talked through the anger I was feeling about motherhood being so incredibly difficult. I learned that I was never expected to do this alone and that I needed to let more people in. I learned that yes, despite it being so difficult, my body and mind were made for this. She taught me that I am capable of getting through the dark days and finding joy. I learned that the intrusive thoughts and passive suicidal thoughts I was having were actually very common and that they did not make me a suicidal person. She taught me to say the words out loud and not let those scary thoughts stay a dirty secret in the back of my mind. By some miracle I never felt guilty about my feelings, or lack thereof, toward my son. I did, however, feel like I owed more to my husband. We had made the decision to start a family together after all, and I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t holding up my end of bargain. Over time I learned to forgive myself and actually believe my husband when he told me that he still loved me, he was proud of me, and that he knew I was a good mother. 

 Despite hoping that there would be a magical quick fix, my son was 4 months old before I started to see a tiny window of light at the end of the tunnel. But that light was definitely there, and I kept walking toward it. I took a few more baby steps forward and he was 5 months when I could honestly say the words “We are okay!” and mean it. I cannot not express how amazing it felt when I realized that I really was okay, and could see that it was possible for me to feel good in the future. With all of the patience and love my husband and therapist had to offer, I kept walking forward and the baby steps turned into normal steps. As I kept walking forward, I felt better about myself and my love for my son grew too. I stopped wondering where the guns were, I stopped hoping I’d get in a car accident, and I stopped wondering whether it would really be a bad thing if my baby stopped breathing. My son was 7 months old when I started to truly, deeply enjoy my baby and the new life we were building together.

Now, 11 months in, I am so madly in love and obsessed with our son! He has sparkly blue eyes and a beautiful toothy-but-gummy-at-the-same-time smile. I love the way his tiny hands feel in mine, and the way he dances when he is excited about something. My favorite time to kiss him is right after a nap and his cheeks feel like hot buttered rolls. He is the sweetest joy and I can’t imagine life without him. I have grown and changed, alongside my son, in ways I didn’t even know I was capable of. I am so incredibly grateful that we made the decision to start a family. I am even more grateful for the people in my life who were so kind and patient and helped me through it all, especially my nearly-perfect husband. A couple days after we returned from our most recent trip to Idaho, I took my son with me to the grocery store. Luckily, he was still snoozing away as we made our way to the checkout counter. Another mom, wrangling a wiggly 3-year-old in one arm and groceries in the other, got there the same time we did. I told her to go ahead of me but she replied, “No you go, you’re on a nap schedule!” It went without saying that we both were just trying to work through our to do list and get on our way. I wasn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable that someone was taking pity on me, but glad that we understood each other. She knew what it was like to be in my shoes. At that moment I finally realized that being in the mom club isn’t so bad, it’s actually pretty cool and I am happy to count myself a member. 

While I was pregnant, countless people said to me “motherhood is hard, but it’s so worth it!” At the time I was so annoyed and sick of hearing those words, I just wanted them to shut up and let me experience it for myself. Since then I have wished many, MANY times that someone had at least tried to explain to me how hard becoming a mother actually is. I’m not one to sugar-coat things and I have been fairly open about my healing process, but when I was invited to write this piece, I knew that I had a story to tell. I want to be honest in the way that I wish others had been honest with me. Having babies is hard. All caps, bold font, H-A-R-D. It is nearly impossible to do alone, but there is light and happiness at the end of that impossibly dark and terrifying tunnel. There is hope. Things will absolutely get better. I know that you have probably already heard too many people tell you that “You are doing better than you think you are.” Well, as I finish writing my story, I am realizing that those words are absolutely true. I have come so far since the day my son was born. I am giving myself a pat on the back, a gold star on my forehead.  I am doing much better than I thought I was, and SO ARE YOU!

Karlin Davison is a country girl from Idaho who fell in love with city life while living in Hong Kong. She is an accomplished hairstylist complete with a pink pixie cut she’s been wearing with confidence since 2017.  Karlin and her husband, Preston, live in East Dallas with their 11-month-old son, Beckett.

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

A Guide to Thriving in the Holiday Season Single

During the holidays, single individuals have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships that they do have.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! This month is full of dinners, parties, events, service, and gatherings.  Because the holiday season is very couple- and family-oriented, it is incredibly easy for those who are single to feel down and lonely. I want to share some ideas for how you can make the holidays truly wonderful even if you do not have a significant other. 

Instead of focusing on your loneliness (which is easy to do), try viewing your singleness as a gift this holiday season. As a fellow single person, I believe that during the holidays, we have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships we do have. I have compiled a list of several practical ways to get started!

  1. Holiday dates. Sure, dating is hard, but there are so many fun activities you can do around the holiday season. Instead of shying away from dating this time of year, take advantage of it! Ask a friend, or someone you have had your eye on, on a fun, low pressure date. Nutcracker and cocoa? Sign me up!
  2. Volunteer. There are a million opportunities to give around the holidays. I encourage you to serve at a soup kitchen, participate in a food drive, volunteer at an animal shelter, be a part of Sub-for-Santa, or do whatever you enjoy to make someone else’s season better. Giving heals the soul and will certainly invite the spirit of Christmas into your life.
  3. Organize your space. There is nothing better than starting the new year feeling organized and less cluttered. Make your living space somewhere you want to be by cleaning and making it homey. You can also do some good by donating things you do not need to a local charity (or selling them to make a few extra bucks).
  4. “TREAT YO’SELF.” Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would tell you to buy yourself that gift you have been eyeballing. Schedule a spa day. Pamper yourself with a nice massage, manipedi, facial, whatever will loosen you up. Treat yo’self!
  5. Take a solo trip. If you can swing it financially, think about doing some traveling by yourself. No need to plan a huge, expensive excursion; consider exploring a new city — even if it is just for a night or two. 
  6. Hand make/bake presents. If you have several people you need a gift for, consider getting creative and making something. Creativity is a healthy outlet and also a form of self-care. Plus who would not want a tiny loaf of your homemade zucchini bread?!
  7. Create your own traditions. You do not have to wait until you have a significant other to start a tradition. You can start practices that bring joy to your life, no matter your relationship status. Buy a Christmas tree for your apartment, host an annual holiday movie night, volunteer at a local homeless shelter… the options are endless! One of my favorite things is to simply turn off all my lights,  turn on my Christmas tree lights, and curl up under my Sherpa blanket at the end of a long day and watch a holiday movie. 
  8. Embrace spending time alone. Learning to enjoy being alone is a journey. And although the holiday season can be a lonely one, it is also a great time to reflect on yourself. With extra time off during the winter, you have an excellent opportunity to spend time with yourself, pursue your passions, and make goals. Take time to be introspective; you may find it helpful to journal and reflect on the highs and the lows of the year, and what you want the next year to look like! 
  9. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with being single. Everyone spends time being single. It is a natural stage of life, and some are in this stage longer than others. If you are feeling discouraged and are tempted to stay home, I urge you to be brave enough to go into spaces where you might be the odd one out. Try to embrace your stage of life without feeling jealous or bitter. You can desire the kind of relationship that someone else has without letting that desire drive you to bitterness. 
  10. Focus outward. Ask yourself, how can I make this holiday better for others? It sounds really basic, but I have discovered that focusing on other people’s happiness makes me much less concerned with my own. It is nearly impossible to feel bad about myself when I am taking care of others. 

Regardless of whether you are single because you have broken off a long-term partnership or have been single your whole life, I hope that these tips encourage you to view your singleness not as an inconvenience, but as a blessing–full of beauty and opportunities for growth.  Make the most of what remains this holiday season by volunteering, taking care of yourself, creating your own traditions, and spending time with loved ones. You do not need a significant other to have the best holidays ever. Happiest holidays to you and yours!

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

References:

Teaching Your Little Ones The Art of Gratitude

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Thanksgiving (and the month of November in general) is a great time to focus on gratitude. The added emphasis on being “blessed” certainly inspires all of us to consider our bounty and offer thanks. It is a time of gratitude lists, service, and gifts. I want to focus on how you can get your children involved and inspire gratitude in their hearts!

By age two or three, children are able to talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets, and people. By age four, children are able to understand the concept of being thankful for immaterial things like acts of kindness, love, and caring. Regardless of how old your children are, you can always teach age-appropriate gratitude! The following are ideas you can implement around the holiday season and throughout the year to foster an attitude of gratitude:

  1. Say please and thank you. Our manners show that we do not believe we are entitled to anything and that we are grateful for the kindness of others.
  2. Help someone less fortunate. This could be your neighbor down the street, grandma, or someone you know who is in a tough spot. I have fond childhood memories of taking meals or gifts to members of my church who needed help. 
  3. Model the adage “Tis’ better to give than to receive.” Take young children holiday shopping at the dollar store and challenge them to pick out gifts for others without buying something for themselves. Or go the DIY route and make something; even toddlers can buy or make gifts for others!
  4. Volunteer service or donate to a nonprofit. Nonprofits serve people in need and at this time of the year they are always looking for volunteers, basic necessities, meals and gifts to give to those in need. Help out at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or non-profit. 
  5. Send out thank you cards or a letter. Express your gratitude for those who have served your or added value to your life. Encourage your children to write a letter to someone who has touched his life in some way or who has given them something. I highly recommend keeping thank you notes on hand and using them frequently!
  6. Intentionally look for awe-inspiring moments in your day. If the sunset is particularly beautiful, comment on it. If the sound of the baby’s laughter warms your heart, tell your children. Encourage them to look for their awe-inspiring moments and share them with you.
  7. Share your gratitude. There are a million different ways to do this; you can take five minutes at bedtime by asking your children what they are thankful for that day. You can go around the dinner table and allow each family member a chance to vocalize their gratitude. You can keep shared or personal gratitude journals. You can create a family gratitude list and post it somewhere visible. You can create a gratitude jar and share each entry at the end of the month. I even saw one idea of gratitude trees–where little leaves are written on with things the family is grateful for, and then hung from the twigs of a branch found outside. (This doubles as decór so win-win!)
  8. Compliment others. I heard a wise woman once say that withholding a compliment is prideful, so model sincere compliments. If you think it, say it! Share the things you appreciate about another person. Encourage your children to do the same. 
  9. Look for the positive. It is human nature to see the glass half-empty from time to time, and children are no exception.  Try to look for the silver lining; find something positive in frustrating situations and discuss it. When kids complain or gripe, it can be helpful to try to find a response that looks on the bright(er) side. It’s called an “attitude of gratitude” for a reason — it’s about perspective more than circumstance. 
  10. Take gratitude walks. While you walk, look for the simple pleasures in the day, such as the warm sun or the birds singing and express appreciation for them. Use this time to ask your kids what they are grateful for.
  11. Work through envy. Help your child work through any feelings of jealousy she may have. Envy can come when we are not feeling thankful for what we have, and are focusing instead on what others have. Easy access to social media surely contributes to feelings of jealousy and comparison!
  12. Have them pitch in when they want something.  When children take the time to save up and take ownership in a purchase, they gain an understanding of the value of a dollar by working toward what they want. It also teaches restraint and encourages them to appreciate what they have.
  13. Make time for chores: Most children have about four hours between the time they get home from school and bedtime where they need to fit in homework, extracurricular activities, dinner, bath, and bedtime. Without chores, children do not understand what it takes to run a household–they will take clean laundry and dishes for granted. So find age-appropriate chores for your children. Consider leaving time-intensive chores for the weekend, but allow your children to be grateful for the blessing of clean dishes or warm meals enjoyed in your home. 
  14. Let big kids take care of little kids: Surely you did not understand all the work that came with children until you had your own. If older children have responsibilities for their younger siblings, it fosters an attitude of gratitude towards you, their parents. Pair up big kids with little kids to get chores done or get through homework. 
  15. Talk about your ancestors: What are your family stories of hardship and perseverance? My grandmother lived in the depression and to this day she reuses her plastic baggies and counts her pennies. I remember hearing stories of this amazing woman and feeling so grateful for the box of endless ziplocs. It really is the little things! (If you are not sure of your past, you can take a family trip to the history museum, a battlefield, or other historic site. You will return home grateful!)

Studies have shown that kids who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and family. Being grateful benefits adults and children alike on a very basic level and can increase happiness levels by around 25 percent! It can help you live a happier, more satisfied life and with increased levels of self-esteem, hope, empathy and optimism. It also grants perspective to what really matters and improves relationships. There is no downside to gratitude!

Now it is my turn to be grateful: I am grateful for my health, my family, and a career I love. I am grateful for you, my faithful readers, and for such wonderful clients who trust me with the deepest, most vulnerable and beautiful parts of their lives. I am thankful I am allowed to live the life I love in helping people work through addiction, trauma, mental illness, and/or relationship issues. I am thankful for YOU. I am your biggest advocate! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. Let’s talk!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Re-Spark the Flame: Affection

“Sometimes a partner withdraws affection because he or she is struggling with stress, mental health issues, illness, or trauma, and they are inwardly focused and stop paying attention to you.” ~ Brian Jory

In most romantic relationships, physical chemistry usually starts out hot and heavy. The relationship is novel and exciting, and affection and physical touch are likely constant. But as time passes, that consistent craving for intimacy may start to taper off. What can you do if you find your relationship having less heat that you would like? 

By the time you come to the realization that your partner is not affectionate anymore, it may seem like it happened all of a sudden. In reality, the affection has been slowly disappearing for quite a while.  Physical intimacy, like daily kisses, may turn into every few days, hugs happen only when forced, and even sex becomes less and less regular. Relationships naturally go through stages; moving out of the honeymoon stage when your partner and intimacy is all you think about is normal and okay. You and your partner can be completely in love while not having sex every night or touching constantly. 

Why does decrease of affection happen in relationships? There are several reasons; naturally, adding children to the equation can result in a lessening of affection as the demands of childcare become consuming. Another reason is work and financial stressors that emotionally drain you or your partner. Additionally, it is sometimes easy to take your relationship or your partner for granted as other things demand your attention. Many people deal with illness, mental health issues, and all sorts of self-esteem matters that simply require greater amounts of attention than before. Some may become obsessed with a hobby. Others can be abusing alcohol or drugs. Others still are depressed and do not know it. So if your partner’s affection for you has decreased, please do not immediately take it personally or think your partner is being unfaithful.

Whatever the case is for you and your partner, just know this: You can get the spark back! Below I have listed several suggestions that I use with my clients, as well as suggestions from other relationship professionals. These suggestions have been written as if the reader is the one whose partner has rescinded affection. Regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the loss of affection, here–in no particular order–are several suggestions I would make to turn up the heat a little bit:

  1. Talk. The first thing is to talk about how the lack of affection feels to you. “Do you feel abandoned because of the recent (or not so recent) loss of affection in your relationship? Do you miss their touch or kind words? Express your own feelings rather than blame your partner. This shows that you respect their reason for pulling away from you and are willing to consider their feelings. Blaming them for pulling away may only drive them farther away.
  2. Looks department. It is a special thing to not feel like you always have to look your best about your partner. Your relationship is safe; you feel loved no matter what you wear or look like. However, if you are trying to re-spark affection, upping your game in the looks department every so often might do just the trick. Curling your hair or putting on extra cologne may take you back to the glorious dating days when affection was second nature.  Attraction is easy in the beginning of a relationship because it is all new and exciting, but as a relationship matures, you need to work at it and keep adding fuel to the fire of attraction to keep it burning strong.
  3. Identify Love Languages. I have written at length about Love Languages (links included in the references section below) because I believe they are a powerful key to strengthen any relationship. Know how your partner receives love. Speak his/her love language. 
  4. Give genuine compliments. It is so easy to be critical when you have been in a relationship for awhile. Oftentimes the bad is easier to see than the good, and you have to make an added effort to recognize your partner’s strengths. Though you may assume your partner knows things you like about him/her, I invite you to verbalize these positives to them. Remind your partner why you love him/her by giving sincere compliments. This is a sure way to break down walls and foster closeness!
  5. Express gratitude. In a similar vein, do not assume your partner knows how grateful you are for him/her. Express your gratitude for all he/she does!
  6. Initiate affection. If you are feeling distant from your lover, I recommend getting close…physically. Sit close. Hold hands. Rub his back. Kiss her cheek. There are so many ways to be affectionate without having sex; intimacy can exist without sex, and sex can exist without intimacy. Go back to your dating days when that physical closeness and constant contact was something you sought out. 
  7. Keep promises. It is hard for me to want to be close or vulnerable with anyone if I am questioning their priorities or loyalty. If you are like me, you want to know that you can trust your partner with your affection. Be worthy of that affection by following through, keeping your word, and being honest. 

Loss of affection in a relationship is not the end of the world or your relationship. The good thing about realizing your partner is not affectionate anymore is that it can be fixed. Talk about your feelings, consider getting “dolled up” every so often, speak your partner’s love language, give compliments, express gratitude, initiate affection and keep your word. The final suggestion I have for boosting affection and connection in a relationship would be to seek help from a therapist. I am trained in and passionate about healing relationships and will be your relationship’s number one advocate. Do not hesitate to contact me today 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.

References:

On Love and Affection: When PDA is Okay

“A healthy amount of PDA allows the couple to express their affection to each other, and also to the world. Best practices include using ‘on and off switches.’ Continual PDA loses its importance, and makes others uncomfortable.” ~ Susan Winter

How do you feel about public displays of affection? Are you the type of person that loves snuggling, holding hands or kissing your lover, no matter where you are and who might be watching? Or does the mere thought of holding hands in public give you actual anxiety? Odds are that you fall somewhere in the middle. It is completely natural and okay to want to be affectionate with someone you love. In fact, when you cuddle with someone you care about, oxytocin–the hormone that fosters feelings of love, bonding, and connection–is secreted, thus earning its nickname as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. But even though PDA is normal and feels good, just keep in mind that there is a time, a place, and a limit for what is appropriate!

Falling in love is wonderful. When it happens, you may want the world to know. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you are likely to always hold hands and exchanging loving glances. Most onlookers will admire your newfound love fondly. I have written before about how all human beings have an innate need to be loved and have meaningful physical interactions with others.  But there is such a thing as too much of a public display of affection while anyone/everyone is watching. Here is a safe, and slightly humorous, rule of thumb: Ask yourself if your grandmother would approve. 

Let’s talk about the specific ways to display affection and whether or not they are appropriate in public:

  • Kissing. There are certain times it is completely okay to kiss the person you love–such as when you are greeting someone or saying goodbye. However, long, drawn-out kissing in front of others can make them feel like they are involuntarily watching a scene from a RomCom. 
  • Touching. The resources at the end of this post were unanimous in saying that it is always okay to hold hands with someone. An arm draped around someone is okay when you are sitting or casually strolling through the park. It is never okay to touch anyone in a private area in public.
  • Groping. Groping is never acceptable in public. Certain gestures are even illegal in public.
  • Tasting and nibbling. Reminder: Your face is not a lollipop, and you are not a vampire, so experts kindly ask you to refrain from licking or biting the person you love in front of others.
  • Electronic Affection. You should never text, post, or communicate anything intimately personal in a public forum or on any social media platform. Not only can this make others uncomfortable, but you may also embarrass the person you love.

PDA is commonplace in many places –like during your engagement or wedding day, at farewells and homecomings, at the airport when one is about to be deployed, at the movies (especially romantic ones), on the dance floor, and when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. I would venture to say that if you stay within the boundaries for the above actions, PDA is welcomed pretty much anywhere. But remember to ask yourself if Grandma would approve of how you are expressing your affection!

Showing appropriate levels of PDA can be healthy for a relationship. Being affectionate in public strengthens your love, shows a level of comfort with your partner, and allows others to identify you as a unit. Additionally, if things are not perfect in your relationship, PDA might be a way to spark connection again. PDA is really an unconscious form of staying connected; a brief kiss on the cheek, a hand placed gently at the small of the back, and an exchanged glance can get the heart pounding. This might even be the healing touch that can lead to amends or forgiveness in a relationship.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that not everyone wants to receive PDA. I have written at length about love languages (see sources below) because I believe in them. The fact is that, for some people, physical touch is the last way they communicate or receive love. For these people, touching in public may be very unwelcomed! Certain factors like personality, general comfort in public, safety, and regard for others’ feelings play a role in how someone interacts with their significant other in social situations.  I highly encourage you and your partner to openly discuss to what degree you wish to give and receive touch in public, and then to respect those wishes. That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold his/her hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their love languages. Unwelcome touching can potentially damage a relationship and push your partner away–especially where abuse or addiction is associated with PDA. 

Even after the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other whether life is breezy or if it is a time of disconnect. All humans need reinforcement. If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, please contact me to schedule a session. I am here to help. Remember that, when PDA is consensual, well-timed public displays of affection can provide a spark of hope and connection in relationships. 

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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The Toll Lying Takes on Lovers

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ~ Mark Twain

Lying begins early in life. Children as young as two begin lying when they discover how powerful their words are. Lying can come naturally; you say your friend’s favorite shirt looks great, knowing how much she loves the ugly thing. You lie in job interviews to increase the chances of being hired. You lie to your children, promising ice cream later if they eat their meal first (although you have zero intention of following through). While this type of lying is relatively benign, prolonged lying can undermine the glue that holds relationships together…trust. Trust is the expectation that another person will not hurt you when you are vulnerable, and humans thrive on having meaningful relationships founded on mutual trust. Take that trust away and you have an unsteady relationship. 

Let’s classify what a lie is. I see it as intentionally deceiving someone, omitting important information or only telling half of the truth. A wife may lie about how much money she spent. A husband may lie about what really happened on his boys night out. The husband I referred to in my previous blog post on gaslighting lied to his wife about turning the lights down (thus creating an alternate reality). A lie can be about anything–from what a person said, to what someone did (or did not do); from whereabouts to motives to goals to grades. The bottom line about a lie is that the truth is purposely left out. 

If you have been lied to by your partner, you likely feel anger, shock, resentment, disappointment, sadness. The whole thing leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. You might have a hard time saying it, but you also feel disrespected, humiliated…even violated. You have been because lying is a violation of your trust! Obviously, some lies are bigger and more devastating than others, but even small, little white lies that accumulate over time can make you feel like a punching bag.

Why do people lie?

According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a psychology instructor and clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health, misrepresentation and fibbing in relationships happens more often than you would think. Studies have shown that people lie frequently to those they care about most. Couples are telling each other little white lies all the time. But why? For starters, they have learned that telling the truth can sometimes start a fight. Although a little lie can avoid a fight temporarily, it is not worth the trust that is broken. Some people lie to save themselves from punishment or conflict, or to gain acceptance from a group or get something else they want. Others lie as a form of self-protection; they want to maintain their image or avoid blame or criticism. Sometimes it might just be easier and require less explanation to not give the full story.

You’ve been lied to. Now what? 

Let’s say you just found out that your significant other has been lying to you. You may wonder how to bring it up. Or if saying anything will even make a difference. Figuring out what the “right” thing to do in the moment is hard because you have been betrayed–which puts you on the defensive. Your instinct may be to lash out, or to humiliate them by calling them out on their lies. Although responding in these ways may give you temporary pleasure, they will not help in building the long-term trust you desire and deserve. Instead, try the following when responding to a partner who has been lying:

  1. Calmly point out the incongruity. Let them speak without becoming reactive and refrain from commentary until they have fully expressed themselves.
  2. Consider the why. Although you are understandably angry, instead try empathizing. See where your partner is coming from. People lie for a reason: insecurity, fear, shame, or because historically this was their way to survive and manage other past relationships. While none of this justifies the lie, trying to understand their perspective can help calm your own emotions and help you decide how best to proceed. 
  3. Establish boundaries. If you do choose to continue in the relationship, you have now established that lying is not acceptable.  Make it clear to your partner that you will only accept honesty. Encourage your partner to always tell the full truth, even if the truth may result in some hurt feelings (and then)…
  4. …Practice what you preach. Make honesty with your partner a conscious decision and a habit. Model the behavior you want your partner to exhibit. If you are ever tempted to fib or give an impartial truth (because many individuals tell small lies at time), don’t! Then give reason: “I am afraid you will be upset with me, but here is what I really think…” or, “It feels like it would be easier to lie to you, but the truth is…”; “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but since you asked, here is what I really think…” Talk it out. This will honor the boundaries you have established and create an open, safe environment. Hopefully this will inspire your partner to be truthful, too.
  5. Be consistent and patient. If your partner has been lying to you, remember that change is possible, but with time. Be patient with him/her and remember that consistent efforts to be truthful, even with the small things, will help telling the truth come more naturally. Continuing in this pattern will form a habit. When appropriate, remind your partner that the consequences of lying will never be worth the risk of being entirely truthful. For many people, finding a good, trusting relationship is a monumental life task. So if you have it, honor it, stick with it, be true to it, and be patient with it. 

Lies often start as self-preservation but generally turn to self-destruction. It is a fallacy to think that the consequences of telling the truth outweighs the risk of telling a lie; lies damage relationships. Research shows that small lies make it easier to tell bigger lies, which lead to more trouble. No matter the motive behind a lie, deceit is damaging to any relationship. Where lying creates distance and inauthenticity, telling the truth fosters trust and bonding, which strengthens relationships. So where trust has been lost, the most effective way for it to be regained is for the offender to understand the error of his ways, the vital need to be honest, and then to speak honestly, knowing you would rather have the ugly truth than a pretty lie. If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is struggling to tell the truth , please do not hesitate to contact me personally. My door is always open!

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

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Sticks and Stones Do Hurt…and So Can Words

Feeling insulted and damaged. Never measuring up. Walking on eggshells. These are just a few of many indicators of an emotionally abusive relationship. Emotional abuse is the consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. I want to help you recognize this often seemingly invisible, yet very real type of abuse.

The definition of abuse is regularly or repeatedly treating a person with cruelty or violence. In discussing abuse, physical abuse (like shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things) is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Emotional abuse is often devoid of physical violence; it is speech and/or behavior that’s controlling, punishing, or manipulative. This can include withholding love, communication, support, or money as indirect methods of exerting control and maintaining power. Emotional abuse might also look like someone controlling where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think. Spying, stalking, and invading your personal space or belongings is also abusive because it disregards personal boundaries.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if someone wants to know what you are doing all the time or requires you to be in constant contact; demands passwords to your phone, email, and social media (digital abuse); acts jealous; frequently accuses you of cheating; prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family; tries to stop you from going to work or school; gets angry in a way that frightens you; controls your finances or how you spend your money; stops you from seeing a doctor; humiliates you in front of others; calls you insulting names; threatens to hurt you, people or pets you care about; threatens to call the authorities to report you for wrongdoing; threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you; says things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can”; decides things for you that you should decide (like what to wear or eat); etc.

The most common form of emotional abuse is verbal, though it often goes unrecognized because it can be subtle. A client recently told me that she remembered a session from years ago when I stopped her now ex-husband from telling her to shut-up as she tried to speak. She did not even hear him say that, but she remembered feeling her body tense up. Research has shown that there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize; in fact, some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing it! Some forms of emotional/verbal use will undermine your self-esteem or make you feel inadequate as a way to establish hierarchy. 

Emotional and verbal abuse may be manifested outright or more insidiously in any of the following manners:

  • Using threats
  • Judging
  • Yelling
  • Patronizing
  • Criticizing
  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Publicly embarrassing you
  • Ordering
  • Raging (showing violent, uncontrollable anger)
  • Belittling your accomplishments
  • Insulting your appearance
  • Digital spying
  • Tracking your whereabouts
  • Lecturing
  • Denying something you know is true (gaslighting)
  • Trivializing
  • Demanding respect (but not giving it)
  • Keeping you from socializing (isolating you)
  • Interrupting
  • Treating you like a child
  • Name-calling, even using derogatory pet- or nicknames
  • Disguising something hurtful or controlling by saying it in a loving, quiet voice, indirectly, or even concealed as a joke

Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is emotional and verbal abuse. There are innumerable signs of emotional abuse–unique to each couple and individual. If you fear you may be being emotionally or verbally abused, please seek help today. 

An emotionally abusive relationship can change you forever. You may feel powerless, controlled, worthless; you may question your memory, live in fear, change how you act to avoid upsetting your partner. Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. This is no way to live. Help is available and you DESERVE it. If you suspect your partner, family member or friend may be emotionally abusing you, contact a counselor, an advocate or a pastor for assistance. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or visit their website (thehotline.org) and chat online with someone right away. I will be posting a follow-up blog discussing what to do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationships in the future. Please, do not suffer through emotional abuse. You and your happiness matter. My door is wide open; allow me to help you! Contact me 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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