The Direct Path to Happy Relationships

“Be direct. Be clear. Don’t worry about being correct. Worry about being real.” ~Jill Telford

Who can relate to the episode of That 70’s Show when Jackie is trying to get Kelso to do something, so she goes radio silent and expects him to figure it out? Of course he has no idea what she wants, and he actually goes the other direction–instead of getting closer to her to see what is wrong, he backs off, thinking things between them are great! She is left feeling frustrated because he did not magically figure out what she wanted, and this little tiff requires words in order to be sorted out.

In seeing this acted out, it is obvious that Jackie’s methods are comical and ineffective at best. However, it is not uncommon for this type of behavior to be employed in relationships outside of the 1970s. When you want or need something from your partner, what do you do? Do you sulk, whine, or pull back from the relationship as your way of indicating you need to be heard? Or do you speak up and directly voice your needs? Jackie’s type-of-response is referred to as “indirect support seeking” behavior and has a strong correlation to low self esteem. Ironically, such behavior elicits rejection–the exact thing Jackie’s type is trying to avoid! If this is something you do in your relationships, I imagine you are wondering…is there a better way to get what I need?

The answer is yes!

What I am about to say might sound too simple to be possible, but there is a way, and that way is by simply being direct. By saying what you need or think.

I have a close friend who I never have to worry if she is mad or if I offended her because she will tell me. She has taken the lead with being authentic, and has shown me how advantageous it is to have real, honest relationships. She says what she feels, thinks, and needs. It has created an incredible level of trust and openness in our relationship. Being direct removes so much anxiety and promotes closeness and trust. This can be done in any type of relationship!

Being direct and assertive involves being honest and genuine while remaining appropriate, diplomatic and respectful of yourself and others. It is not passive (being a doormat or a wimp), passive-aggressive (indirect communication, like not returning calls or emails hoping somebody gets the hint), or aggressive (being hostile and rude.) Being direct requires courage–the courage to be vulnerable and real.  It might be difficult to be direct when you tell someone you love them (or do not love them), when you need to confront someone about a problem, when you need to give difficult feedback, fire someone, say “no” to anything at all, or a host of other scenarios. In short, it is safe to say that you are likely to come under fire of potentially uncomfortable situations each day. Will you respond directly?

The following are suggestions for being more direct in your important relationships:

  • Consider the feelings you are holding inside and make your words match those feelings.
  • Before speaking, take Shirdi Sai Baba’s advice and ask yourself first, “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?” This will help you keep your ego in check and stop you from saying destructive things out of anger.
  • Keep it simple. Concise, clear, and brief is always better.
  • Speak in terms of “I” rather than “you” (“I need more physical affection” rather than, “You don’t show me enough affection”).
  • Focus on the behavior, rather than the person (“I need you to let me know when you are running late” rather than, “You are inconsiderate for making we wait”).
  • Avoid “always” and “never.” These superlatives are often unfair and untrue.
  • Avoid triangulation by speaking directly to the source.
  • Choose to love yourself by saying, “no” as needed. Know your limits!
  • Say it face to face. Do not express important sentiments or needs over text or email. Phone is okay, but in person is best. This will help prevent miscommunications.

Being direct is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed, but it can be done! Once understood, it will improve all of your important relationships. Indirect support seeking behaviors will nearly always leave you feeling rejected, alone, and misunderstood. Avoid this altogether by learning to say what you mean and meaning what you say. Be direct! I can speak from personal experience and say that communicating directly is liberating. It is the best way to get what you want or need out of all of your relationships. Communication is key in relationship satisfaction; if you need help communicating to the important people in your life, please do not hesitate to schedule a session. 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.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: “Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships”

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Truth Behind the Increase in Teen Suicide

Smart Phones & Teen Suicide - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistBetween 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who suffered from depression increased 33 percent in large national surveys, and the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide leapt up 31 percent. The cause of these increased numbers is scary and unfortunately all too familiar!

Ninety-two percent of young adults ages 18-29 own a smartphone. We use our phones to remind us of Grandpa’s birthday, to help us find the nearest ATM, to write down our grocery lists, to send emails, and to waste countless hours on social media. In short, we use our phones for everything. I recently broke my phone (to the point where the screen was black and the entire device wouldn’t function), and it was amazing to me how useless and naked I felt without my smart device. The bottom line: We are too dependent on our phones.

As adults, our brains are fully formed;  we have jobs, kids, responsibilities, and life to focus on. Admittedly, we simply cannot spend all day everyday aimlessly scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram. But teens? Well. Their brains are still forming. Their self-identity and self-esteem is still very much pliable. Their ability to manage time and make choices is still developing. Yet, we give them a smartphone–with limitless ways to waste time–and expect them to be unaffected?

Research has found that teens’ brains are heavily affected by the drug-like symptoms that come with smartphones. In fact, some children and teens are being damaged–sometimes beyond repair. Studies have found a striking correlation between rates of depression and suicide among teens and the dreaded smartphone.  According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 and 73 percent by 2015…which is exactly when the spike in teen suicide occurred. This increase in depression, suicide attempts, and suicide was found among teens from every background, every race, and every ethnicity in every region of the country. The common thread? Access to a smartphone during formative years.

It’s not just about having a smartphone, but about how the smartphone is used. Researchers have found that teens who spend five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely, than those who spend less than an hour a day, to have at least one suicide risk factor (such as depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

But why?

Let’s look at what is lost when teens are plugged in. For starters, much less time is spent interacting with friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the simplest ways humans find happiness. In a blog post from last May, I wrote about a Japanese concept called amae, which is the deep and innate need we all have to belong. We yearn for it, we need it, and without that feeling of truly belonging, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Next, being fixated on a screen causes and promotes further isolation, which is one of the major risk factors for depression and suicide. Then there is the likelihood of distraction, which leads to worsened performance in school, less sleep, and overall health. This is all happening before we even touch on the emotional drawbacks which include but are not limited to the deafening yells of comparison, the destruction of self-esteem and self-confidence, and the anxiety that will surely accompany the constant noise of a social media-filled world.

Some may say that depression and suicide are heavily influenced by genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma, and that the above statistics were caused due to those factors. Yes, it is true that some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in. But that many? Some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

If you are wondering what can help remedy this massive epidemic, let me propose three things:

  1. NO MORE SMARTPHONES! If you are one of those parents shaking your head, thinking, No, I need my daughter to be able to call me or message me at any time. Sure, I get that. But why an iPhone? Would a simple flip phone–with calling and texting capabilities, but NO internet–not do the trick?
  2. Limit screen time. Okay. So you do not want to take your kid’s smartphone away. If this is your choice, I strongly recommend that you set limits and boundaries that include time frames for how often the phone can be used (hopefully less than two hours a day), that it not be used during class time, that it is not used inappropriately (like for “sexting”), that it be kept in your room at night (to encourage healthy sleeping patterns), etc.
  3. Be the example. Very recently, in Utah, there was commotion on Instagram because a middle school teacher, in a very religious area, asked her students, “What my parents don’t know about social media is…” These students filled in horrific things. The teacher took her story to the news. It went viral. A social media voice caught wind of this and created a conversation where kids, teachers, parents, grandparents–everyone–agreed that smartphones and social media are like drugs. Not only have we likely given the young a new, modern-day drug to rely on, but we are not helping! Our kids see us glued to our phones and they think that is the norm, they want to mimic us! While the conversation started out about the troubling nature of kids with smartphones, it came full circle to where the problem is the parent’s–both for enabling kids by giving them access to phones, as well as for showing them that it is completely okay to spend hours flippantly scrolling through Instagram. Be the example. Put your phone down and be present.

This may seem like an odd topic for a Marriage and Family Therapist to post about, but if we step back and consider the undeniable link between deteriorating mental health in teens and the use of their smartphones, it suddenly becomes all the more apparent why I care. Help your child stimulate his or her mind by scrolling a little less and tuning in to LIFE a little more. Help them cultivate and enhance meaningful friendships and relationships. Talk to them about how time wasted on their phones and social media makes them feel. Feelings of inadequacy, comparison, and discouragement need to be an indication that it is time to put the phone down. Help your children navigate their feelings so they can form productive habits and make good choices. Protect their mental health by decreasing screen time. If you have questions or need specific help, please contact me. I am happy to help!

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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