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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The Magic of Saying No

“Whenever you say yes to something, it means you’re saying no to something else.” ~Susan Biali

We all feel badly when we have to say no to something or someone.  It is so much easier to say yes when people need help–even if it comes at personal expense. Though selfless service is necessary and admirable at times, there are other times where it is more applaudable to say no. Saying yes to everything means you will be spread too thin and will not able to get things done well or at all; it is physically impossible to take on something new without slacking on something else!  This post will focus on the magic of saying no in hopes of giving you the courage to say so when appropriate.

(Disclaimer, I am not specifically referring to saying no in relationships regarding boundaries and physical intimacy–though that topic is incredibly important. I will write about this specific subject in the future. Instead, I am referring to saying no instead of yes when asked to take on additional responsibilities that you simply cannot accommodate.)

Whether you have been asked to help watch a pet or child, pick something up, drop something off, or take on additional responsibilities at work, you have certainly been asked to help. Oftentimes it feels like yes is the only acceptable answer, even if it comes at great personal expense. Saying no means you could potentially hurt, anger or disappoint the person you are saying no to. You may fear appearing selfish, lazy, or uncaring. You want people to love (or at least like) you. So you inconvenience yourself and say yes.

However, saying no is actually a sign of strength because it shows that you know yourself and your limits. It allows you to give of yourself fully, within your limits, and not overextend or exhaust yourself. Having and maintaining personal boundaries can build important relationships by fostering honesty, openness and trust. (I am not suggesting you immediately decline an opportunity to help someone when asked. I believe in the power of service and have written several times about its power.) Saying yes when the answer should have been no only leads to frustration and resentment. Learning to say no can be a magical skill when used appropriately!

Now, let’s discuss the steps involved in the art of saying no:

Step one: Honor your time and priorities.

Time is an extremely precious commodity for everyone. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you must choose to spend your time wisely. Even if you do happen to have some extra time (which for most of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want or need to spend that time? Does it honor what is most important to you? Are your priorities in line? If you are asked to take on a new commitment that will cut into your valued family time, it may make saying no easier.

Step two: Take a moment + Raincheck

When someone asks for help, instead of giving an immediate (most likely affirmative) response on the spot, say that you need to check your calendar and will get back to him/her. If you end up needing to say no, maybe volunteer yourself to help in the future when you are more available. This can assure them that you are willing and want to help, but are unable to at the moment!

Step three: Do not apologize.

A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. Your time is your time. How you choose to spend your time is your choice. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about safeguarding your precious, finite time!

Step four: SAY NO.

You may cringe at the very thought of saying the abrasive, n-o word to someone. That’s okay! There are many ways around this that will still get your point across. Let’s say your friend asks to borrow your car, and you are less than excited about the idea. Here are seven ways to assertively, yet diplomatically, decline:

I prefer to be the only one driving my car.“

I prefer not to lend out my car.”

It doesn’t work for me to lend out my car.”

It’s important to me that I keep my car for my own use.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to lend you my car.”

I’m uncomfortable with letting others drive my car.“

I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let other people drive my car.”  

Notice that all of these suggestions are “I” statements. This puts ownership on you and therefore makes it more difficult for the listener to dispute. If someone is persistent in wanting you to do what he or she wants, keep repeating “no” using any combination of the statements above. Hold your ground until the person realizes you mean what you say.

Remember, saying no does not mean you are an uncaring, selfish person. It simply means you know and honor your time, priorities, and limits. Saying no protects you, earns the respect of others, and frees you to spend your time doing what is most important to you. It is actually quite magical! Setting skillful boundaries is an act of self-compassion. It is liberating and it is your right.

Next time you are asked to help someone, consider your priorities and how you wish to honor your time, pause before answering, offer a raincheck, do not apologize if you are busy and cannot feasibly rearrange things, and if necessary, say no. Remember that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to spend it wisely, sometimes it will be necessary to say no! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, and click here if you would like to schedule a session.

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

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Love Languages: The Gift of Words

The words you say can lift, comfort, inspire, motivate, and remind others how special they are. Words of affirmation carry a weight and a distinctive power that can change everything. For those whose primary love language is words of affirmation, hearing why they are loved sends them straight to heaven. Read on to learn about how you can improve your relationship today by applying the love language of words of affirmation.

Just before Valentine’s Day last month, I posted an overview on the 5 Love Languages. I shared that the way to give the perfect gift is to tailor your actions to how your partner receives love.  Love languages are powerful; by understanding our partners’ inherent love language, we can start to tear down walls that come up in our romantic lives.There are five ways that people speak and understand emotional love–through words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch. In this post, I want to focus on a love language that costs zero dollars and that you can do anywhere–that is expressing love through words of affirmation.

Words of Affirmation:  The love language that uses words to affirm others.

In short, practicing the love language of words of affirmation means we express affection through spoken words, praise, or appreciation. This love language comes easily during the dating and courtship stages of relationships, but it tends to grow harder for the more seasoned couples. Whether you realize it or not, you have an arsenal of compliments just waiting to be given to your significant other. Even when you are fighting or angry with each other, there are positive things you can say about him/her (even if it is, “He is a very passionate person,” or, “She is great at voicing her opinions”). We can use our words to build up, validate, compliment, or express love and/or appreciation for our partners. For some, words of affirmation is their primary love language. They do not need lavish gifts or fancy surprises…they need your words. They need you to tell them why you love them, why you chose (and continue to choose) to be with them. They need to hear their strengths. They need to know what makes them special. And, just like you, they need to be expressed love in their preferred love language regularly.

You may think that writing a long love note everyday is too much and fear that you would quickly run out of words to write. Think outside of the box. While I firmly believe that a meaningful, heartfelt card is appropriate for special occasions, there are feasible alternatives for every other day of the year. Try leaving a sticky note on the garage door on your way out, write a lipstick message on the bathroom mirror, leave a note in his pocket or briefcase before work, call your partner during the day just to express love, send an email or a quick text, or simply look at your partner and express love.

As we have established, words have a powerful effect on those with the primary love language of words of affirmation. That power can be both positive or negative. Heartfelt love and appreciation can cause them to feel incredibly satisfied and content; conversely, rudeness, insults, and even a brusque tone deeply injure those whose love language is words of affirmation. That is why understanding and using this love language in a way that resonates with your partner will make a world of difference.

So how can you use this love language? Make your conversations meaningful. I do not mean that all of your conversations need to be deep or introspective (though there is a place for that). Treat your partner’s words like they matter–because they do! Stop what you are doing. Listen. Ask questions. Validate. Seek clarification. Express appreciation and encouragement. Apologize. Do not withhold compliments. Strive for present, meaningful conversation, and you will communicate that you love and deeply care for your partner.

Here are some prompts to get you thinking about how easily you can incorporate words of affirmation into your daily walk and talk:

Examples of words of appreciation:

  • I appreciate that you . . .
  • I couldn’t ___ today if it weren’t for you . . .
  • I am thankful that you . . .
  • I’m glad to have you as my (mom, sister, friend, etc.) because . . .

Examples of words of encouragement:

  • I believe in you because . . .
  • It impressed me when you . . .
  • The good news is . . .
  • When you need something to lift your spirits, just remember that . . .

Examples of words of empathy:

  • It must be really tough that you . . .
  • I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to . . .
  • That sounds . . . Is that right?
  • I could see how you would feel that way because . .

Examples of words of respect:

  • Great job . . .
  • I’m so thankful to have you in my life because . . .
  • I wish I could ___ the way you do.
  • It makes me happy when you . . .
  • I’m proud of you for . . .

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know his/her (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other. If your partner receives love through words of affirmation, do not be overwhelmed. Remember, you do not need anything special to say more affirming words today. By simply tweaking what you say (and how you say it), you can drastically alter your relationship for the better. As always, should you need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, my office 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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