Letter Writing-a Path to Self Discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Close While Quarantine Keeps You Far Apart

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

~ Jonah Berger

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Date Night at Home: Quarantine Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sanity-Saving Exercises During Quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding Your Child’s Love Language

Love Languages

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

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

TOUCH

“Mama, come snuggle me.”

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

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

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

GIFTS

“Daddy, will you get me a toy?”

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

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

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

WORDS

“Mama, listen to me!”

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

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: 

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

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

SERVICE

“Mama, can you put my shoes on?”

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

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

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

TIME

“Daddy, come read me a story!”

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

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

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

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

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

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Debunking the Myth: Men CAN Have Anxiety

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

~Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers 

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

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

The facts about men and anxiety:

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

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

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

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

References:

Breaking Up With Your Relationship Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Practical Principles for the Practically Perfect

OCD

Anxiety manifests itself in many forms. Phobias, social anxiety, panic disorder, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are commonly categorized under the umbrella of anxiety. There is, however, another emerging diagnostic disorder with which I have personally become familiar with in recent years: perfectionism. 

Perfectionism plays a major role in a variety of psychological disorders. Despite an abundance of research, there is still no concrete definition of what it is. Perfectionism can be characterized by excessive concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, the perception of high parental/employer expectations, doubting quality of one’s actions, and a preference for order and organization. From afar, it may not seem so harmful, but it can interfere with routines, everyday interactions, and emotional regulation. 

I didn’t recognize the severity of perfectionism that I experienced until my junior year of college. I sat in a lecture focused on the difference between being outcome-oriented and task-oriented. The professor explained that outcome-oriented people feel the need to seek approval from others. They are in constant need of validation and often set extreme goals that are not achievable. Task oriented people were those who live in the present, set realistic goals, and do not rely on the approval of others for their success. As I considered these opposing mindsets, it was apparent that I resembled the first; I panicked at the thought of future failure, set practically impossible goals for myself, and sought success from the approval of others. 

What then, is the relationship between an outcome-oriented mindset and perfectionism? Outcome-oriented individuals spend little time living in the present. Instead, they are focused on future outcomes or past failures. Performance psychologist Craig Manning teaches that anxiety comes from living in the future. When our thoughts are constantly centered on future events where we are expected to perform, our anxiety spikes. It turns out that agonizing over the past doesn’t help much either. As we set our focus on past failures or mistakes, our confidence in our ability to perform in the future decreases, again leading to high anxiety levels pointed toward future performance. 

Although perfectionism isn’t notably linked with the outcome-oriented mindset in psychological literature, the connection that I drew between the two was the spark that ignited my path towards empowerment. While my tendencies toward perfectionist symptoms are deeply rooted in past experiences, there is so much that I, and others who experience perfectionism, can do right now to lower the anxious feelings and constant stress. 

First, we can work on setting realistic expectations. Growing up, I relied on the expectations of others to guide the expectations I held for myself. This is normal as we are learning and growing, but eventually, we should begin to set our own expectations and determinants for success. Setting realistic expectations requires that we consider our strengths and limitations. In recognizing what we can do, we also acknowledge room for error, improvement, and learning. People who experience high volumes of perfectionism often perceive that others have extreme goals and expectations for their behavior. Setting our own expectations draws attention away from others’ expectations for us and towards the expectations we set for ourselves. Although difficult, learning to set realistic expectations allows us to worry less about others and spend more time living in the present. 

Another tool we can use to calm anxious perfectionism is proactive self talk. Proactive self talk is a popular practice in performance psychology. It includes using proactive language, recognizing skills, and being aware of our thought patterns. Many athletes and teams use proactive self talk to improve sports performance, but its effects extend past the arena or stadium. Proactive self talk has actually been proven to lower levels of anxiety when performing under pressure. For perfectionists, proactive self talk becomes a tool that instills confidence in concrete skills and actions that enhance their performance. The fear of inability shifts to a confidence in individual ability. 

These practices are just a couple of methods that can lower the anxieties that accompany perfectionism. Personally, I have been empowered through a balance of professional therapy, diet and exercise, and research-informed practices. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for assistance; they have resources and training that can link you with the help you need! 

Although my struggle with perfectionism hasn’t been easy, I have learned more compassion– both for myself, and for others. I have learned that it is empowering to speak out about my experiences and encourage others to share theirs. Most importantly, I have learned that there is help and there is hope for everyone experiencing mental illness. 

Lydia Judd is a senior at Brigham Young University studying psychology. She lives in Dallas, TX with her husband where she works as an RBT at Blue Sprig Pediatrics.  

Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C. et al. Cogn Ther Res (1990) 14: 449. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01172967

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk–performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and exercise, 10(1), 186-192

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1996). The multidimensional perfectionism scale. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems Inc.

Manning, C. (2017). The fearless mind: 5 essential steps to higher performance. Springville, UT: CFI.

What to Expect When You Are Expecting…To Start Therapy

Starting Therapy
Starting Therapy

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

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

What to expect before you start. 

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

What to expect when choosing a therapist.

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

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

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

What to expect when you start.

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

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

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

What to expect during regular sessions.

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

What to expect when therapy is nearing an end.

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

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

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

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

References:

I’m Not Crazy! Overcoming the Stigma Around Therapy

Therapist Help

“In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” ~ Johnny Carson

Therapist Help

Imagine the following scenario: You go running and roll your ankle. You hear a pop and are in great pain. It turns black and blue and swells quickly. You are concerned it is broken or seriously torn, but you fear going to the doctor for help. What will your neighbors say? Will they gossip about how weak you are for not just “getting through it” or figuring it out on your own? You decide to avoid the doctor, take some Tylenol, hobble around like nothing is wrong, and hope it will just go away on its own.

This example might seem foolish to you…why would you not go to the doctor?! It may seem downright silly to not get help when help is needed!  Likewise, when a person encounters trauma, addiction, abuse, or mental illness, it is of legitimate concern and often necessitates professional help like therapy. In the exact same way a broken or sprained ankle often requires the attention of a doctor, many mental health issues require professional help. And there is nothing wrong with that! 

Recently I had a client look me in the face and say, “I don’t belong here.” She felt she should not be in my office sitting on my couch getting help from a licensed therapist because she was not crazy. She had a fulfilling career, many dear friends, and owned lots of expensive things. She did not believe she fit the image, she had in her head, of someone who needed therapy. In short, she thought therapy was for people that outwardly looked like they did not have their life together and she was not one of them. It hurts my heart to hear the shame she, and other clients have felt for being brave and seeking help. 

When studying roadblocks to receiving therapy, Patrick Corrigan and Andrea Bink (2016) had participants report fear of being stigmatized was the leading factor for avoiding treatment. Participants feared they would be treated differently by their friends and coworkers, that they would encounter rejection or discrimination as a result of seeking out mental health treatment.  Most participants would hide their psychiatric status from coworkers, friends, and even family to avoid being the victim of stigma. Thankfully, in recent years–due in large part to social media attention around the stigma around mental health and therapy–it has become much more socially acceptable to receive mental health care. It is not uncommon to hear about celebrities and prominent figures seeing a therapist; many of them highly recommend it for every- and anyone! I applaud these men and women for using their influence to break the mold and speak up on the many benefits of therapy!

The latest statistics show that the amount of people seeking and receiving mental health support is increasing! In 2018, 47.6 million U.S. adults experienced mental illness…that is 1 in 5 adults! Thankfully, 43.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment in 2018 and 64.1% of U.S. adults with a serious mental illness received treatment in the same year. 50.6% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 with a mental health disorder received treatment in 2016. Millions of Americans experience mental health challenges each year and millions are receiving help by medical and mental health professionals!

Going to therapy does not mean you are crazy. It means you are smart. Would you sit at home, alone, and let your broken ankle “do its thing” without getting help? No. You would make the proper appointments and follow the advice of the professionals so you could soon be running again. My hope, my plea, my job is to help my clients find lasting healing.  The average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years. Eleven years people will struggle with an emotional “broken ankle” before getting help. Ouch! You do not need to suffer any longer. Make the call–get in to see a therapist today.

I felt sad for the client of mine, and any others who share her sentiments. Just because you receive mental health attention does not mean you are crazy. Just the other day a client, who begrudgingly started therapy at the insistence of their spouse, recently told their new employer that they thought everyone should go to therapy, after they experienced the personal benefits of therapy. While I acknowledge you may believe that going to therapy means you are weak, crazy, limited, hopeless, etc–these stigmatic ideas could not be farther from the truth. I know my clients: THEY ARE BRAVE. They are good people who see their worth. My clients–and those who seek help in other ways–are my heroes and I will always and forever shout that from the rooftops! We need to do away with any and all stigmas that therapy is just for broken, crazy people. It could not be farther from the truth! 

If you have been letting your emotional broken ankle heal on its own because you have felt you do not “belong” in therapy, the time to act is now. Allow a licensed, qualified, experienced therapist, to help you. Emotional health, healing and happiness are possible. Contact me today!

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

References: