Cecilia Ding

I am a registered associate marriage and family therapist and a certified self-growth coach. I am passionate about empowering people to grow and heal through life's transitions. I ran a free online meditation room weekly for everyone, including my own, self care.

Midlife Growth Spurt

For many of us who have children, we know that their bodies do not grow at a constant speed.  When they go through an exceptionally fast period, otherwise known as a growth spurt,  we observe more temper tantrums, squirmy bodies, or vicarious balances.  They are reacting to the discomfort of rapid changes within themselves.  They do not understand it or know how to express it, so they react to it the only way they know how—by acting out their confusion. What many of us know but forget is that we continue to grow throughout our lives.  While our bodies reach maturity by the mid or late 20s,  our brains continue to evolve as we accumulate life experiences.  In recent decades,  science has proved the brain’s ability to change through learning very late in life.   It is important to recognize our adult self also can go through difficult developmental periods just as teenagers during adolescence.   Common wisdom points toward midlife as a difficult period for many of us.  We have all heard about existential crisis, career transitions, or marriage breakups.   Many call it the midlife crisis.   I prefer the Chinese term: 中年危机。 The word 危机(crisis) denotes the coexistence of danger and opportunity.   I view this dreaded period as a midlife growth spurt.   It is a special opportunity for rapid personal growth.  

     This period is undeniably rocky.   Physically, many experience signs of aging.   Some question the meaning of a career pursued for survival.  Stresses from long-term relationships with children and partners surface even if we love each other deeply.  Finally, the death of some close to us such as parents or other relatives starts to make us think about our own mortality. While all of these signal “trouble”, they are also unique opportunities for us to reshape the meaning of our relationships with our family, career, and our internal worlds.  The multiple challenges that we face force us to accept new ideas, approaches, help, and relationships.   The “危“, or danger, here is that the “new” ideas could be finding the easier way out of this difficult period. For example, staying at a job we hate because of the stable pay even if we have enough money; Using plastic surgery to cover up sagging skin; Finding a new lover to prove we are still desirable.  These are like the temper tantrums of toddlers when they do not know how to handle the growing pain. The opportunities for real growth are abundant if we rise to the challenge.  This uncomfortable period creates the opportunity for our real courage to come out.  This courage will fuel our emotional growth.  Physically, our biological rhythms are ready to counterbalance some of our youthful anxieties.  We can retain the majority of our energy with better control over how to distribute them.  Careerwise, we have accumulated more self-knowledge and financial resources to pursue some of our long-ignored passion.    Emotionally, our maturity will guide us to look beneath the misleading hypes of romance and beauty to recognize what real love is and the ways to express them to those we love.  In finding new ways to define life for ourselves, we shed the burden of what should be and gain the reward of having what feels natural to our mind, body, and spirit. 

              Naturally, taking advantage of the “机”, or opportunity, for renewed energy, passion and direction requires effort from us. In order to fully realize the potential of this midlife growth spurt, I want to share the 8 key tasks of mid-life as I have understood through my own midlife transition and that of many of my clients:

  1. Accept the Past: 
    Recognize the regrets of the past are necessary lessons, it is okay AS LONG AS we learn from them. As human beings, we are biologically programmed to pay more attention to the negative as a survival mechanism.  We automatically underestimate what true assets we have.  Therefore, accepting and appreciating what we have can be very healing.  
  2. Growth-mind set is key for our midlife;
    Once we have accepted the past, we must focus on the growth potential of the present.  We deserve to invest in our own lives and not be lost in that of our posterities or those around us.   If our basic survival is not threatened, we can afford to take risks and make mistakes.  In the end, we have nothing important to lose and everything important to gain. 
  3. Realize that children are blissful and optional.
    Whether you have them or not, it can be an equally fortunate or unfortunate choice depending on our perspective. As long as we stop wondering what the people who chose differently have and we don’t, we can find joy in the choice we made for ourselves. We might feel we made the wrong decision when we are lonely, or conversely,  feel exhausted from childcare. It will be all okay.  We will build other relationships and we will have all the time we need for ourselves again.  Live it the way we feel true to ourselves at this moment, with or without children. 
  4. Our relationships are not everything–Cherish them but don’t expect more than what they can give you.  We value different things depending on how we are genetically and socially engineered. Some might need to get out more from relationships than others. We can only give each other our best.  Usually, that is not even close to everything. Ultimately, we are the only ones accountable for our happiness, not our friends, lovers, spouses, or children. 
  5. Balanced pursuit of ambition.  Wealth or power is convenient until it becomes destructive. Like many human ambitions, they are neither bad nor good until the price we are willing to pay for them begins to harm others or ourselves. We do not have to deny it. We just no longer need or have the luxury, to pursue them by ignoring everything else. One step at a time is fine. Getting “there”, wherever “there” is, is not the goal. Getting there is most of our life. So let us make that journey as pleasant as we can. 
  6. Finding the beauty in our aging body–They do coexist. Our consumer world has unrealistic definitions we cannot change. However, we always have and always will have control over the self-definition of beauty. I, for one, find aging to be very becoming. I no longer look into the mirror and wonder who this person is both physically and emotionally. We can still admire the commercial definition of beauty with perfect skin, symmetry, and an overdose of youth. The difference now is we can do so without the need to change ourselves. 
  7. Play again. Whether you have a child or not, this is a crucial but often neglected part of the midlife transition. The inner child in us,  the one that can genuinely find ourselves beautiful, is always there. This is our chance to rediscover it.  It will retrieve the buried parts of ourselves that are under the weight of modern society. Giving ourselves permission to, for example, be silly and unstructured at times.  It will only make us better when we return to work.  
  8. Slow down in order to go faster—While we moved at a faster speed than our younger selves, we often are going nowhere fast when we have no inner direction.  However, now we can really go somewhere slowly.  Armed with our emotional maturity, we will find moving slower is our new goal. Reacting slower to situations that don’t matter helps store up energy to react faster to those that do.  And most things ultimately don’t matter.  Considering how long-stored stress from fast-paced life can be the source of cancerous cells and other diseases, we must give ourselves room to slow down.

None of this will be easy. It is a process.  It will take many years.  Our growth spurts span longer later in life. It is not linear and it might go up and down, and back and forth.  Have courage, you will find a renewed and happier self at the end of the process.  Do it well, so you can do this all over again in future growth spurts.

Cecilia Ding The Self Growth Coach

A therapist experience of EMDR

I have been practicing EMDR for a couple of years and am in the process of becoming certified. I consider it my ethical obligation, as well as a benefit for my self-growth, to experience EMDR myself. Here I want to share my experience and show my gratitude to my fellow clinician Melissa Martinez of Connecticut. 

EMDR has been around for decades.  Many have passed the technique on, revised it, or added to it.  In both my training and practice, I have found that its impact is more obvious for clients who have been through complex and severe trauma.  I was not clear how it would work for stabilized and functional individuals like myself, and for many of my fellow clinicians, who have had stable even if imperfect caregivers and have not been exposed to complex or shock trauma.  We, perhaps like most people, have experienced developmental trauma that is more subtle and impacts us in less obvious, even if not less profound, ways.  

My attachment wound had stemmed primarily from my father.  When I think about my father, his fragility appears in my mind.  He is 71 and still quite agile and sharp. Even though his memory is not what it used to be, he is still a very functional man.  He had always been smart, book smart to be exact. He studied his way out of poverty, into the university, into the city of China, and then into his Master’s in the States.  He has had very little at the outset of his life.  Even though his family was not classified as the poorest of the poor, he experienced much deprivation. During the famine China experienced in 1960 and 1961, he starved during crucial developmental periods of his life.  It is no wonder he is shorter than his younger brother.   During this period, he had to suffer the pangs of an empty stomach frequently.  There was even one point when all they had to eat was boiled tree bark.  

As I write this, I feel immense tenderness for my father.  I feel his pain and fear, and even more sharply his shame.   Whenever his fear is stirred, he always fails to set boundaries and always tried too hard to please everyone(with the exception of my mom maybe, that was just his chauvinism at work).  The fear can take a break when his environment does not trigger his amygdala’s protective response.  However, the shame is unrelenting.  He carried that with him all his life, into his interactions with me.  The shame of being poor drove him to his professional heights. While he never reached a leadership position in an American company, he transformed himself from an agricultural farmhand to a programming engineer in an American company.    While there should be no shame in having an agricultural origin, there was a clear hierarchy where he grew up, and rural residents were at the bottom of that.  His emotional circuits were scarred by fear earlier on, and they were not stable enough to allow him to acquire a better sense of internal safety. The path he saw for himself and for me was that of academic excellence.  His biggest pride was that I made it into Harvard.  

Due to the kind of nurturing I had, while I was physically and academically able to manage, I was not emotionally mature enough to make the best of my journey. My mom was socially intelligent but had no sense of self-worth or self-confidence. Her upbringing deprived her of higher education and society, along with her husband,  habituated her to the feeling women are less important.  I grew up in that.  Even when no one ever said explicitly women were less, I lived and breathed it. I had the tools to function as a professional cog in society.   Yet part of me is not happy with that kind of existence. I ran into people along my journey and developed those emotional tools on my own to shift my perspectives on life.   Even as my new lease on life grew stronger and firmer, I was still processing the traumatic impact of growing up with a predominantly negative self-belief and fear-based parenting style.  While physical violence was rarely used, emotional violence was pervasive.  I grew up like many highly functioning individuals who had the tools(know-how in the left brain) but limited software(emotional road map in the right brain).  My confidence was limited to areas I knew I could accomplish.  My self-esteem was always set at ground zero because I was constantly returning to the baseline of “if I do not already know then I am not good enough”. Mom and dad repeatedly cemented that concept when they showed no satisfaction with any result other than a perfect score.  My life was an empty vessel that served the attainment of mathematical symbols whether on report cards or income slips.   This is what children who grew up relying on external validation feel like;  this is the formula for creating successful and deeply unhappy people who can’t stop striving for more to fill an invisible hole inside.   

I have known this and analyzed all this for over 25 years, either as an amateur psychologist or a professional counselor. I often returned to a few key memories that lingered in my conscious that represented the type of anxious attachment I had with my fearful(toward the world) and fearsome(toward me) dad.  Yet, when it was when I was doing EMDR that I realize how much the more subtle nonverbal experiences have impacted my perception of life.  I especially benefited from connecting with the preverbal memories in the womb, the memories of the birth process, and the first couple of years of my life.  Of course, none of these were derived from conscious memories but a combination of somatic sensations and sentiments surrounding the memories adults have shared with me.  Yet, the process zoomed in on that entrenched feelings of being unwanted(I was almost aborted), ugliness(I was born with a twist in the neck due to a medical error), and inability to get what I want(not being able to drink my mom’s breast milk).  In addition, clarity came through further research about the impoverished environment I lived in and the shortage of milk formula during the first 2 years of my life. All of which added to my sense of deprivation and helplessness at getting what I want.  It was through the eye movement, the flash, and the gentle shifting of the negative cognitions that I was able to rewire some of the deeply rooted parts of my brain to a different perspective on the whole of my life considering both the then and now.  

 It helped me with the first 2 steps described in my own Secure Attune Guide Embody steps.  It helped me realize I am Secure now. By acknowledging at a deeper level my past experience, or giving more pixels to the vague memories, I can now separate my present from the past.  It helped Attune to my feelings of shame that I had felt but dodged acknowledging most of the time.  Once the first 2 steps are done, primarily accomplished in the right side of the brain, my left brain naturally took over to Guide me toward the next steps in embodying my true belief about myself and my true potential.  I find myself making new connections and discovering new opportunities after those powerful yet subtle sessions.  For example, I would feel empowered to advertise myself to more people, and not worry about how I might be perceived by others, especially those I traditionally perceived to be in different social circles and only have seen certain aspects of me.  I no longer projected the shame I felt onto them and feel more confident about being accepted by all.  Anyone who would not accept me has roots in their own subjective limitations not caused by who I am.  Another time, I find myself being able to look at my Chinese friends’ faces more calmly. I lost an edge to the anxiety I normally felt when I was with them. It was as if I stopped feeling the shame of looking at faces that more closely resembled mine after living amongst predominantly non-Asian communities my entire teenage and young adult years.  

My healing is still ongoing. I am very lucky to have both a dedicated and skilled partner.  It helped me understand more how EMDR and other traumatic memory process techniques are completing my S.A.G.E. steps, which also resembled the 3 phase trauma resolution model by Judith Hermann: establishing the feeling of safety(S), Retelling of the Experience(A) and connection with the present (A).  I find that there are also plenty of “collateral” changes during the resolution: I am more aware of the feelings that will float through me, such as shame, anger, release, and lightness, then repeat until the emotional waves simmered out about a particular memory; I am also able to set boundaries more easily without activating my own fear or shame about what I might or might not deserve from others.    I also began to have new insights about how even as I struggled to heal from my childhood negativity, I had done well in a world, and that my education did not prepare me for things that people of my skin color and gender had to work harder to be heard.   There is still significant growth waiting for me. I am excited. 

I have been an emotionally stable person for several years, and before that, I was inwardly tumultuous while managing to stay just above the water inside.  The improvements I have described above are felt primarily within me as subtle shifts and gradually more by those around me—sometimes only after a while as they are not dramatic shifts.   Life is an unending journey of discovery.  EMDR could be part of it.  To serve clients the best,  I do not believe any technique should be exclusively used.  The mandate to meet clients where they are requires that we respond to their needs and not insist on using any particular technique unless it is the client’s choice.  Most clients, like many of us, have not felt sufficiently seen by their caregivers.  It will only serve to re-traumatize them if we insist on using our way rather than what they are ready for. Over time, it will be the quality of the rapport we build that determine if we are able to employ their techniques at times with their full buy-in.  My story only illustrated what could happen with a technique like EMDR, even in the absence of complex or shock trauma, when there is trust in the technique as it was in my case. 

I will continue to explore this and many other techniques in my own healing and healer path. I will share along the way.  I feel secure and confident as I continue this journey with my clinician Melissa Martinez.