self care

Cecilia Ding The Self Growth Coach

How to manage relationships you have outgrown?

I have been feeling a slightly unsteady mood lately. As a counselor and coach, I have the tools to regulate my emotions on a daily basis. Yet as a human, I accept that my emotional waves are supposed to go up and down. I rarely feel 10-foot waves, but I still sense the tide that could gently rock the heart. For the past few days, I sensed the tide has been slowly carrying me to a new dock for my friendships.

While I am a very social person with a wide network, there have been only 2 people, outside of my parents and my immediate family, who have taken places in the inner chambers of my emotional abode. One is a mentor/long-term friend and another is a confidante I made during the early days in my career. On the surface, I had very little in common with them in the academic, professional, and economic reality of our lives. They came from much less privileged backgrounds with broken families. What has brought our hearts together was our common desire for emotional connection, analyses of our inner selves, interest in social realities, and commitment to keeping in touch. Over the years, as I grow busier with professional life, marriage, and motherhood, I, like many others, no longer have the time dedicated to making friends with the same intensity we had in our teens or 20s. The friendships formed over the previous decades became the stronghold of my life. The intimate rapport of the olden days is irreplaceable. They are precious friendships that I have preserved for over 20 years despite my traveling around the world for most of those years and rarely seeing them in person. Covid has only exasperated that.

There are unfortunately other less-than-healthy reasons for our friendship, namely the insecurities and wounds we have carried from our childhood that led us to bond over negative beliefs or even fear about our surroundings. Even though my parents had grown to be financially stable in my teenage years and their marriage was preserved to the end of my mom’s life, I had grown up with the generational trauma of poverty that lasted till my early childhood, the gender inequality in their marriage and the negative and fear-based parenting style I labored under. In the fight-and-flight reaction my friends and I experienced during the better half of our early days, we clung to each other for comfort. It is soothing for the wound yet it also inadvertently reinforces patterns of interaction we had carried from our childhood.

There are many kinds of unhealthy relationships just as there are beautiful ones. Traumatic bonding, anxious attachment, avoidance attachment, disorganized attachment, and Stockholm syndromes are just a few of the terms that describe relationships that create difficult emotional patterns and limiting beliefs. While there are many differences between the types, the common factors include lack of safety and equality. The consequences are victims, or the ones with less power in these relationships, develop low self-esteem, low self-worth, and inability to form healthy relationships subsequently–they tend to repeat what they do and thus generate a cycle of repeated abuse. While my relationship with my friends did not consist of inequality and safety, we have all brought the over-activated alarm system(anatomically, it is the neutral complex that includes the amygdala) to our perception of the world. Together, we reassure each other of our perceptions based on our emotionally, or at times physically, insecure experiences from the past. While my relationships with my dear friends are mostly positive, recently I have started finding myself needing more space from them. I have changed my relationship with the world, which had a domino impact on my relationships.

If there is one thing I have learned through my clients and my own healing is how much we are capable of change. It might not all come at once or for a long time, however, if we believe in ourselves or someone believes in us, our brain and body are capable of incredible growth. However, we do not all grow at the same rate or direction. What if, as it has happened to me after you have grown through therapy and coaching, you find that people who are close to you have not, or have moved in different directions? They are not able to relate to you in a new way because you have rejected the negative self-belief and emotional patterns that formed at least part of interactions.

In my story, I have begun to heal through the counseling and coaching I received. While I still cherish my friendships, I no longer wanted to expend energy on some of the past pursuits, such as analyzing obsessively so I could feel I had control over the situation, dwelling on the emotional attachment that was a remnant of the past and impedes moving forward to new types of relationship, and most of all no longer always prepare for the worst even if I am aware of the uncertainties life carries. As a result, I started to sense the weight of those conversations and attitudes from my friends more. As a loyal and caring person, I tried to bear with it without complaint. I slowly built boundaries for myself and created some distance. However, things would come up that brought heaviness into our relationship. Whether it is a perceived criticism from the random encounters, continued entanglement with unhealthy alliances, or hypervigilance over an uncertain outcome. Finally, I shared with my friends my thoughts. I stated clearly that I no longer want to have certain types of conversations, I want to believe in and put forth more positive energy, and I want to reduce the role fear has in my pursuits. It was an uncomfortable process, but I was ready. As a counselor, I support many people through these moments. As a friend, I want to share joy not caretaking abilities, and much less spreading negative energy.

If you have read my piece on parentification, you might recall how being made responsible for monitoring our parents emotionally or physically as children could result in habitual caretaking. Many of us went through it with different degrees of severity. Women are more likely victimized by it due to social expectations of caretaking behavior. An overwhelming percentage of counselors and therapists have reported taking care of adults emotionally or physically as children. Of course, living as a member of any community requires us to be aware of emotional cues from others and help each other out, both for our safety and to foster empathy toward others. The difference between healthy awareness of such needs and unhealthy ones is whether fear is involved. As children, we instinctually depend on our parents for survival, so if there are any expectations for physical or emotional support by adults who were supposed to guide us, or worse if fear was used as a weapon for compliance, then we would assume there is no choice but to comply. Over the years, we develop the urge to respond to other people’s needs out of a knee-jerk reaction. Even as adults, we subconsciously fear the consequences for our survival if we do not respond. This is different from the intentional caretaking we do for those we love because we care and choose to, I call it “survival caretaking.” My father is a good dad but he was naturally not perfect like all humans. I have grown up feeling responsible for my dad’s emotional state, so I became skilled and even talented at studying, achieving, and making sure other people are feeling good, even if their discomfort might have nothing to do with me. There was also an element of mirroring since I saw my father doing that all throughout his life. As a professional, I have made a conscious choice to own my talent and convert it into my superpower as a professional.

My determination to set boundaries on how much “survival caretaking” shows up in my life is part of my personal development. I have stopped being responsible for acquaintances’, colleagues or friends’ emotional states, then I started to cut down on my enmeshment with the emotional state of my inner circle of friends, I am also creating healthier distance with my family while maintaining intimacy, finally, I am able to reduce my anxiety over people with power over me and their emotional state—the category closest to the role my father played early in my life. As part of this personal growth, my decision to adjust my friendship is another way of creating more space for my emotional landscape. It leaves more energy for intentional caretaking, such as in my professional as a coach and healer, and less for survival caretaking. During the process, I was ready for some distance between myself and my close friends. If the price of a healthier self is losing some of the negative connections, I was ready to let go of some dysfunctional intimacy. It also brought on my days of melancholy moods because I thought I lost irreplaceable friendships. To my surprise, my friends were ready to accept it. There were some new division lines marked, and limits respected, there was also an initial cooling-off period during which I was steeling myself for rejection. Yet I saw they never went away and still supported me in my pursuit and accepted who I am now. I believe even more than before that real friend are strong enough to grow with me. We are complex beings with multiple levers of reality. Even if my boundary setting means I no longer dock at the previous harbor we met on, there will be meeting points for us down the coastline. Their strength and love allow me to be authentic, even as there are parts of the new me they do not have in common, just as I accept them for who they have grown into without needing to interact with each piece. I know now that previously by hiding my discomfort with certain parts of our relationship, I was compromising the honesty that was essential to our relationship. The courage to reveal my truth to them paid off. It did not isolate me. It only deepened our intimacy because it allowed us to see each other even more clearly.

I am fortunate to have friends who can grow with me. I know that is not always the case. My preparation for rejection could have been necessary. If that is the case, I know I would have been able to make new connections even as I mourn my lost ones. I would not have known the capacity of our relationship until we are ready to test its limit by setting my own priorities. I am grateful for my relationships, even those less than healthy, and have not survived my own rebirth. They have helped me grow through trial and error. What is your own story of continuously evolving relationships that have helped you grow or just grown alongside you?

Night-Time-Meditation Cecilia-Ding the self growth coach

Night Time Meditation Group

My dear friends and family, please help spread the word about my free Online Guided Meditation group, at 9 pm PST on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Anyone is welcome and no experience is necessary.  

I will play a piece of gentle music and use scripts I wrote or learned from others to guide the group. No audio or video from participants is necessary. This is an entirely experiential time for silence and mindfulness meditation.

Meditation and Mindfulness have been pivotal in my own healing and in the journey to heal for my clients as a counselor as well as an important tool for my coaching clients. I want to share this with everyone through this group. You can learn more about me at http://www.ceciliading.com  Please scan the qr code in the pinned post to sign up with a very simple form.

#mindfulness meditation  onlinemeditation

Managing Emotional Cycles

     With the virus showing no sign of backing off from the world stage, it is no surprise that I have been meeting more clients with pronounced emotional ups and downs.   We all have the natural tendency to have good moments fluctuate with bad ones.  I had my own struggle in this area as a young professional.  The restrictions of Covid placed on our daily lives have only made more of us vulnerable to them.  


     Emotional ups and downs are not unique to my clients or me.   It is fair to say that most of us,  who are functional and mentally stable, experience emotional highs and lows.  Emotions come and go like waves in the ocean,  an analogy I often use in treatment rooms.  Our emotions are natural and healthy parts of our existence.  They help us recognize the needs of our bodies.  Tiredness or fatigue can show up as crankiness or anger even if we still feel we can push on.  If we listen carefully to the message our bodies send us, we can locate the source of pain that blocks our path and find the passion that energizes us in each moment.         

These waves should never be flat, just as no flat oceans exist.  That would not be any healthier than exaggerated highs or lows.   It follows then most of my clients, and the people in my life including myself, feel the impact of emotional waves at one point or another.   What makes one group stand out more than another is the intensity and regularity of such highs and lows.   When the highs show up as anxiety or out of control energy and are followed by the lows of depression, quality of life is severely compromised.   In its extreme form, these highs and lows take over our life completely so that we no longer can function in basic daily routines.  The body is exhausted by the demand of these emotional symptoms that no resource is left for the logic brain to function.  This happened to my father while he was grieving my mother.   He needed medication to balance the chemicals in his body so he could activate his executive functioning, while his limbic system was still adjusting to the loss of a long-term mate.   However, one does not have to suffer debilitating depression in order to be a victim of such emotional ups and downs.    Many of my clients experience the discomfort of such emotions while still managing to keep a full-time job and support their families.    Yet the intensity and frequency of these fluctuations rob them of much of the joy and potentials in their lives.   They keep them scared and away from the immense possibilities of what life could be.       

Many of us have not learned emotional regulation or smoothing out our emotional curves in school or from our parents.   If our parents have suffered from trauma, such as poverty, war, or failure to attach securely to their parents, they would not have had the knowledge to create that inner safe space to manage the intense emotions.  They would have been left to the mercy of outside stimuli for calmness or joy.   In extreme circumstances that deal hard emotional blows, their bodies would be taken over by those emotions, as my father did after my mother’s sudden death.  In school, our teachers are usually burdened with a content-driven curriculum, which enriches our human brain without aligning it with other crucial parts of our neurology for happiness and balance.  We can only know what was modeled and inherit what was experienced.  It naturally becomes a muscle memory to go up and down, as if a roller coaster out of our subjective control.   That would be exhausting and sad.  The wonderful news is that we all have the innate resource within our body to take back that control.  Regardless of the labels for your condition, whether it is major depression, cyclothymia, or general unhappiness/moodiness,  we all can learn the techniques to activate that control, often without chemical intervention.  It would take time and practice, and most of all, faith and dedication.     I was a victim of such cycles in my youth and much of my early adult life.  Every few days meant a renewed faith in a new direction; but inevitably doubt and sadness will return to halt my progress.  It never stopped me from making a very good living with what I already knew; it did, however, prevent me from pursuing more of I wanted in relationships or career.   When the cycle was in a more comfortable spot, I could feel anything was possible; when it sunk into its predictable low point, I felt powerless.  A familiar sense of sadness would overtake my body and zap it of the willpower to take action.  This only became better when I started to write. Having had enough success in my investments, I afforded myself the time to explore and gradually believe in my own creations.  Writing down the stories and characters I created validated my existence.  It weakened the doubt of my self-worth, which was badgered by an upbringing characterized by negative reinforcement. Whether the stories were well-written or not, I gave voice to my being in its unique form.   That was just the beginning.   My cycles had become flatter.  The lows would come much less often.  However, I was still trapped by the negative thinking style generated from my lows.  Those schemas were the defense mechanisms I inherited from my parents who had adopted in their very unsafe childhood.   My next step came from my therapist/coach.     She was the one that helped me connect my mind with my body.  She introduced me to mindfulness.  While I had practiced mindfulness before, I was not yet able to integrate it with my emotional tides.   Mindfulness is a practice that tones our triune brains to be more present. It enabled them to collaborate during the ups and downs to slow down and optimize our reaction.  Over the years that I practiced, particularly during periods of extreme pain and sadness, I slowly developed the innate ability to exam those times from a safe distance within a refuge created for within myself.  This was a resource that was eternally renewable.  Whenever the body’s senses were sounding alarms through negative emotions–sadness, anger, frustration, I have learned to recognize it as a call to reset.   Regardless of how busy I was, I would always find a few minutes to close my eyes and center on my breath.  Each time I connected with this safe space, I became more capable of integrating those emotions with my cognitive functions in real-time. I identified the source of sadness, shame, or fear more quickly.  They often have roots from incidents long ago that resembled the present moment.  It shortened the time such emotions overtook my executive functions.   This has improved the quality of my life by increasing my productivity(less time stuck in negative thinking activated by mood swings), bettering my relationship(less impulsive reaction to the negative emotions of those close to me), and giving me the courage to encounter new challenges(conscious of the fight-flight activation in real-time and using mindfulness to soothe the fear).  
      My journey, like my clients, is ongoing.   As we connect old emotional scars with present reactivity, we will lessen its impact on our daily life.  Thereafter, we will be ready to continuously challenge our 3-part brain in new adventures.   As we age, experience loss, encounter new fears and earn more wisdom, our emotionality and human cognition will continue to develop and mature.   Our lives will be more mini emotional waves that we can soothe with our internal resources and occasional larger splashes.  During those more threatening tides, I encourage everyone to remember the following 3 C steps:
   1. Calm:  Use a form of mindfulness that has spoken to you in the past to provide safety to your animal brains first(it could be breathing exercises, yoga, or nature walking, journaling, anything that calms your body and slows down the heartbeat without negative side effects).     Let your go-to exercise connect your startled limbic system and brain stem(animal brains) with your cognitive functions.  Your human brain can let them know objectively the challenge you are facing, rather than being taken over by emotions the animal brains are generating out of reflex.    2.  Correction:  After the intensity of negative emotions lessens, there will still be residual anxiety, sadness, or negative thinking that had come up in the past during these moments.  This would be the moment to do some cognitive behavior exercises or talk to a coach/therapist about schema that had defined these moments in the past.  These exercises can help recognize the negative patterns past experiences had trapped you in.  Exercise or your therapist can help you recognize your worst fears, demystify them or discover existing resources you have to manage those feared outcomes. 
3. Coordinate: Finally,  there are often times those residual negative thoughts or emotions can take on a life of their own.  It won’t stop coming up in our minds even long after our animal brain had quieted down.  This is when our mindfulness can step in and connect our 3-part brain again.  This time it is not the human brain who will be saving the scared animal brains; rather it will be the animal brains who can bring the over-wrought human brain to recognize your body is safe in this very moment.  The mindfulness will bring you into the present rather than being stuck in the reaction to the past or consumed by the worry about the future.   This will allow you to free up much-needed energy from nervousness.  You can then deploy more resources toward prioritizing, planning, and enjoying the moment until more effective action could be taken. 

I hope you will take this as a starting point of making your life freer from emotional tidal waves.  Emotions are a necessary part of our lives but should not determine the direction of our path.  There are many therapeutic orientations that are aimed at resolving past trauma and achieving more balance between our senses and our mind–such as Somatic Experiencing by Peter Levine, EMDR by Dr. Shapiro, Mindfulness, Brainspotting, and Tapping.  While therapists might disagree on the ultimate effectiveness of each one of these techniques, it is reassuring to know there are resources available for our healing long after we have become an adult.  Our brains are not static.  It can grow and change after we have matured or even after we believe our physical organs start to decline.  Seek out the help you deserve whether it is through reading about these resources or locating help suitable for you.
     I believe in you and me.  We can do this together, even if while remaining apart.