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?