(I wrote this post in “common” terms instead of IFS terms to hopefully make it easier to understand without lengthy explanations.)
I have never been able to meditate. Meditation has always been a precursor to a major anxiety attack. It didn’t matter if it was guided or alone, but guided was the worse. Guided meditation felt as if someone was taking over my mind.
A few months ago, or was it years–time is so relevant these days, my boss said at a work training that in meditation the thoughts come in and you are supposed to, essentially, push them out. Keep the mind clear. But in my mind, when the thoughts come in, they cling and grow worse as I try to silence them.
Enter Internal Family Systems Therapy, and now it all makes so much sense.
The way I would now describe what was happening in my mind when I’d try to meditate and the guided meditations would tell me to silence my thoughts, was akin to telling your kid to shut up when they have something to say to you but it seems unimportant to your adult brain. The kid will be angry and disappointed and, after a while, they will lose their trust in you.
When I would sit down and try to meditate as prescribed by everyone I ever met or every book I ever read, my thoughts would try to talk to me in the calm and I would try to shut them up, as prescribed. As a result, they would become angry or sad or betrayed and then the anxiety would start to shoot up as a result.
Since I started really working with the IFS model, I have not had an anxiety attack, and I meditate several times a day. (I can right now, school is out for another week.) The difference is that when I meditate it is for the purpose of listening to those voices and giving validation to what they are saying.
It is mind boggling to me that this very simple change is all it took to calm my mind. When some sort of thought goes through it, even if I am not meditating, I listen, I validate, I usually consider it further to see where it came from and what is truly behind the thought. And I am, for the first time in my life, completely calm about it.
IFS teaches that when you are going through this process, the correct way to approach the thought is with what it calls the 8 C’s of Self-Leadership: Compassion, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, creativity, and curiosity. If you are feeling the opposite of any of these, the conversation with your thoughts will not go well. For example, when we approach a “negative” thought with compassion instead of attacking it, like we have all been taught from our earliest days, it is easier to calm the thought and to find out what is really going on.
Consider what happens in a conversation with another human being. A person brings a problem politely or angrily, if we respond calmly, the conversation is generally going to go better than it would if we react with anger or in any defensive way. Not a perfect example, of course, because people have their own thoughts they are dealing with. But our thoughts, believe it or not, are on our side all the time. And if we listen to what they are trying to say and respond calmly and compassionately, they will also listen to us and respond positively.
When the thoughts come, they come for a reason. Your mind is trying to tell you something it thinks is important. We have been sold too many lies. They tell us to shut those thoughts out, that the thoughts are really put there by demons, that the thoughts are what are holding you back, that you must bring your thoughts in line, etc. None of these things will work for long, because your thoughts are actually a part of you. You might as well cut your finger off for each thought as to ignore or chastise them. (See the article Facing Our Dark Side.)
When the thoughts come now, I don’t ignore them. We have a nice conversation, we face the difficulty, whatever it might be, and then we move on, feeling a whole lot better than we did before. They feel validated so they do not have to keep assailing me, and I become more aware of the person I truly am. It’s a win for both sides.
And I can meditate any time I like.
IFS is on the National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices, in case you are wondering about validity beyond my own personal story. There are currently quite a few studies going on for this method. The ones I’ve read so far, and I am trying to read ones outside usual IFS research circles, have shown that IFS has a positive effect on many mental health problems.
If you are interested in finding an IFS therapist you can see their website.