Lessening the grip of repetitive thoughts with Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory and Mindfulness.

One quick way to burn yourself out is to be on red alert 24/7. A constant litany of negative thoughts, while it can seem protective, is a sure fire path to emotional and physical depletion.

If you grew up in a toxic or traumatic environment it’s easy to have unconsciously developed protective parts that seek out and rehearse every negative possible consequence in any situation. It’s as if ruminating on bad things magically inoculates you to them. Of course, this isn’t true. Yet, as a child, you had to be vigilant. Aspects of this constant vigilance to a parent’s unpredictable, hurtful, or even violent behavior can remain with you through adulthood. This hyper-awareness may manifest as reliving past wrongs or focusing on potential future pain, but it is just as comfortable dwelling on current anxieties.

On the surface, this does not seem like a helpful or adaptive thing for your brain to do; but, it’s an unconscious habit that developed in childhood when your brain was extremely porous to learning new things. This High Alert part protected you and persists because it doesn’t recognize you are now an adult.

While ruminating on unhappy situations, past or future, can seem useful, it’s clearly painful. All self destructive behaviors developed for a reason. They shield you from something your unconscious mind believes will be far worse: Feeling the intense pain, grief, hopelessness, or helplessness you felt as a child. Your unconscious mind thinks you won’t be able to survive that onslaught, so it developed myriad strategies to distract you. Ruminating on negative possible outcomes or historical hurts is just one in the pantheon of creative ways your mind protects you.

Telling yourself not to think those thoughts will not work. What is helpful is recognizing, and even appreciating, how those worrying parts are trying to save your emotional bacon. They’re not your enemies they’re your allies.

These parts work diligently to protect you, just the way they did in your childhood, by keeping you hyper-vigilant. The thing is, you’re an adult now and you know how to keep yourself safe. You’re better at setting good boundaries with people who push your buttons and you may even be good at not allowing toxic people into your life.

By acknowledging and appreciating the parts of you that have worked to keep you aware of potential danger, and reminding yourself you are no longer a child in that situation, you can choose freedom from toxic people. You can start showing yourself there are other ways to protect you that don’t wall you off from a life of greater joy.

Overprotecting yourself limits your options. Not only that, the incessant repetition of negative thoughts creates anxiety, anger, resentment, feelings of worthlessness, depression—-in other words,  grief, in all its iterations.

If you had a trumatic or toxic childhood, you have a legacy of grief. It’s normal and natural and doesn’t preclude joy. As time goes on, you will notice your grief rising to the surface and becoming conscious. It may be triggered by a relationship issue, a particularly poignant scene in a movie, a piece of music, or anything else that reminds you of a painful childhood experience. Grief is a normal part of life. You may just have more of it. The trick is to develop a deeply compassionate relationship to the part of you that feels sad. Acknowledge it; but, allow yourself to change and grow into someone who recognizes that grief doesn’t have to rule every moment of your life.

Notice it, name it, feel it, but don’t feed it. It has plenty of sustenance already. When negative thoughts come up, view them as your internal geiger counter. Alerting you to an incoming unhelpful thought. Unlike when you were a child or a teenager, you can now ask yourself: 

Is this what I really want to think right now? 

How is thinking that going to improve my day? 

Is wallowing in negativity going to help me?

Remind yourself: 

I’ve done this for years and all it does is make me feel worse. 

I know how to protect myself. I don’t need this old thought pattern to keep me safe. 

I’m perfectly capable of taking good care of myself.

I can be assertive. 

I can set good boundaries. 

I can be self compassionate.

I can create peace, joy and contentment in my life.

When negative thoughts arise, I can notice, name and accept them. If I make it safe to feel them they will recede.

The more I show myself kindness, patience and radical self love, the easier it will get.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.