All the meditation I’d done over the years didn’t mean shit. A full day’s work and two glasses of wine didn’t either. I was spending yet another Friday night alone — this time in a steampunk-themed AirBnB apartment in Gainesville, Florida.
I’d been at a conference for communications professionals all day but hadn’t communicated enough, been social enough, made enough friends. I — in my essence — wasn’t enough.
At least that’s what part of me thought. But, at first, I couldn’t see the thoughts as arising from just a part of me. They were all I could see, as real as the retrofuturistic steam engine decorations on the apartment walls. They were a familiar story I’d been telling myself since I was a lonely kid: no one thinks I’m enough.
Until I remembered what I’d been practicing with my therapist. She’d taught me to slow down and get familiar with thoughts. She’d helped me notice stories I’d been telling myself for years about who I am, how I compare to others, how the world works. She’d encouraged me to describe the thoughts as coming from “parts” of me, not all of me. Most powerfully, she’d helped me see my parts as friends, not as signs that I’m some broken, weak, irredeemable freak.
What she’d been teaching me is a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems, known as “IFS.” IFS identifies parts — or subpersonalities — that we developed when we were young. For example, I have a tendency to work almost constantly, to always be checking off my to-do list, a part of me I now call “Striver.” First thing every morning, Striver barks orders from the driver’s seat of my mind: Get to work. You’re lazy. Stop wasting time, you loser. (I wrote at length about Striver in my ebook How to Get Out of Your Head.)
In Gainesville, the part that had taken over I call “Lonely.” Like all parts, Lonely is a younger version of myself that has the rigid, extreme ideas of a child: No one really cares about me. I’m going to die alone. We all die alone.
When Lonely jumps in the driver’s seat, I often get anxious and text a bunch of friends for some sort of connection. I might mindlessly scroll through dating apps. I mostly just feel like shit.
But this time I practiced what my therapist had taught me. I imagined Lonely as a young boy sitting beside me on the couch. I put my arm around him and said internally, “It’s okay. You’re allowed to feel lonely and scared. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel.” After a few minutes, my shoulders — which had tensed into knots — relaxed. The sounds of Gainesville’s main street bustling outside, rather than confirming my brokenness, put a smile on my face.
I no longer felt alone. Or, I felt alone, but it wasn’t bothering me. It was okay. I was okay. I turned on one of Lonely’s (really, my) favorite shows, Seinfeld, and watched until I fell asleep.
IFS goes beyond simply observing thoughts without judgement, known as “mindfulness.” It helps us “form I-thou relationships with [our] parts, rather than the more detached, I-it relationships that most psychotherapies and many spiritualities foster,” writes Richard Schwartz.
It’s not the only method — there’s cognitive behavioral therapy, reparenting, and more. But IFS is helping me slowly accept all of my parts — all of my messy, imperfect, beautiful humanity — and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out.
Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.