If you’ve tried mindfulness meditation and haven’t been able to stick with it, I think I may know why.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing our attention on one stimulus (like our breath or a mantra) and being mindful of any thoughts or other sensations that may take our attention and focus away. The practice is to notice when our mind wanders, and gently bring our focus back to our breath or the mantra again. This practice can be especially challenging for people with CPTSD because many people with a history of complex trauma think and process emotions differently. Here are two main reasons why it’s hard and what you can do to help fix these issues.
Why is it so damn hard?
- A heightened inner critic voice. For many of us that lived through complex trauma, especially emotional abuse, have internalized the voice of our abuser as our own inner narrative. This can lead to frequent thoughts like, “I’m not good at anything” or “There’s something wrong with me, I can’t do this.”
This can make it challenging when thoughts or distractions come up in mindfulness meditation (and they do come up for EVERYONE, even Buddhist monks!) because instead of being able to just let the thought go, we criticize ourselves for “doing it wrong” or “being a failure” for having the thoughts at all.
- Hypervigilance/over planning. In order to survive as children in adverse circumstances, whether that danger was physical or emotional, we became EXCELLENT noticers and planners.
The ability to be tuned in and notice the environment, people’s moods, and read the room was a smart survival strategy when we were in the midst of an ongoing dangerous situation. Oftentimes, we were able to avoid or lessen the abuse if we could read the people around us and preemptively make adjustments to our behavior or the situation and avoid triggering the abuser.
Another strategy that kept us safe and protected to plan for multiple outcomes. Are you someone who thinks of everything that could go awry in any upcoming situation and has not only a plan A, but also a plan B, plan C, and plan D? Then you are an over-planner. Over planning can also look like mentally rehearsing upcoming challenging conversations over and over, or planning every last detail of an event so that there will be as few surprises as possible.
Hypervigilance and overplanning interfere with mindfulness meditation because it makes it especially hard to turn our brains off. Given any moment of downtime, our brains will fill it up with noticing and planning. So as soon as we try to meditate, here comes the tidal wave of thoughts, planning and noticing.
What can you do to fix this?
- Self-Compassion. Cultivating a self-compassionate voice in your head to counter the inner critic is vital for those with CPTSD. I call mine my “inner caregiver” and she does two things when the inner critic comes up. The first is to speak to me with patience, kindness, love and respect instead of criticism. The second is that she tells the inner critic off by saying something like, “Hey! This is our girl. You do NOT get to talk to her like that. She is a gem and we will treat her with the utmost respect and kindness.”
During meditation, this would look like responding to the inner critic’s thoughts with something like, “Oh no, you don’t get to criticize me like that. You know what? I’m just learning this. So it’s okay for me to not be good at it yet, that’s what learning is for!” If it helps to picture a particular character when you are cultivating that voice, that’s fine! My inner caregiver sounds like Carol Kane and one of my clients says Eugene Levy comes when she needs this type of mental TLC.
- Name the type of thought. Another powerful tool when hypervigilance and over planning starts is to name the type of thought. For example, if I find myself rehearsing a challenging conversation I need to have, I’ll stop and think “planning” and then gently come back to my breath. If I’m worried about something in the future, I’ll think, “worrying” and return to paying attention to my breathing. Once I name the type of thought I often combine it with my inner caregiver voice and say something like, “Thank you, brain, for helping me with planning, but that’s not what I’m doing right now. I love you and I’m going to go back to my breath.”
Mindfulness meditation has been one of my favorite tools for healing from CPTSD, but there is a steep learning curve, especially for those who have experienced complex trauma. It took me years to get to the point I’m at today, but now I can’t imagine not meditating each day. I look forward to it as one of the best stress relief tools I have in my toolbox.
If you have struggled with mindfulness meditation in the past, I hope you’ll give these two fixes a try. And let me know how it goes for you!