Many of my clients suffer from the hell-realm of intrusive or unwanted thoughts. Thoughts like, “What if I’m a pedophile?” or “What if I’m a mass murderer?” or “What if I contract a deadly disease?” or “What if I don’t love my partner enough (or at all)?” parade through their brains day and night without reprieve creating a state of perpetual misery. The irony about people who are prone to intrusive thoughts such as these is that they’re among the most gentle, loving, sensitive, kind, creative, and thoughtful people you’ll ever meet. The thought is so far from reality that it’s almost laughable, except that it’s not funny at all because my clients believe the lie which, of course, creates massive amount of anxiety.
Or maybe it’s not ironic at all. Perhaps it’s precisely because of this high level of sensitivity and empathy that their mind has gravitated toward an alarming thought as a way to try to avoid the intensity of feeling with which they respond to life. Highly sensitive people were once highly sensitive children, which means their nervous systems were wired at birth to respond to the sights, sounds, and experiences of life at amplified levels. And because most highly sensitive children were raised by parents who had no idea how to teach their kids to value and feel their difficult feelings in a manageable way, they learned early in life to try to control the external world as a way to attempt to manage their inner one.
Lately I’ve been using a model with my clients that helps them conceptualize the formation of anxiety and the addiction of intrusive thoughts. I call it the A-B-C model and it goes like this:
- A. A difficult or “unwanted” feeling arises: fear, grief, vulnerability, loneliness, helplessness, doubt, uncertainty
- B. You push the feeling away and resist it because you think you shouldn’t be feeling this way, that you’re “too much” or “too emotional”, and/or you can’t handle the feeling.
- C. You attach on to an intrusive thought as a way to cover up or avoid the difficult feeling, thereby creating the illusion of control. Now you can focus on the thought, “What if I have a terminal illness,” instead of attending to the initial feeling.
Not all of my clients are highly sensitive, and not all of them have been lifelong sufferers of anxiety. In fact, many of my engaged clients suffering from engagement anxiety tell me that this is the first time they’ve ever experienced anxiety to this degree. But the same model applies:
- A. A feeling of fear, uncertainty, vulnerability and/or grief hits somewhere near the proposal (when the relationship turns from serious to very serious). Or perhaps it’s been there nearly the entire relationship – or as soon as the initial infatuation stage or free-ride wore off.
- B. The judgement or resistance pushes it away with a thought like, “You shouldn’t be feeling this way. You just got engaged. You should be happy.”
- C. The control-ego-fear mind dangles down a thought-vine like, “You don’t really love him” or “This must mean that you’re making a mistake” that will tempt you to take hold as way to try to have control over an out-of-control experience or avoid the initial pure feeling that you don’t know is normal and manageable.
Once you take hold of the seductive thought-vine, you’re on your way down the black hole of anxiety. The further you go down the hole, the darker it gets and the harder it becomes to find your way back out to the light of day.
I know how difficult it is to re-train your mind so that you can learn to attend to the core feeling as it arises without attempting to control in some way. It seems that some people – if not everyone – are born with a natural inclination to try to avoid what’s hard by controlling something external or latching onto a thought-vine. I see it in my own kids: when they’re tired, hungry, or the situation feels emotionally unmanageable, they’ll try to control someone or something external. In fact, it’s one of my highest goals as a parent to teach my kids that they can handle their difficult feelings, that feelings are just feelings and that they will always pass through, and that trying to control circumstances as a way to avoid the feeling never works: the feeling is still there, but now it’s buried behind a layer of control.
So after 20 or 30 years of this, a deeply ingrained habit is etched into the brain that starts with the false belief of, “I can’t handle difficult feelings.” The work is to learn how to soften into the fear so that it breaks open to reveal the soft underbelly of grief that has lived inside for so long. As Elizabeth Lesser quotes Chogyam Trungpa in her beautiful book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow:
“Going beyond fear begins when we examine our fear: our anxiety, concern, nervousness, and restlessness. If we look into our fear, if we look beneath the veneer, the first thing we find is sadness, beneath the nervousness. Nervousness is cranking up, vibrating all the time. When we slow down, when we relax with our fear, we find sadness, which is calm and gentle. Sadness hits you in your heart, and your body produces a tear. Before you cry there is a feeling in your chest and then, after that, you produce tears in your eyes. You are about to produce rain or waterfall in your eyes and you feel sad and lonely and perhaps romantic all at the same time. This is the first tip of fearlessness, and the first sign of real warriorship. You might think that, when you experience fearlessness, you will hear the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or see a great explosion in the sky, but it doesn’t happen that way. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart.” (p. 37)
If you can understand the alarming thoughts as a flare sent up from the Inner Child to try to get your attention, you will learn to slow down and listen. Your Inner Child doesn’t always know how to say, “I’m hurting. Please pay attention to me,” so he or she sends out a jarring thought because she knows it will get your attention. Once you start to pay attention to your feelings and trust that you can handle your emotional experiences, the intrusive thoughts begin to diminish. Again, the thoughts are a distraction, a first-layer attention-getter designed to force you to turn inside and attend to your inner world. Thus, when you’re perseverating on an anxious thought, the question to ask yourself is, “What am I trying to control, avoid, or fill up?” or “What is this thought trying to protect me from feeling?” and see if you can connect to the softness of the human heart, knowing that what you find when you bring your loving attention to the quiet places is always, always, a pearl.