The Roots of Intrusive Thoughts

IMG_3343Last week’s post provoked some anxiety in my clients and readers already prone to relationship anxiety, as I suspected it would. Alongside more typical intrusive thoughts like, “What if I’m gay?“, “What if I don’t love my partner enough?” and “What if I’m settling?“, the less obvious hamster-wheel perseverations like, “What if we don’t talk enough?” and “What if we don’t have enough of a connection?” can also rattle the anxious mind and deserve attention.

But not too much attention. What I mean is that once you resolve one question and find enough certainty to move on (conclude that of course you’re not gay; don’t you think you would have known that already?), if you don’t address the root causes of the intrusive thoughts you’ll quickly find yourself trying to bang the gopher of a different obsession down the hole. And then you’ll find yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole of anxiety, hell-bent on finding the definitive answer to your next soul-shaking question.

So it’s not that you need to give attention to the thought itself and try to resolve the question. In fact, you can’t resolve the question because these are fundamentally unanswerable questions. There’s not a blood test you can take to determine if you’re 100% straight or gay, if you love your partner “enough”, or if you share a strong enough connection. Either you dip down into the place of self-trust and self-knowledge so that can answer these questions to a satisfactory degree and/or you start to cultivate a relationship to uncertainty. And that’s when you find the gold that lives in the center of intrusive thoughts.

Living with uncertainty. We simply don’t like it. We want definitive answers. We want definable goals. We are intrinsically wired to gravitate toward a need for control and a subsequent attempt to create the illusion of control, but our dominant parenting and education models only reinforce this basic ego need. When we don’t honor the natural rhythm of a child and coerce her into conforming to an externalized model whereby she gains approval, her inborn self-trust is weakened. Adults inadvertently reinforce the ego’s need for control instead of helping children cultivate their connection to Self, which helps them connect to the transitory flow of life.

The fear-based self believes that if you could answer the question of the day – let’s say “Do we have a strong enough connection?” – you would hedge your bets and know, without any doubt, that you’re not making a mistake by moving forward with your partner. Because the fear-based self is terrified of risk, terrified of anything that touches into vulnerability, it creates elaborate and convincing reasons why you need to walk away from your loving partner with whom you could forge a shared, meaningful life. This creates an illusion of control, and as uncomfortable as it is to live in the head space of anxiety or uncertainty, it’s often a preferable state to the ambiguous, vulnerable place of living in your heart. In other words, the question to ask yourself is, “Is it more important for me to remain attached to the illusion of control or to learn about what it means to be loving?” If you want to learn about what it means to be loving to yourself and others, you have to be willing to let go of control.

This obviously doesn’t happen in one Hollywood, breakthrough moment of therapeutic enlightenment. Making the choice to learn about love rather than remain tightly wound in the safe fortress of control is a daily, sometimes hourly, choice. Years into marriage, it’s still a choice that we make every day, every time we notice that the habitual wall has snaked around our hearts and constricted our openness and willingness to actively give and receive love. Every time you notice the wall, you have a choice. And the intrusive thoughts are a wall; they keep you stuck in your head and create a wedge between you and your partner.

It’s a terrifying choice, no doubt. It’s a choice that flies in the face of every illusion of safety that you’ve spent a lifetime constructing. It’s as terrifying as standing on the cliff of eternity and leaping into the abyss. Let yourself feel that terror. Let yourself begin to befriend the mystery of life instead of clinging to what you think you can control. The truth is that there is so little we can control. We make plans because we want to know what will happen in the next hour, but the unknowable and mysterious force of LIFE could subvert your plans in an instant. The only freedom is to make friends with not knowing. When you start to become more comfortable with the places of not knowing, the intrusive thoughts will slowly fade away.

So here’s the million-dollar question: How do you let go of control and becoming more comfortable with uncertainty? This is a multi-layered question without an easy answer. I address this in my Conscious Weddings E-Course and I’ll be discussing it in depth in my two upcoming courses that will be released next year, but for now here are my suggestions (all of which require a daily commitment to turn your attention inward to fill your well of Self and connect to a source greater than yourself):

1. Commit to a daily mindfulness practice

When you practice mindfulness, you learn to connect to a source of energy that isn’t dependent on externals. You connect to your breath, your heart, and your deeper sense of intrinsic Self that has nothing to do with looks, grades, degrees, profession, etc. You connect to enduring qualities instead of ephemeral and transitory qualities. You learn to soften into your heart and connect to the only sustainable and unending energy source in the universe: Love.

2. Commit to a daily journaling practice

There is no better way to get to know yourself and pour yourself into yourself than through daily journaling. 

3. Commit to a daily prayer practice

Rituals and prayers both anchor us in the here and now and connect us to the flow of creative energy that surrounds us. When you pray for release from fear you’re proactively handing over the reins of control to a source outside of yourself (or the highest part of yourself), which helps you accept that you’re not in control but that you can trust that things are being taken care of. I share the simple prayer practice that I recommend in this article.  

The bottom line is that when the waters of your inner well of Self are full – meaning that you know yourself and trust yourself – you can ask yourself a question like, “Am I gay?” or “Are we connected?” and answer it with enough certainty to provide reassurance. And when the waters of your inner well of full you also don’t need 100% certainty in order to feel safe inside and prepared to move forward with decisions. You give yourself permission to make mistakes. You understand that it’s through failure that we learn. You view life through the mindset that we are here to learn and grow and all of life’s experiences can be channeled toward that end.

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P.S.: For those of you who followed our flood adventures, the photo in this article is our post-flood creek, repaired with artistry and skill by a group of incredible workers. We are so grateful.

26 comments to The Roots of Intrusive Thoughts

  • NYCgirl988

    Thank you Sheryl! I loved this so much and it’s a great follow up to last week’s article. As always, this post comes at a perfect time!

  • Tina

    Oh, ho ho, Sheryl. You nailed it shut with this, and you’re right about the last post causing some anxiety. I get huge credit for sitting with that anxiety when what I really wanted to do was to get you to tell me if I’m doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing with my life! Lol. So here’s me, making friends with uncertainty in a lot of areas. Thank you. /hugs

  • What a wonderful message. Control is holding us all hostage from our lives and present moment. Really enjoying your words and wisdom. Thank you.

  • Kellbell

    Sheryl,

    This article came at the perfect time! Thank you! My anxiety is now hanging its hat on “what if we get a divorce?” now and I am terribly afraid of it. But I know I have to sit with that pain and accept the uncertainty of it. I have noticed that when I think too much about it(trying to prevent it from happening but that’s just a form of control), it only makes my anxiety worse and makes me unhappy so it truly is learning how to let go and choose love. When I choose love,know that I am committed and not going anywhere, and have self-trust and faith in myself and in my relationship, that’s when the fear subsides. Its also sending that prayer to God that can make a difference.

    Thanks again, Sheryl. These articles you send to us are lifelines.

  • Lisa

    I love your posts Sheryl!. I have been struggling with thoughts of ‘not wanting to be married’ for a while now, the connection I have with my husband is forced for the sake of my children & livelihood. It’s like I believe there is something missing in my life, even after all these years of trying. We appreciate eachother and have come so far but he just doesn’t ‘get me’, often displaying a lack of initiative and hearing only what he wants to which leads to miscommunication and this does my head in!!! I am patient and tolerable, which is why I have been able to put up with this for 11yrs but its like dealing with another child (we have 2 beautiful kids) Constantly reminding, repeating and thinking for someone else. Can you imagine what life would be like when we’re aged old folks and have extra impairments to deal with?soooo draining.
    Am I being too judgemental? We have done couples therapy because it was a better way to deal with what differences/expectations we had. We do martial arts together to improve ourselves mentally, physically & emotionally. I try to detach from ego & align with my ‘true inner self’, being focused and to stay positive. I feel like I fake it (connection/love) to make it and still I am unhappy.

  • Melissa

    Thank you so much for your wisdom, Sheryl. If it weren’t for your blog I wouldn’t have known what relationship anxiety was. And I was experiencing it! I had more than 3 weeks filled with anxiety and panic attacks about my relationship. “What if he isn’t right for me? What if we don’t have enough of a connection?” TONS of intrusive thoughts that wouldn’t go away! Several times I was convinced that he must not be for me since I was having these feelings and they didn’t seem to go away. I thought I wasn’t being true to myself by staying with him. But you gave me hope to continue getting to the bottom of it, and your blog, as well as my counselor and a book I highly recommend (Mind Over Mood) led me to answers. When I did the Thought Record from the book I was able to analyze my situation and I realized that I was just AFRAID. Afraid of losing someone who actually might be appropriate for me and someone I could see myself spending my life with. This brought on a whole new level of anxiety for me! By analyzing my thoughts I was able to REMOVE the fear. I realized that, even if he isn’t the one for me, I WILL be okay and I will have learned something. I realized that I’ve been through painful break-ups before, and I always come out a stronger, better person. So in that moment all of my fear and anxiety was lifted and I was able to then ask myself, “Now that I’m not afraid of losing him, do I want to break up with him?” My answer was a definite NO! I don’t know if he’ll be the one I marry or spend most of my life with. It’s too early to tell. All I can do is keep getting to know him and let my heart guide me. Ever since I had this realization, I’ve been anxiety free and relishing in the pleasure of just being with my partner! I’m going to enjoy the moment now and see where it takes me, without any fear of what the outcome will be! For anyone else who is experiencing relationship anxiety, I suggest they buy or borrow Mind Over Mood, as well as keep reading your blog and following your advice. Just like you said, relationship anxiety can actually distort the way you view your partner and can force you to disregard the positive aspects of that person. But we have to learn to be true to ourselves and trust our feelings without fearing them!

  • MollyBee

    Thank you Sheryl! This is perfect and exactly what I needed to think about today!

  • Clara

    A wonderful, wonderful article, Sheryl. Thank you! I think my healing began when I realised that I could allow uncertainty, rather than be always compelled to dispel it. Your words are beautiful and clear, and an brilliant reminder of what, on a deep level, our souls already know. In great gratitide for your constistent, gentle contributions to all our lives!

  • Danielle

    Sheryl, as always, you are so on point! And, your posts always seem to come at a time when I need them most. Thanks for your amazing honesty, and your ability to convey exactly what I am feeling into the written word. Cheers to Uncertainty!

  • I’m so glad it was helpful, MollyBee, Clara, and Danielle.

  • Brianna

    Just keep thinking bad things like us b/u and I got hysterical. Is this it?Is there no helping my dream come true? All because of one stupid thought! How could I go on knowing he’s walking this earth but he’s not mine? I can’t I don’t want to. This isn’t fair!! This happened over such a stupid thought! :'( how can one thought take away my happiness? Take away the love of my life?? Why do I still feel empty? This is gonna be going on for a year! I was so happy there was nothing wrong!! Just when I think I’m doing better I go downhill again :((

  • Lydia

    Joining the voices of gratitude for this post Sheryl. “Let yourself begin to befriend the mystery of life instead of clinging to what you think you can control.” So true! This morning I had this moment of staring at my partner’s face trying to decide if he was good-looking enough for me to love him (it sounds awful, I know). I caught myself luckily and thought: that’s not how love works. But there was this feeling, in that moment that I was judging and in the next moment, that I couldn’t describe. I see now that it was exactly like what you said in your post. It was like standing at the edge of the cliff of everything I thought I knew and everything I had been taught about love, about what life would look like, and having to jump off into complete mystery. So scary. As Danielle says: Cheers to uncertainty!

  • KD

    I consider this a back to basics post, Sheryl. For anyone new to your teachings, or an old bee like me, this is so fundamental to the work you do. What is the nature of intrusive thoughts and more importantly, how do you accept that they exist and work with them? Not against them or avoid them entirely.

    I can say with almost 100% certainty (one of the only times I can ever say that) that when I am overrun with intrusive thoughts, I am not prescribing to the daily commitments you note above. All three are crucial to understanding and healing. I think the daily prayer helps me the most, allowing me to let go and trust. Thank you for reinforcing this!

    xoxo

  • Candie

    Hi sheryl- do you think it’s possible the root cause of intrusive thoughts are fear of letting other people down and disappointing them- fear of not being good enough, but you project it onto someone or something else?

  • Denisse

    Sheryl,

    What about long term relationships (lovely 10 years relationship)were you no longer share vision with your partner? I was 16 when I met this guy, he was 18. Now I’m 27 and still with him, my first boyfriend. He is the lovely, committed partner I share values with, but in regards to vision and goals we feel lost. I am more of the driven kind of girl planning to get out of my country (Mexico) and go to Australia to do a Master Degree for 2 years. He is a hard working guy but he has not finished college yet, he wants to stay in our town, finish college and settle. Nowadays I am more focus on my job and preparing for my master degree, he is taking it easy, spending free time with friends and lately when we try to have a conversation, well, I talk about my intellectual or professional topics and he talks about video games, friends and “funny stuff”. Then we get serious and bring this topic to the table, that we are not sharing the same interest we used to, unconsciously he gets a little frustrated when I talk about my master degree related topics because he knows this is something that will severe us, and I feel the same way when he tells me about his social activities because I feel this is making him slow at a professional level, and I feel like he should “run” so that we can keep this relationship. I have always believed he is the love of my life, because apart from this issue, we have always been the happiest couple, but honestly, we no longer are. Is it really possible that even when you share spiritual, emotional, moral values you cannot keep a relationship because you do not share vision or goals at a professional level? I strive every day to stick to love, only love, not care about what people may think because of our professional, economic differences, not caring about what he “does” but about who he “is”, the essencial endurable qualities he has, his commitment, his emotional availability, his simple and unsophisticated dream which is just having a happy family (he is always a happy-loving guy), but oh god it is getting so hard for both of us. I am chosing to love him, right now, when we are making less sense than ever before, when I no longer feel an interest for his interest, I am chosing to love him right now in the darkest moments of our relationship, when we no longer see the way out, but then I wonder if we are just fighting reality and if we should accept that we should let us go.

    Please give me some light.

  • deevo

    I have found myself dwoddling in and out of relationship anxiety every time I am in a relationship that means something of high stature to me. I’ve been in two serious relationships, both over three years, in which I began feeling anxiety about a year into them. I’ll have the thoughts for about a month, terrible spurts of nausea, sleeping issues, and depression…because my brain won’t stop running and questioning…though I know the answer deep down is that I love them and want nothing more to be with them, but my mind consistently is trying to find a reason for unhappiness because sadly, that’s what I’ve been used to. After experiencing relationship anxiety for the first time, I was so afraid that it was going to come back in my next relationship, I spent so much time worrying about it, it came back. And even worse. The intrusive thoughts are constant, and when I find myself not worrying about it…my brain suddenly goes “oh well you’re not thinking about it, so here it is…”. I’ve learned to accept that my brain is so used to worrying about not losing them and losing the love , and is so worried ABOUT worrying that it almost tricks itself into having a problem when, if there is one, it more than likely has nothing to do with my partner, but something far more deep rooted within myself. All I know is that remembering that the issues are NOT about your partner, and is about something within you tthat has yet to be found, always makes me feel a little bit better.

    • Kristin

      Oh my goodness. I think you hit the nail on the head, there, Deevo. I think my subconscious made this realization awhile back, but reading it in your words really brought it to the front of my mind. When you KNOW you’re prone to relationship anxiety, even (and maybe especially) the relationships that make you feel most secure and loved can bring back the feelings as a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than as a response to your actual situation. So insightful.

  • Anna

    Hi Sheryl,

    Do you ever think that if you let the intrusive thoughts continue so long, your mind truly starts to believe them? I’m worried that because I’ve let them go so long (about 8 months), I’ll never be able to truly feel love for my boyfriend again. It scares me, as he’s always been the one I wanted to share my life with. I know I still do deep down, but I fear we’ve lost our connection due to my mental absence (as I’ve been pouring over the intrusive thoughts in my head.)

    Thanks!

    • Yes you can definitely believe them whether it’s been one day or eight months, and it’s never too late to break through the intrusive thoughts and reconnect to your core self.

  • deevo

    ^^I’ve been facing this problem myself, Anna. The last couple of days my anxiety has been the worst it has been in my latest spout of relationship anxiety that started about a month ago. My new thought is that…now that I’ve been having these thoughts continually, they’re embedded in my brain and because of this, they will never shake and even if I’m not anxious, there will always be a trigger. If I’m not mistaken, this is just a sign that you have more inner-digging to do…as do I and 98% of bloggers on this site…you’re not alone:)

  • Brianna

    Is it normal for anxiety to tell you even deep down that you still can’t feel anything? ;(