Caught in a Thought

A coaching client recently shared the following (shared here with her permission):

A few weeks ago, I found myself obsessively thinking about a situation with a friend of mine – someone to whom I’ve given my power for many years. I was completely caught by this theme and I couldn’t get out from under it for weeks. I haven’t been stuck like that in a long time and it scared me. Constantly thinking. Completely consumed. Disconnected from myself. I had no trust in myself or in my ability not to let the thought take over. It was an unrelenting intrusive thought and I seemed powerless to stop it. It was like everything I’ve learned over the past several years disappeared. Like being swallowed by a thought-vortex.

This continued until one day when I was able to name it. As soon as I named it as an intrusive thought, I shifted from focusing on this friend to feeling vulnerable, and I could see that the vulnerability was trapped inside the unrelenting thoughts.

And then it shifted again. I was at the pool and my kids were playing in the water. It was one of those rare moments when my kids were handled; they didn’t need me watching them every second. I felt a moment of bliss, then the thought-wall hit, then I felt a familiar feeling, like being in a dark pit. A nonverbal place from earlier in my life. My first response to the uncomfortable feeling was, “Why am I being tortured?” But immediately, because of the inner work I’ve done, I was able to say, “This is my inner child. It’s okay to feel it.” And I asked myself where I was feeling it in my body.  This all happened in the span of about one second. After that, the obsession diminished. 

I could share hundreds of similar stories, and several from my last week of working with clients alone. As I’ve written many times on this site, the ruminations often cycle through the following series of archetypal thoughts (that don’t always appear as questions):

  • What if I don’t love my partner enough?
  • What if I’m not attracted to my partner?
  • What if I’m gay/straight?
  • What if I’m only staying in the relationship because I’m scared of being alone or scared of hurting my partner?
  • What if I’ve never loved my partner?
  • What if I’m a pedophile?
  • What if I have a life-threatening illness?
  • S/he’s wrong for me.
  • What if I’m making a mistake?

It’s astonishing and fascinating how often the mind creates mental pain as a brilliant self-protection or defense mechanism that works to overshadow the emotional pain. Because we learn so early in life that we can’t handle emotional pain and we’re not taught any tools for managing the fundamental human experiences of groundlessness and uncertainty, our psyches need some way to process the raw energy, so it siphons it off into intrusive, unwanted, and unrelenting thoughts. This creates a mental torture chamber that our minds believe is more manageable than the emotional pain – until we recondition our minds with different beliefs about pain and learn tools for meeting it.

Here’s a brief primer on intrusive thoughts (which I’ve outlined in other posts and I teach in depth in my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course):

1. Name the thought as an intrusive thought.

Once you’ve called the thought by its true name, you’ve taken the first step toward breaking its spell. As many of our ancient myths and fairy tales instruct, we must call the witch, monster or evil creature by its true name in order to break the spell.  If you don’t name the thought for what it is (intrusive/unwanted), you will believe that what it’s telling you is true. In other words, when you don’t name it you become fused with it completely and a victim to its methods. Once you name it, you take the first step toward de-fusing from the thought, which creates enough internal space to do the rest of the work.

So what this sounds like is, “I’m caught in an intrusive thought. It’s telling me a lie.”

2. Avoid asking why.

The need to know why is a trap, another one of the mind’s tactics for luring you away from the vulnerable, messy, and uncertain realm of feelings. The mind will ask, “Why are you focusing on this particular thought?” or “Why are stuck on this thought-treadmill right now?” Your work is to resist the compulsion to try to answer the question as it will only keep you stuck in the realm of mind.

For example, groundlessness is a fundamental human experience. If you try to figure out why you’re feeling groundless, you travel up into your head. But when you simply allow for the experience to be there and move toward it using the guidelines outlined in point 4 below, oftentimes a sense-knowing about the “why” of the groundlessness arises. The difference between an intellectual idea and a sense-knowing is that one arises from the head and one comes from the body. Wisdom that bubbles up from the body is true wisdom, and you know it when you meet it.

3. Carve out time and space to feel.

Feelings are like shy, tentative creatures, and they won’t emerge from their underground caves in the middle of the run-on sentences of our overly busy, technologically-infused days. In my client’s story above, the feelings only emerged when she was sitting at the pool while her kids were engaged. It was a moment of spaciousness and repose, coupled with the steps she had taken that broke the spell of the intrusive thought, that allowed the feelings to emerge.

4. Become curious.

Either ask directly, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” or gently allow what’s living inside the thought to surface. Remember here that the raw feelings are so uncomfortable and we have so little training and practice for how to feel them that we will instinctually want to run from them. Allowing ourselves to feel the feelings is the simplest concept to understand yet the hardest one to enact.

5. Feel the feelings.

This is where it gets tricky. What does it mean to feel your feelings? It’s a phrase we hear a lot these days, and while we can easily understand what it means in theory, most people have no idea what it means in practice. Here are some guidelines:

Become aware of your resistance to feelings and the beliefs that underlie the resistance. Common beliefs are: If I feel my feelings, I’ll never stop. Feeling your feelings mean you’re weak. Just get over it. It’s not that bad. Feeling your feelings is self-centered and self-indulgent. Once you touch down into the feeling: Breathe into it. Ask: Where do I feel this in my body? What color is the feeling? What shape, texture, temperature? Look for images. Stay open to memories. Be gentle and don’t search too hard. Allow. Breathe. Allow. Above all, have patience. It’s never easy or fast to rewire lifelong beliefs.

Feeling your feelings isn’t a static experience nor is there a formula that you can follow, which is part of what makes it challenging (our egos love steps and formulas). But the more you practice these micro-shifts in those micro-moments when insight meets habit, the more you will create new neural pathways that will lead you to less mental pain, more emotional openings, and more joy.

45 comments to Caught in a Thought

  • Chicadelli

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thanks for this article and the summary, I kind of needed to read that today. Me and my boyfriend just had our 3 year anniversary and I’ve been doing great but this weekend some anxiety around the anniversary came up again. I did what you described in this article and the thought/feeling became less strong. It’s always the same thought about whether to chose him or running ‘wild/free’ again by being single. I’ve battled it for 9 months now and I’m getting there but it’s so hard. I know I have to grieve the loss but it’s tough. I still catch myself wondering if I’ll ever know. If I’ll ever feel good with my decision. But I know that I just have to allow the uncertainty to exist. I talked to my bf about my thoughts and that’s where I really see how different our personalities are. He has had/is having pretty much my exact same thoughts but he doesn’t notice them thinking they mean anything. I notice them and go from this to ‘I’m not attracted’ to ‘I wish he was more outgoing’ ‘what if I’m only with him because in too afraid to start over’ to ‘what if I’ll wake up one day regretting I haven’t experienced more of XYZ, you’ll break his heart, you’re unfair’ and then back to the beginning only to go through all of it again. I’m tired and jealous of his ability to see the first thought for what it is.

    • You already stated the key:

      “I know I have to grieve the loss but it’s tough. I still catch myself wondering if I’ll ever know. If I’ll ever feel good with my decision. But I know that I just have to allow the uncertainty to exist.”

      That’s it. That’s what’s living inside your intrusive thoughts: the grief and the uncertainty. The more you more toward those uncomfortable feelings and let yourself grieve the loss and breathe into the uncertainty, the quieter the thoughts will become.

  • Zoe

    Talk about timing! I’ve just recently been through a relationship break up and feeling a lot of hurt from it, then today (here in New Zealand) it is the first day of a new semester at university. Lots of transitions going on and lots of anxiety rising. I woke up this morning and couldn’t seem to break out of a couple of thoughts playing over again in my head…got an alert that I had received an email and had to smile when I saw the subject ‘caught on a thought’, exactly described what I had just been going through. So I’ve taken the time to sit down and read and breathe and feeling in a slightly better place to face the day. Thank you for your work and words x

  • Frances

    A few weeks ago I was trapped in ruminations and obsessively reading the site, doing inner work and reading self-help books compulsively in order to fix myself. Lovebug helped me see that I was approaching inner work from an “I’m broken” perspective and advised me to take a break, as inner work can become addictive. I’ve felt so much better since taking that break and I’m struggling with that. I don’t want to become completely detached from this site and community, but I have that mental block at the moment that it hasn’t been doing me any good lately. It is SO hard to get the balance right and not give the mind too much attention, but just enough to say in tune with myself. I can hear as I type this that I may have a black and white attitude towards it – inner work is *either* good for me or bad for me. Actually, I suppose what you’re teaching us to do it listen – which sometimes means taking a break. I know that some people are very outwardly focused and need to be encouraged to give attention to their inner world, but for those of us who are naturally very introspective, I think we sometimes need to be encouraged out. I can very very easily lose days reading this site, going through the courses and reading the books you recommend. I perhaps need to learn to turn inward and listen to the ‘turn outward’ messages, paradoxically. I think this work is brilliant and necessary, but too much can definitely exacerbate things. I can definitely see how I’ve been getting caught up in the ‘why am I having this thought’ trap and therefore, staying in my head. I need to learn to drop down into the body, as I’ve been excavating under the thought IN my thoughts – “what’s this showing up for, what’s it covering up, is it this, is it that?” – how very complicated.

    I’ve also been really trying to apply what I’ve learned here to other areas of my life, i.e. the conflict with my partner’s mum. It’s really difficult as I guess a lot of my learning is quite fresh and almost parrot-fashion. It’s not deeply enough ingrained yet to apply it to other situations. For example, I really struggle to completely grasp projection and taking responsibility for your own emotions. I tell my boyfriend this all the time (out of fear, I know – that if he doesn’t take responsibility he will blame me for his eventual, inevitable unhappiness at some point and leave me), but it’s not crystal clear to me in all honesty. I feel very angry towards and hurt by my partner’s mother as she criticises me to him on a regular basis. I can also feel irritated by my partner at times – which is no problem and totally manageable – but when is it projection and when is it just someone attacking you or hurting your feelings or just being annoying? Or is it always projection…? I find it quite confusing when I try and apply it to real life, even if I get it on paper.

    Thanks for another great post. x

    • I agree with Lovebug (she’s the moderator of the Break Free forum for those who don’t know her) that sometimes inner work can be addictive and can be used as another way to avoid yourself. Ultimately, inner work is about learning to listen and trust yourself, which means knowing when you need to turn inward and when you need to turn outward and put this work into ACTION. So when you ask, “What is needed?” the answer may be, “I need to get outside and exercise or “I need to get together with a friend.”

      As I share many times in the Break Free course and elsewhere, we engage in inner work not to become stuck there but to heal ourselves enough to bring ourselves into the world. And sometimes we have to bring ourselves into the world even before we’re fully ready as it facilitates our healing process. In other words, sometimes getting outside of ourselves is exactly the medicine we need to break free from the tangle of anxiety.

  • John

    Such clarity in helping me process through intrusive thoughts, Sheryl.. I so appreciate your magnifying each step so that I can more readily identify them.
    Thank you

  • Angela

    Hi Dearest Sheryl,
    I just love this blog! You have pointed out the key points and explained it with your experiences and gave us perfect and easy to understand examples. It really is so helpful thanks so very much, I need this so much lately. Coming from a mother who is narcisstic who dosent show healthy love to me, I feel I need your support and genuine love and care. I feel her selfishness and controlling behaviour has affected my confidence, i find it hard at work to face people, im scared of interacting with people, i have fear of coming across arrogant and rude, and this is who i am not. I am a caring, friendly woman, I just find my job as a preschool teacher highly stressful and I am considering leaving. I have been in this field for 8 years. I dont know what else to do. If i had a more loving mother im sure i wouldnt be in this cycle of doubt.

    • While we can rely on others for guidance, ultimately nobody should be in the position of telling us what to do, not even our own parents. So what I’m hearing is that you’re having a difficult time listening to yourself and trusting what you hear. I encourage you to sit with your doubt, move toward your confusion, and see if you access your own inner loving mother. She’s in there, waiting at her well of wisdom for you to turn to her for the guidance that you’re seeking.

  • Angela

    Thanks Sheryl, I am getting there, i feel i connect with my inner loving parent now more than i did 1 year ago. Your work is helping me to find my own guidance. I do have support from my husband and friends. Its been so hard all of these years. I decided to have low contact with my mother, I have to look after myself, i have been waiting for years for her to change, i know this not your field on narcisstic mothers, but narcisstic dont see the need to change. I neef to change in her eyes, and Im the most easy going woman you could ever meet. My feelings dont matter to her. Im her charachter she always wants to control, she is always right and im always wrong, so frustrating, i feel the anger and i move on.

    • I’ve worked quite a bit with daughters of narcissistic mothers and am very familiar with this dynamic. I know how incredibly confusing, lonely, and painful it can be. Have you read “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” Sending hugs. x

  • Margaret

    Such eloquent and beautiful writing as always, Sheryl. Thank you for always understanding me, and for your work. “Thank you” will never be enough, but all my gratitude and love.

  • erin

    Your posts bring me such comfort but today I feel so lost. I was seeing a lovely man who was reliable and kind and a lot of fun. I recently had to go away for work and would not see him again for a number of months. Almost immediately I became terrified and obessed with reasons why this would never work out. The intrusive thoughts were all consuming and i couldnt sleep or eat or function at work. Thought vortex is indeed a good phrase! This happens to me often at the start of relationship particularly. I have completed both Trust Yourself and Break Free which in theory were wonderful and I felt change in perspective but I am still stuck on action. I felt unable to function and my job involves being around the public and so when I spoke with my friend we agreed to draw a line under things. Of course I was immediately relieved but now very sad and angry at myself. I am 34 and another potential relationship has ended before its begun due to what manifests with all the symptoms of a full blown phobia. Are some people just not psychologically able to have intimacy and vulnerability in their lives. I afraid to say I feel defeated.

    • I don’t believe that some people are not psychologically able to have intimacy, but depending on your wounding and wiring, it’s definitely more difficult for some than others. It sounds like the key moment for you with this relationship was when you had to go away for work. The feeling was probably grief, fear, and uncertainty, and yet what came out was obsession with why it wouldn’t work out. So the work for you is exactly what I’ve outlined in this post: to learn how to name the thoughts then let yourself feel the feelings. Also, as I emphasize in all of my courses, this work is best done with the support and guidance of a skilled therapist. Are you in therapy?

  • Rachael

    Sheryl, I feel frightened as if the thought of not loving my partner is truth. But, when I am clear headed there’s no way I couldn’t love him. The thoughts seem so persistent, they sit like a black cloud in my chest and when I think of leaving my partner this goes away and makes me think it’s the right thing to do. My friends say there’s no way out now I’ve had doubts and that in their minds, doubt means doom.

    All I want is to find a way back, before the doubt to love him the way he deserves to be loved. Because, loving him with doubts makes me more irritable, depressed, needy… What if it’s not true love and it’s dependence?

    • Doubt absolutely does not mean doom:

      The doom is being hooked by the thought and taking it face value instead of recognizing it as an inner messenger designed to grab your attention so that you will turn inward and face yourself. As long as you’re hooked by the thought, you’re stuck in the projection, which, by its very definition, will lead you to abdicate self-responsibility and will prevent you from doing your healing work.

  • The book “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach is a wonderful “primer” on what it means to feel one’s feelings. She offers glimpses into her own life and practice, including her own resistance to feeling the feelings and ways to move through it. It’s not a how-to; it’s more a guide with suggestions and breaking it down into simple actions. I highly recommend it.

  • Dreamer

    Wow. This is perfect for today. On the drive in I saw something that triggered and old fear. Definitely an intrusive thought. I recognized it as such, but until I read this I have been feeling uncomfortable about the thought. Point 5 was what I just did and guess what? Nothing scary happened. Thank you so much for your insight Sheryl. You have helped me through so many “scary” thoughts over the past two years.

  • Jade

    So perfectly timed, thank you for this reminder! I’ve just recently become caught in an anxiety web, which I initially only made worse by obsessing over it feeling like a loss of progress. I’ve been in a season of calm, and being thrown back in to that anxiety has caused me to become stressed and distant with my partner, which of course only adds to the fear-fire. I was excited about your article this week, because the little sparks of clarity are sometimes exactly what I need to start that internal work again, difficult as it can be.

    • Inner work and the healing process are cyclical and spiral, not linear, which is good to remember when we feel “thrown back”. It’s back and forth, up and down, around and around, but overall it’s an upward and forward trajectory that moves us toward longer stretches of calm and inner peace. You’re doing great work.

  • Krista

    Hi Sheryl,

    Once again, an amazing post and so timely. I am going to be celebrating my 30th birthday this upcoming Saturday and my boyfriend threw me a surprise party this past Saturday. What he did was unbelievable and words can not express how much I love him. However, there were moments where I felt numb “why do I feel detached?” “do i feel in love.” There is so much uncertainty in my life right now especially with the notion that he’s close to proposing. I keep asking myself, what if im not feeling the RIGHT way when he does propose and I’m not in the moment? I’m so concerned about how I am going to feel that I’m scared I’ll miss one of the best moments of my life. This article helps me understand that feeling the feelings is ok, but latching on is when we spiral off course.

  • Angela

    Sheryl !
    Omg. This is literally what I’ve been going through, over 2 weeks of utter consuming thoughts about my first love whom I gave everything to. Long story short we became off and on and he rebounded and started dating someone and got her pregnant and both came from religious families so they got married. It happened so fast. We never had closure (all of this was 10 years ago).. I never dealt with my pain very well which lead to alot of commitment phobias and self shaming , I used a lot of you work to help me through my engagement a few years back because I was always plagued by doubts. I trusted my self once and it destroyed me, I just didn’t know how to. . Anyway… 4 years ago I married and I have two sweet boys. in February I found out my ex is in the middle of a divorce and also found out he was looking me up on FB. it’s hit me like a ton of bricks. My youngest was born in Dec and my husband and I were over the moon basking in life and love and then BAM.. this .. it has been such a set back for me. I feel like I’m not even myself! I went through a rough two weeks in feb and then it went away and it’s back again! Feelings like “I made a mistake moving on and getting married.”What if I were to see him, what would happen?” “I don’t love my husband.” “If I left and it was a mistake I would never forgive myself.” “If I don’t leave or tell my ex how I feel I’ll always regret it.” On and on and on. I’m convinced our love meant something and we are supposed to be together. I HAVE been asking myself what am I supposed to learn, what is “really” happening? I’ve tried “sitting” with it and I’m so confused. Do I just need to mourn the loss of my ex again and then let it be. Just give myself permission to be sad that timing wasn’t on our side and just trust it is the way it should be. I wasn’t prepared for this lol I’ve done a lot of work to get where I am at today. These set backs have been pretty taxing on my emotional state 🙁

  • hayley

    I feel like im going through an identity crisis. I was recently diagnosed with something that has totally rippef my self esteem away. But my beautiful boyfriend of 4+years still sees me the same and holds me when I cry. He’s everything I could ever ask for. But there’s one thing he does that I dont agree with. I dont hate him for it but I accept it and im worried that I’m losinh myself in accepting it. I see him more as a husband as lame as it sounds. He has stated he is willing to give it up for me but i love him for him and dont want him to give it up. I think this is just a flare up if anxiety because of this diagnosis and loss of identity but im not sure. I needed to vent

  • hayley

    Do you believe a relationship can still thrive even if we have a different opinion on a certain issue?

  • Jennifer C.

    What great timing! I was very distressed by some sudden and (possibly) threatening changes to my job yesterday, when I caught myself in the reaction. I said to myself, “what is the story I am telling myself about this information?” I don’t know where that helpful inner response came from, maybe just years of doing inner work. But it popped up and immediately diffused my threat level. I realized the changes themselves weren’t the issue, but I the story I told myself about what they would mean for me and for my life and my wellness were the issue that felt threatening. I asked myself to sit with the not-knowing until further clarity emerges from administration. Until then, I can only tolerate groundlessness. But I don’t have to suffer if I can catch and challenge my story about it.

  • Wanderer

    Hi Sheryl. I find myself reading your blog regularly as it speaks to me deeply and I very much admire your writing style. For the past year I have been obsessing over a traumatic experience which I replay in my head nearly daily. I made the mistake of having a lengthy affair with a man that I loved, and had a miscarriage the same week he left me for someone else. I have now been experiencing a year of infertility with my husband who isn’t aware of the affair, a man whom I deeply love and admire. How can I transition my life to be fulfilled again and reduce feelings of being lost and worthless. I have seen therapists regarding this but have not been able to find the mental change I so desperately seek.

  • Angela

    Yes, Sheryl I have read only half of that book, It was educational and informative,although i find it hard to know what i should do. The only solution i came up with was to keep my distance and to look after myself.

  • Angela

    Thank you, a warm huge hug to you xo

  • Daniela

    Hi Sheryl,
    This was a very timely post for me. Do you have any explanation or suggestions for morning anxiety? I struggled, and still sometimes do, with relationship anxiety during recent transitions of moving in with my partner and getting engaged. I have come through however in times of high stress I find myself anxious again, going back to focusing on my fiancees weaknesses and questioning “is this really right for me?” and “why am I feeling like this again?” Usually in the morning it is the worst and I toss and turn in bed in a spiral of thoughts, trying to fall back asleep. Once waking up I am sometimes able to turn the day around by naming the intrusive thought but sometimes it keeps going. Any advice on how to make the mornings less painful would be really helpful!

  • Morgan

    I have been going through your blog posts for about 2 years now and they bring me great relief when I’m having a spike. This is my first time commenting. My boyfriend and I have been together since high school, and we are now nearing the end of our college years (both of us will be going to graduate school after). When college first started, I started getting severe anxiety like “we are just together because it’s comfortable, not because we are meant to be together” “I’m not attracted to him” , etc. I also have had a really hard time being intimate with him for the past few years, I get super uncomfortable and I cry, which spikes the “I’m not attracted to him” anxiety. I have been going to therapy about it but I still haven’t improved much. I know this hurts my boyfriend greatly. He has been out of the country for a month now and the separation has increased the anxiety greatly, like “I should break up with him when he gets back this week”. I would love your insight on this. Thank you for everything you do Sheryl!

    • Unless you’re working with underneath the thoughts you’ll remain stuck in spin cycle. The critical question when the thoughts hit is how you respond to them: do you take the bait and believe it’s true or do you name them as intrusive thoughts and sit with the messy feelings that live inside the thoughts? That moment makes all the difference.

  • Lindi

    Hi Sheryl! I have commented on your blogs many times and your work has been a life saver many times. For the first time it feels as though I know what real love is. Me and boyfriend have been dating for three years and 6 months and we are thinking about our future which scares me so much because “everyone” is getting divorced and on the other other hand I get these glimpses of pure happiness. What scares me is that I have had this anxiety two months after we started dating and its still not gone. Im so scared because it isnt going away. This year it has been more constant and that is what scares me. I have come to realize that I hold so much wrong views about relationships and I grew up in a house with parents constantly fighting. I put so much pressure on us cause I think he has to change me and if im feeling this it must be because it is us. I am working through your course and I must admit that i must work harder on the exercises. I doesnt help only to read through it. We are at the point where engagement is a reality and I want to be with him for the rest of my life but I am so frustrated that the anxiety isnt gone after so many years ?

  • Sarah

    How do you deal with the spin cycle of negative thinking? I’ve been with my boyfriend for 9 months and the past 2 months I just keep thinking “you dont love him, this isnt love, it would be easier if you broke up, save yourself the hurt later” . I’ve tried using a journal and trying to tell myself a thought is just a thought but sometimes it just grabs me and wont let me go. I’ve been reading and printing out a lot of your blogs and highlighting so many things. They truly help me when im caught in an anxiety thought cycle. But what should I do when even reading the blogs wont help me?

    What are suggestions for helping to stop the cycle?

  • C0521

    Sometimes I struggle with desiring sex/my partner.. I’ve been dealing with this relationship anxiety for over three years now and I often find myself getting very upset at the fact that these thoughts numb me now. I guess it’s because I’ve had them so long that I don’t even freak out anymore and that makes me freak out… (see my point here lol?) I was wondering what course would be beneficial to me.. I struggle with desiring sex, numbness, having any warm feelings, struggling with unwanted images and intrusive thoughts, focusing on partners flaws, obsessing over what ifs. I don’t know really knownwhere to start with what course would help me the most.

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