I talk a lot about intrusive thoughts on this site, particularly how they pertain to relationship anxiety. I see thoughts as the flares from the Self brilliantly designed to attract our attention so that we can learn to turn inward and attend, possibly for the first time in our lives, to our inner realms with love, compassion, and healthy attention. The thoughts are not punishment for wrongdoing or evidence of unworthiness. On the contrary, someone prone to intrusive thoughts is almost always on the sensitive-anxious-creative spectrum, which means among the most compassionate, gentle, soft-hearted people on the planet. When we learn to work effectively with these thoughts, we’re well on our way to recovery.
Likewise, it’s essential to learn about and heal from intrusive pain. (I wrote here about healthy pain; please read that post first.) We can define an intrusive thought as an unwanted, persistent thought that causes pain. Likewise, we can define intrusive pain as persistent emotional pain that isn’t serving us and doesn’t lead to more clarity, healing, and growth. Here it’s essential to discern between healthy pain and unhealthy pain. The primary distinguishing characteristic is that healthy pain moves through us like a river and leaves us feeling a sense of clarity and spaciousness, whereas intrusive or unhealthy pain has an indulgent quality to it and often leaves us feeling worse than before. Where healthy grieving often brings an insight, unhealthy grieving carries an aspect of “poor me” and is often accompanied by despair and the tell-tale “never-always” words that are offshoots of the ego, fear-based self (“I’ll never feel better.” “I’ll always be miserable.”). With healthy pain we are cushioned in self-compassion. The expression of unhealthy pain is surrounded by the barbed-wire fence of our self-judgement and shame.
Why would we indulge in intrusive pain if it doesn’t serve us? Just like intrusive thoughts, intrusive pain can become a habit that protects us from delving into what’s truly needed. We can use pain/shame just as we use thoughts: to avoid taking responsibility for our well-being, which means taking action on our own behalf instead of waiting for someone to do it for us. When we’re absorbed in intrusive pain, we avoid asking, “What’s underneath? What’s truly needed in this moment?” Just like intrusive thoughts, it’s a defense mechanism the protects us from facing ourselves with vulnerability, honesty, and courage.
I’ll give a composite example from my practice to show you how this works in reality:
I have several clients who are trying to conceive. Because we live in a culture that transmits the message that if you don’t conceive in the first six months there’s something wrong (a symptom of the instant gratification, me-culture that expects results right this second on my timetable), it’s nearly impossible not to fall down the rabbit hole of anxiety when conception hasn’t occurred within this time frame. The anxious mind then goes to “What if I never conceive? What if I’m not meant to be a mother? Conception is for everyone else but not for me”, and all of the other fear-based, self-critical, bully-thoughts that are familiar to the anxious-sensitive soul. While it’s helpful to douse these fear-flames with a cool splash of truth-water with facts like: After 18 months, 90% of women will conceive and We live in a fear-based culture that also preys on women’s fertility fears by turning it into big business and There’s timing at work that’s not my own, beyond that it’s not fruitful to indulge these thoughts. And while it’s essential to bring compassion to the pain, especially when another cycle passes without conception, it’s important not to indulge the pain.
If indulging in intrusive pain is ultimately an act of addiction that serves as a protective barrier against a deeper need, we must ask the question: What am I avoiding? It varies from woman to woman, of course (and this applies directly to those suffering from relationship anxiety as well), but the most common place to avoid is taking full responsibility for filling the well of Self. The belief that getting pregnant or having a baby or leaving one’s partner in search of one who won’t trigger anxiety will provide the eternal elixir for a joyous and fulfilled life fuels the indulgent pain and prevents people in this situation from attending to the empty spaces in their life and igniting their own creativity. Intrusive pain may also be protecting against feeling the groundlessness, uncertainty, grief, heartbreak, fear disappointment, and frustration that comes from trying to conceive month after month – not from a shame-based place but from the rawness of being human.
So we must, if we’re going to spiral deeper into healing realms, learn to discern between unhealthy pain and a beautiful cry. This element of gentle discernment is where the inner masculine enters the picture. This is the healthy part of us that can say, “I’ve held you through your tears and now it’s time to get up and take action. Let’s shovel some snow, rake some leaves, go for a brisk walk. Let’s think about how we can channel this energy in healthy and productive ways that, at this point, shift us out of the indulgent, intrusive pain so that we can re-enter the world.” This is very different from the mainstream message around pain that says, “Get over it.” This is the voice that has allowed for healthy expression of sadness and knows when it’s time to access a different energy. If feeling the pain is the inhale, moving out of it is the exhale. Both are necessary for inner wellness and emotional balance.