As much as I talk about intrusive thoughts on this site and in my courses, I’ve never formally defined them. And, truthfully, in all of my training over the years I’ve never come across a precise definition of intrusive thoughts. Furthermore, despite the fact that I’ve never met someone on the anxious-sensitive-creative spectrum who hasn’t suffered from intrusive thoughts at some point in their life (usually starting in childhood or adolescence), most therapists have never heard of intrusive thoughts, so when they encounter them in their therapy office they either try to dismiss them by telling their poor clients to stop thinking those thoughts (as if that’s possible) or they take them at face value: “Oh, you’re wondering if you’re with the wrong partner? That probably means you’re with the wrong partner [because everyone knows that doubt means don’t].” Or: “Oh, you think you might be gay? Well, then maybe you’re gay.” Ack! There’s no faster way to send the anxious mind into obsessive, self-hatred overdrive then to confirm that an intrusive thought is categorically true.
So what exactly is an intrusive thought? Here’s my definition:
A repetitive thought that causes suffering and prevents you from being present for your life.
We all have thousands of thoughts that dart into our minds all day long. But unlike most of these thoughts, an intrusive thought sends its talons into consciousness and doesn’t let go. It convinces you that it’s true and causes inner torment. Here are the most common intrusive thoughts I come across (and even if your thought-du-jour isn’t listed here, believe me when I say that there isn’t an intrusive thought on the planet that would surprise me):
- What if I’m gay?
- What if I’m straight?
- What if I’m with the wrong partner?
- What if I don’t love my partner enough?
- What if I was sexually molested and I don’t remember?
- What if I had an affair and I don’t remember?
- What if I hurt someone?
- What if I kill someone?
- What if my child gets hurt in some way (kidnapped, abused, killed)?
- What if I have a terminal illness?
- What if I die in my sleep?
And please don’t let the ego-mind, who wants to tear down any theory that undermines its growth-defying tactics, try to convince that because your thoughts don’t start with the words “what if” they’re not intrusive thoughts but true thoughts. That’s the oldest trick in the book, ego-mind ;).
Here are some other truths about intrusive thoughts:
- Suffering from intrusive thoughts is a high-level, mental addiction. In other words, it’s not a substance addiction (drugs, alcohol, coffee, food) and it’s not a process addiction (porn, gaming, screens, shopping), but it does function in a similar way in that serves as a protection against being fully present for one’s life.
- Intrusive thoughts are brilliant defense mechanisms in that they protect you from more vulnerable feelings.
- You have a hard time distinguishing between the thoughts and the truths. In other words, you start to believe that the thoughts are true, and from that point forward, you’re stuck on spin cycle.
- Intrusive thoughts often point toward perfection. They whisper in your ear a story that carries as its subtext the belief that if you could achieve the perfect partner, job, house, etc, you would be lifted out of the suffering of being human.
One of the keys to breaking free from an intrusive thought is calling its bluff. And calling the bluff always means taking responsibility for yourself which, in this case, includes recognizing that the underlying pain would exist irregardless of the external circumstances.
I’ll give you an example of a client who was struggling with an intrusive thought about her work for many years (story shared with permission). This client had worked for fifteen years in corporate America at a job at which she excelled and helped her achieve financial success and stability. However, after the birth of her kids, she longed for a change that would help her create more autonomy and flexibility. So she left her job and quickly established her own business. At first she thrived, but quite soon she started to notice a niggling doubt: Is this really my life’s work? Is this new job my calling? Shouldn’t I be doing something more meaningful? I must be settling. These thoughts sent her on a wild goose chase for many years as she was 100% convinced that the thoughts were coming from her “truth”. As long as she believed the thoughts, she couldn’t challenge them. But believing the thoughts brought her more and more suffering. It was time to break free.
In one defining session I said to her, “For the fifteen years that you were at your corporate job did you ever have this thought?”
“So here you were at a job that you knew wasn’t “your calling”, yet this intrusive thought that you’re settling never came up once.”
“What does that tell you?”
“That it’s not about my career. It’s something that lives inside of me that I would take with me no matter what career I’m in.”
“But why didn’t it come up in that other job?”
“Because you were focused on relationships at that time. And the job gave you enough stability to quell the ego, who thrives on the illusions of stability, like a consistent paycheck, meeting externally defined goals, getting praise from managers. All of the things that corporate life offers.”
“Yes. So really I just swapped one intrusive thought out for another one. I swapped focusing on relationships for focusing in work.”
“That’s exactly right. And now it’s time to tend to what’s embedded inside the intrusive thought. What is needed? What pain are you avoiding by focusing on the thought?”
“My core issues around inadequacy and unworthiness. The need for a definite identity.”
“Yes, exactly. And also, I suspect, the spiritual need to move toward our fundamental groundlessness.”
Intrusive thoughts cover over many core needs and feelings, but at the root is the need for certainty. As human beings that are not guided to develop an acceptance of the changeable reality that defines our existence – an existence that ends in one certain way for all of us – we have a very hard time accepting uncertainty, which is another way of saying that we have a hard time accepting death in all forms. We resist grieving the emotional deaths that occur when we transition to new places in life. We’re not guided on how to grieve the pain and loss that punctuate a regular day. We’re not mentored on how to live life fully, which means feeling all of our feelings. And when we don’t live life fully we actually fear life, which then creates a fear of death.
Healing from intrusive thoughts is a multi-layered, complicated topic that extends beyond the scope of a single blog post (for a comprehensive training on healing from intrusive thoughts, please consider my Break Free course). But following these basic steps will help you break free from their hold:
- Name the Thought: For many people, just naming and normalizing what’s happening inside their minds – knowing that the thoughts are not indications that there’s something wrong with them but are actually coming in the service of health and healing – is half the battle toward recovery.
- Expose the Lie: Again, if you believe the thought as true you will go down the rabbit hole of anxiety and depression. If you can say, “This is my familiar intrusive thought, and even if I think it’s true I know it’s not true,” you will take an essential step toward de-fusing your attachment to it.
- Sit with the Underlying Feeling: Once you remove the addiction by naming the thought and exposing it as a lie, you will be left with that the thought is covering up: a sense of inadequacy, insecurity, sadness, groundlessness of our human experience. Breathe into those feelings, and remind yourself that being human – with all of its vulnerability – isn’t something that you can get over. It can’t be fixed. The best we can do is be with ourselves with love and compassion. And in the loving, we find freedom.