Because loss exists, love is a risk. Whether it’s a friend, a partner, a child, a family member, or a pet, when we love deeply we open ourselves to the risk of loss that accompanies love. When loving a child, you know that one day that child will leave, and that loving along the way is a series of smaller losses as the child slowly individuates and finds their way separate from you. When loving an animal friend, you know that their time on this planet will likely be shorter than yours and the day will come when you have to say goodbye. With friends, partners, and family, you may love deeply until the last breath, but eventually there will be a parting.
Ah, but the joy of loving… it is unparalleled! We must love if we are to be fully alive. Yes, we can live in the safe and narrow zone, but that is not truly living. Why do we take this unimaginably scary risk? Because to do anything less is to live a half-hearted life, one that is almost not worth living. Loving is the life force that keeps our hearts beating. It is the elixir that juices our life with meaning. It is why we wake up each morning and why we offer gratitude each night.
Relationship anxiety in all forms and in all relationships is an attempt to protect us from the risk, and one of anxiety’s most potent emissaries to protect the heart from the risk is intrusive thoughts. These are repetitive, unwanted thoughts that are so alarming that they compel us to listen. If we believe the thought, we quickly tumble down the rabbit hole of despair. But once we name the purpose of the thought, we’ve taken the first and most essential step toward defusing from it. What is the purpose of intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are armor that protect the vulnerable heart. What are they protecting against? The risk of loss.
If you could melt the armor you would see the heart, pulsing and scared, at the core. You would see every time your heart had been hurt by love, and the awareness that to continue to love is to continue to risk.
One of the most common intrusive thoughts that brings people to my virtual doorstep, often at 4am after obsessively Googling for answers to their relationship anxiety, is “What if I’m gay/straight?” (“What if I’m gay?” shows up for people who are heterosexual and “What if I’m straight?” shows up for people who are gay.) As I’ve written about repeatedly, intrusive thoughts are never meant to be taken literally, which means that this thought has nothing to do with sexual orientation. What does it have to do with? Again, it’s a protection against loss, which means that if you believe the thought – which is what fear/control is hoping you’ll do – you’ll have to leave your loving relationship.
Let’s break this down:
The last thing you want to do is leave your loving, healthy relationship. Your life is so good, and you’re living out everything you’ve dreamed: a loving partner, a home, a job you enjoy, a child. Just when you start to settle in, the intrusive thought around sexual orientation pipes up. Why? Because if you “realize” that you’re the opposite orientation, you’ll have to leave your life. But why would your mind present this thought when the last thing you want to do is leave your life? Because embedded in the fear of loss is the fear of losing control, so ego would rather control the “inevitable” loss by convincing you that you’re with the wrong gender than tolerate the uncertainty that comes with loving. You know you’ll lose this person at some point, says ego, and you’ll probably get hurt along the way; why not hasten the process and convince yourself of the one thing that would warrant walking away?
At face value, the logic seems bizarre. But when you break it down it starts to make sense. The first step is to name the intrusive thought as armor against the fear of loss, and when you do this you pull back the curtain of the wizard of Oz that looms large but is actually a tiny, scared character trying to bully you into circumventing risk. In other words, when you call the witch by its true name, it shrinks back down to manageable size. The cut-through, on-the-spot tool for disarming this thought is to say in your mind every time the thought shows up:
“What if I’m gay/straight = I don’t want to lose my life.”
Other common intrusive thoughts that benefit from this on-the-spot tool are:
“I’m not attracted = I’m terrified I’m going to get hurt.”
“I have to leave in order to be free from this anxiety” = “I am avoiding responsibility for my life.”
Once you unmask the thought, you’ll be left with the core feelings that are embedded in the armor: grief, vulnerability, groundlessness, uncertainty, and gratitude, to name a few. If you can allow space for those to exist, which may look like naming them or breathing into them, they will pass through you and you’ll arrive back in the present moment. The more space you can allow for the feelings, the more the thoughts will dissolve.
Of course this doesn’t only apply to relationship anxiety. If fact, it’s been years since I’ve struggled with relationship anxiety, but the anxiety that accompanies raising two sons hits me weekly in some form or another.
It doesn’t last long, but my mind will send me catastrophic scenarios in the form of images about losing them in some way. If I’m in a clear frame of mind, I’ll quickly lasso the image, name it as intrusive, and sit with the vulnerability underneath. If I’m not in a clear frame of mind I’ll frantically text my husband until I know that everyone is safe ;). I often think of Brené Brown’s sage advice to alchemize the mind’s habit of “rehearsing tragedy” into gratitude, and I can feel the power of that re-channeling when I remember to go there.
The other day my younger son and I were driving home and the song Dear Theodosia from the Hamilton soundtrack came on where two different fathers are singing about their love for their daughter and son. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my son’s 10-year head looking thoughtfully out the window, and the deepest love flooded through me. When I listen to a song like this everything inside of me softens and I find myself crying as I drive through the roads of our life. In this place of the softened heart, the worry falls away and I am left with awe and wonder and gratitude. In this place of the undefended heart, I know that the only sane response to the seeming insanity of loving as deeply as we love is to keep the heart open and to send the worry, which is a misguided attempt at control, to other hands in some other realm.
There are many ways to return the breath that worry and intrusive thoughts steal away, but the one I’ve found to be most effective is to cry.
When I hear this song, my heart opens, the tears flow from pride and gratitude and the heartache of loving so deeply, and the worry is neutralized. If the fear of loss lives at the heart of every intrusive thought, then the remedy is to contact that fear then metabolize it into gratitude on the wings of an open heart.
Every time we feel grief or gratitude, we come back into the body.
Every time we come back into the body, the tenacity of intrusive thoughts loses its grip.
Because we’re conditioned early in life to travel up from the vulnerability and messiness of feelings into the cool, safe, and somewhat manageable chambers of the mind, none of this is easy. In order to make contact with the defended heart, you will have to address your fears and beliefs about feelings which are also, like intrusive thoughts, standing guard around your heart.
Oh, the gates around the heart are many! But inhabiting the body is one of the pathways to freedom and, as such, working with the fears and intrusive thoughts daily – and recognizing them as messengers that lead you back into the body – is a worthwhile practice. Some might say, it’s the most worthy practice there is, for anything that opens our hearts by shrinking fear also allows us to love ourselves, others, and the world around us more fully. And this is exactly what the world needs.
Regarding the ‘what if I’m gay’ thought, what are your views on the work of Steven Phillipson?
I think his work is good. There are many ways to work with intrusive thoughts. We can work cognitively with ERP (which is how he works) and we can also work with the depth psychological perspective. Many roads to healing…
Thanks. What I’ve read of his seems good, but he seems unreasonably certain that his way is the only way…
That usually gives me pause, but I think his information is good and I know his article “I think it moved” has helped a lot of people.
As someone with 25 years of lived experience dealing with intrusive thoughts around my relationship/engagement/marriage, my discovery of Stephen Phillipson’s work in 2007 absolutely changed my world, and made me realize that I was not completely alone as a person with these particular intrusive thoughts. I still have the article “I think it moved” with all of my original highlighting and margin comments. Years later, I discovered Sheryl’s work (thank goodness for the development of the internet, I’m not sure how I ever would have come across their theories otherwise), and I’ve gleaned what is most effective for me by exploring all of their work and how elements of both apply to my unique story and psychological makeup. I think both ERP and depth work can work in tandem and be complementary- as Sheryl always says, healing is not linear!
I agree that is a very empowering article. But in other places he says things I disagree with. But of course part of being grown up is to synthesise different perspectives and come up with one that works for our own unique journey.
PS – 25 years??? That seems really interesting, Blessed, and I would love to know more about your story.
Thank you for this article. It serves as an encouraging reminder of how to view thoughts like these when they arise, rather than getting lost in them.
I am really grateful for your work! ?
Maybe it’s a mysterious something that us HSP’s are particularly attuned to (no matter how far across the pond we are!) but as per usual, you may as well have read my mind. Exactly the intrusive thought that has pricked my mind this evening and caused me an hours worth of torment!
Thank you, thank you, thank you as always for your interest and deep understanding ❤️
I’m so glad it arrived at the right time! 🙂
This is exactly the reminder I needed and it’s like you were inside my head breaking down my anxiety cycle for me, as I’m on the cusp of getting engaged and alternate between been the happiest I might have ever been and cycle of intense anxiety.
Any recommendation for what to do when I’m in the heat of obsessing and can’t get unstuck?
I recommend reading my book The Wisdom of Anxiety and also using the on-the-spot tool that I suggested in the post. Also, if your anxiety was triggered by the impending engagement, I recommend reading through this collection:
That song gets me every darn time and it has since our son was born. <3
This is such a beautiful post Sheryl! Thank you as always for your wisdom
and guidance ?
Thank you, Caitlin. x
“You know you’ll lose this person at some point, says ego, and you’ll probably get hurt along the way; why not hasten the process and convince yourself of the one thing that would warrant walking away?”
This really clicked for me tonight ♥️ I feel like I’ve heard it before on the ecourse and read it in your other articles, but it just hit home this evening why my intrusive thoughts/anxiety seem to jump and attack whatever I love about my partner. Calling out fear’s lies is so much easier when you get a dose of truth water like this. Thanks, Sheryl.
@Claire: Totally agree with you. I know this all – from the course and from Sheryl’s articles but somehow really hit home reading it now.
Hi Sheryl, I feel as though this was written just for me. 😉 As always, the clarity of your writing brings me comfort and guidance. Not only do I feel like I have a mish-mash of all these emotions and more, but I feel the need more than every to carve out time to feel my feelings (even when my life feels too busy to stop and do so) I also appreciate the real-life everyday examples you provide. At my wedding, I danced with my dad to “Father & Daughter” by Paul Simon and it brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it (even more so now that I’m a parent). Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I was just listening to that song this morning as I was driving my son to class! I love the synchronicity ;).
Hi Sheryl, I have a question related more to crushes on others. I have read your article on that topic before, but mine is more related to an old co-worker. Am I right with my thinking… my crush on my old co-worker is related to the fact that I’m not putting all my focus on my current boyfriend so I’m distancing myself and keeping my heart safe? ALSO by “not allowing myself to be fully invested in my current relationship”, I also am fueling the opportunity of needing to make a decision again, keeping my heart at a safe distance from being hurt. I think I’m also missing a “familiarity” comfort as this guy is similar to the ex I was with for 7 years, meanwhile my current boyfriend is totally different (he’s European so totally different from my background and even what I expected ending up with, he’s exotic vs. familiar… when I have a clear mind, this is VERY exciting to me though and I feel so lucky to be dating someone of a totally different culture). I THINK I’m right on this, but I’d love your insight too.
Thank you in advance 🙂
Hi Sheryl I’m not sure if you’ve been getting my comments but I have a question and want to understand if what I feel is relationship anxiety. I could be sitting doing nothing or working then suddenly feel a knot in my stomach ,heart palpitations weaknesses in my body and feeling tired which started a year before I met my partner I have seen doctors and got medication but no change so I know that I don’t feel like this because of him but I don’t understand why whenever I feel this way the one thought so loud is I must leave my relationship.i sometimes wake up feeling this way and is frustrating my partner is everything I ever wanted but when these feelings come it’s like I must quickly get out. There is nothing wrong with my partner nor red flags I really want to be with him the thought of not being with him makes me unhappy. I constantly think that I’m not connecting nor feel in love with him and this worries me I don’t want to feel this way.This man is my dream come true. Would you be able to advise me.
I responded to your comment on my other post ;).
As so often happens, your post was timely, beautifully re-orienting, and so right. The “unparalleled joy” can’t be unexperienced now that I’ve tasted what it is to love and be loved.. But I’ve also fallen many times for the anxious narrative that holds joy’s hand.
As I spent some time with that narrative last week, I came back to one of our favourite quotes that has been a north star in our marriage (from, of all things, a Joanna Trollope novel) and echoes your words: “But if you hold back from plunging in, while anything enriching is on offer, then the alternative seems to me to be no more than dust and ashes, and a criminal squandering of being alive.” Thank you for continually reminding us that the risk of plunging in, and doing the work, and being alive is so worth it. It really really is.. xo
Thank YOU for sharing your poetic soul on this blog. It’s always a joy to read your words and insights. That’s a stunning quote.
A million times over, thank you! I come back to your work frequently, but just as I was questioning my loving relationship and the tools at my disposal, you send out this seemingly perfectly timed lifeline. Again. This post triggered the resounding YES I feel I was needing. I was shocked as I was reading to feel the most genuine and involuntary inhale followed by a couple tears, as I started to touch into the beginning of the vulnerability inside of me. I was even more shocked when I immediately afterwards read that one of the most effective ways to return to the body is to cry. I do not know how you so skillfully guide your readers to navigate these landscapes, but I am so, so grateful. I also realized just how your assertion that the intrusive thought means you don’t want to lose the life you have is so TRUE. Again, thank you.
Inhale and tears are so good! I’m glad the post hit home ;).
How you are able to put into words such wisdom is remarkable. I can see now why my RA has spiked more since the loss of my parents. It spiked & got out of control last year after retiring and losing my cat (who was like a child to me) the previous year. I wake up with knots in my stomach & have bouts of IBS thinking of the future ……. & realise now it’s not because of my relationship with my husband but because the future represents change, more loss & heartache. Your words of wisdom are such a blessing & have comforted me in my darkest hours. I took your advice last year & am having counselling to try to slowly unravel all my enmeshed feelings. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
What IF someone was gay? What IF the true happiness for someone was with someone of the same gender? What IF a gay person really was trying to conform to society with all these perfect things? (Family, child, house, job) What if his or her heart says something else? What if its not relationship anxiety anymore? It’s not about relationship anxiety all the time. Especially when the homosexual person would truly be happy with someone else but here he/she is with what conforms with society.
If someone is gay they know it and it doesn’t appear as a perseverative intrusive thought.
well there’s a lot of reasons it might, like stigma, shame, disapproval of family and friends. sometimes it takes years for gay people to embrace their sexuality. and those years… filled with those ‘perseverative intrusive thoughts.’