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.