I’m endlessly fascinated by our inner world, and have been called to this path of helping highly sensitive people who struggle with intrusive thoughts to heal at the root. As always with inner exploration, it’s a never-ending process of discovery; just when I think I’ve landed on a bottom-line root cause, another one starts to emerge from my work with clients. As I listen deeply, so the depth is revealed.

In recent weeks, the topic of shame has risen to the surface, and it’s become more clear to me than ever that intrusive thoughts and shame are intimately entwined: intrusive thoughts cause shame AND shame leads to intrusive thoughts. Let’s flesh this out.

We tend to feel shame about intrusive thoughts because we’re not taught early in life that not only does everyone have intrusive thoughts but also that they’re protectors, metaphors, and messengers, and should never be taken literally. Without this basic education, the untrained mind will take intrusive thoughts at face value and believe that they’re categorically true.

So when the common intrusive thoughts show up, like:

  • What if I hurt a child?
  • What if I hurt myself?
  • What if I don’t love my partner?
  • What if I have cancer/heart disease/tumor, etc?
  • What if I’m a different sexual orientation than I think I am?

We feel shame and view the thoughts as evidence of being a bad person.

But…

Intrusive thoughts also arise from shame as attempts to “prove” goodness or badness. The anxious part thinks, “If I can answer this one question with 100% certainty I will be exonerated from shame” or “If I can execute this compulsion perfectly I will prove my goodness (outer perfection will be evidence of inner perfection)”. But since you can’t answer these questions with total certainty, and you can’t achieve perfection with compulsions, you then assume that you’re bad. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle; in its attempt to prove “goodness”, it ends up confirming “badness”.

The more you remain attached to the intrusive thought, the more you believe the shame story that you’re a bad person. Conversely, letting go of the intrusive thought would mean letting go of believing in your badness and, instead, starting to dare to believe that you’re intrinsically worthy, good, and lovable.

One reason why highly sensitive people are more prone to intrusive thoughts is because they have a phenomenally high moral compass. The slightest deviation from moral perfection is interpreted as being a “bad” person. This applies to others but mostly it applies to themselves. And since it’s impossible to be morally perfect (everyone has lied, cheated, gossiped, failed, hurt someone, or stolen at some point), when they make a “mistake”, shame quickly follows, and the intrusive thoughts show up to try to offer an escape hatch out of shame.

Highly sensitive people are also highly aware of social norms, and have a deeper need and longing for belonging than a typically wired person. Therefore, one of their most terrifying fears – and I think this extends back centuries and links to our historic cell-memories – is of being shunned by the community. When we lived in tribes, being shunned would equate to literal death. Now, being shunned or rejected by a family or social circle doesn’t mean you’re literally going to die but it certainly feels that way.

An OCD expert once shared with me that, from the work he’s done in the field for twenty years, he’s come to to believe that the deepest fear for those who suffer in this way is of ending up alone. I agree, and I’ve come to see that there’s an additional layer to this fear: it’s not only the fear of ending up alone, but it’s that the shunning and judging will be a result of people discovering how bad you are. The root is shame. And so you have to spend inordinate amounts of energy to prevent that from happening.

The thought process goes like this: “If people realize how bad I am, I’ll be shunned and end up all alone. And it will be my fault because of my inherent badness. Therefore, I need to pretzel and work and manage as fast as I can and with total perfection so that nobody realizes how bad I am.”

This is complicated territory, and it’s a perspective that’s not often discussed in the world of intrusive thought and what we call OCD.

What is the medicine? Acceptance. Learning to accept yourself, which often comes from feeling the unconditional acceptance and positive regard from another: a therapist, a friend, a partner. When we learn that we don’t have to be perfect in order to be loved, that our mistakes are, in fact, part of what make us human and, therefore, worthy and lovable, everything starts to shift. Victoria spoke to this so beautifully in our recent Gathering Gold bonus episode, and I’m sure we’ll be delving into it further in future episodes. I also wrote about this here. 

The bottom line: Intrusive thoughts both create shame and are born from shame. Therefore, the more you heal the shame story that you’re a bad person, the quieter intrusive thoughts become.

Where does this land with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments as we explore this together, especially anything that has helped you heal shame and start to believe that you’re intrinsically good and worthy of belonging.

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