Is This the Leading Cause of Your Intrusive Pain? I’d Love Your Thoughts!

by | Jul 10, 2022 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Shame | 96 comments

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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96 Comments

  1. I think this strongly applies to my RA as follows: I need to work hard to be the perfect partner so that my partner doesn’t find out how awful I am. (Awful, as a result of having intrusive thoughts that focus on my partner’s flaws). Paradoxically, I think my RA is part of what makes me a good partner, but it can be v tough to live with. Perhaps I wouldn’t want to totally lose it, but to tame it. Perhaps.

    Thanks for a thought provoking blog!

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    • Thank you for chiming, Joshua. I was hoping you would :). I also wonder if the “awful” is not only because of the intrusive thoughts but speaks to the place of shame that lived inside of you even before the intrusive thoughts ever showed up. Does that resonate? So much of relationship anxiety projections are an inverse of the fear of not enough-ness: “You’re not [attractive, funny, social, intellectual, etc] enough” as the projection of the fear of not being enough.

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      • yes, it does resonate – the anxiety is a complete projection of the feelings of inadequacy I’ve always felt within myself. In my case it’s to do with intelligence, but it could theoretically be anything – if I were brought up to place inordinate value, say, in looks, then I’m sure that’s where my projections would hang their hat.

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        • Yes. That’s exactly how it works. And can you imagine how different the world would be if we were brought up to place value on intrinsic worthiness – being lovable just because you’re you?

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          • I’m having to totally recalibrate the meaning of love, as well as my own identity – it’s for this reason that I say RA is ‘part of what makes me a good partner’.

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          • Hi Sheryl,

            I had a realization about this today. My relationship anxiety and seeking for answers and validation from Podcasts, books, etc, comes from not accepting myself. I feel I don’t accept myself because I wasn’t seen for the “just being me” or the qualities that I believe make me. The shame I feel towards not feeling I was enough now makes me project the not enough towards my partner.

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      • This does fit for me. Recently I have been having intrusive obsessive thoughts about whether or not to have a second child. I have been very confident in my decision to only have one, however as more and more of my mother peers start to have a second child, I’ve been starting to feel I will be left out and lose my community.
        I also fear that something is wrong with me that I have struggled so much with my beautiful but very challenging child, and don’t feel like I have enough left in my well to do it again. I also struggle with guilt and shame my child won’t have a sibling.
        Anyways, it’s helpful to link these obsessive thoughts to guilt and shame beneath them.

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        • The guilt and shame can underlie so many of our decisions and thought processes. It’s good that you’re making this connection.

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        • Thank you for writing this Megan, I’m in the same boat. Motherhood has been a hard journey for me as well and I don’t feel like I have it in me to do this a second time. I’m feeling all the feelings you’re feeling – shame, guilt, fear – thank you for sharing this, it made me feel less alone

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      • This article speaks a lot to me too!
        Before entering therapy, I felt so much shame for my intrusive thoughts and everything related.

        What helped me most in working with the shame stories I had was definitely as you described: my therapist! I could go in detail, but I have never felt more accepted with everything that I bring, feel and think that it was truly healing.
        I wish everyone could experience this type of relationship.

        What helped me, is that my therapist never looked at me purely as my OCD, rather than me as an individual human being, my story and my world.

        It took years of work, but I think what truly resonates when I think of my therapist is, that he has helped me to find a way of feeling free that I didn’t even know was possible when I was in the midst of anxiety and intrusive thoughts and even before that. This took years of hard work in therapy which is why I think there is no quick fix. I also learned in therapy that it’s not the goal to get rid of my anxiety – which was hard to accept, even sometimes now, but it also helped me to let go from shame.

        I think therapy with a good compassionate therapist is an amazing way to heal from shame and learn about all the beliefs we carry that do not serve us.

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        • It’s such a blessing to find a skilled and loving therapist! I’m so glad you’ve had this experience. 🙂

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    • A thousand times yes. I have seen the core of my inner shame as my shell cracked this week. I have believed that no-one really loved or cared about me, all my life. I have carried that with me, hidden beneath protectors and projections, whereas the truth is that I have rejected others in defence. I have kept everyone away in an attempt to protect myself from deep hurt I have experienced. I have trapped myself in, beneath a fortress of walls that only breaking the shell has revealed. Beneath the iceberg was a well of shame that I am intrinsically bad and unlovable and I have been terrified to let my partner in, fearful of loving and losing the one who I admire and consider a ‘good person’ the most (my partner). Thank you Sheryl immensely for this post, and all your work.

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      • Sarah,

        All your words resonate deeply with me. Keeping people out, pushing them away, always feeling wrong in some way for just being me. Being deeply afraid to be seen for fear of loss, rejection etc and the shame of being me keeps me locked inside. But, I am breaking free and I am courageously taking the steps to be seen to be vulnerable. Thanks for your words!

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        • Beautiful that you’re taking steps to be seen, Amber! That’s exactly the healing work.

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      • Yes to all of this, Sarah, especially this: “Beneath the iceberg was a well of shame that I am intrinsically bad and unlovable and I have been terrified to let my partner in, fearful of loving and losing the one who I admire and consider a ‘good person’ the most (my partner).” Thank you. 🙏🏽

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        • Yes I plan a lot of my day to day activities and conversations with am intention to avoid people finding out I am ‘bad’ – lazy, selfish. I constantlymake sma adjustments to make sure I don’t seem this way. I think it is where most of my anxiety comes from.

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          • I think you’ve just encapsulated a primary intention for many HSPs in once sentence. 🙏🏽

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      • This made me sob – I just made that connection. As a child of missionaries, I always felt a combination of pressure to perform/always on display/inability to make mistakes/always an obligation/no one loved me for me just for my parents. It is such a hard one to overcome. In the Christian tradition we are taught that there is nothing good about us, and I know I internalized that to a great degree. I am still a Christian to this day but with a more balanced perspective of God’s love as a Father toward us. Still, those childhood experiences get so deeply etched into our beings it takes a lot of work to disentangle them.

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    • This the best explanation of intrusive thoughts that I’ve ever read and is spot on. You’re gold, Sheryl!

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    • I’ve been dipping into this over and over again as I work through the deeper layers of social anxiety. Thank you so much for writing about this. My recurring dreams include me being in settings like large houses, malls, or schools with a lot of people, some who I know, others I don’t, and my confusion about where I fit in and the pain of not belonging, wanting so badly to belong to the interconnected web of people while also desperately needing autonomy. These dreams also include me needing to use the bathroom and finding the only one available is in a location where I’m exposed, where people can see me and my feeling disgust and needing to hide but not having any other options but being exposed. Wow.
      Some enmeshment healing is being done, but when I lean into this confusion, I feel the DEEP fear of being all alone, shunned and left to die outside of my social structures. It’s such a deep driver for me and I am SO thankful for the guidance you’ve provided here. My fear is that if I am myself fully, I will be shunned, laughed at, outcast. So I people please beyond what’s authentic in order to belong, and then feel that pain of inauthenticity. It’s a dance I’m currently in and working with. I yearn for freedom from this pattern, but am so glad to know I’m not alone here, and that this is something SP’s experience.
      I started healing when I met my partner. His unconditional love for me woke something up in me that is the journey of healing with ROCD and RA. I’ve never known love like this, and hope I can meet people here as I train to be a professional counselor.
      Inner child and inner parent work has been profoundly healing for me as I continuously parent myself throughout my day. Loving the terrified child, the shamed child, hearing them, loving them, and soothing them while also being the firm voice of strength and boundaries.
      I believe I was meant to do this work in this lifetime and guide others in doing the same, and this article is an answered prayer, as much of your work is, Sheryl.

      Reply
  2. Another thought: your article strongly highlights why the therapeutic alliance is a crucial part of the healing process, and how neglecting this aspect of therapy (in favour, perhaps, of a self help book or a paint-by-numbers approach) is problematic

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    • Absolutely agree with this. Especially if you have relational trauma, I think the shame and places of terror around being shunned need that mirroring in the therapeutic alliance.

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      • This post really resonates. As I’ve been doing more self acceptance work and growing my inner parent, I have a shameful intrusive thought that says ‘you can find a better partner, now that you’re healing’ even though I love my partner !

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        • That’s a textbook relationship anxiety thought and nothing to be ashamed of :).

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    • What do you mean by therapeutic alliance? In other words are you saying therapy is a necessity itself in the healing process? I’m wanting to fully understand all the wisdom in these comments!

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      • thanks Cassie – it’s just a fancy name for the relationship between client and therapist. Every case is different, and I’m not saying therapy is necessary for everyone. Hope that helps.

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  3. This does resonate.
    I’m reading this in the middle of a weird week- I live with my parents and this week they are out of town, so I have the whole house to myself. I was feeling good at first, but then once it set in that I was really all by myself in the house, I almost immediately fell back into old depressive, self-destructive habits. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this response to being left alone for long periods of time. Reading this blog made me wonder if the reason it hits me so hard, puts me so immediately into a dark place, is that it conjures that deep fear of being all by myself. Interesting! And yes, I think it really is all about shame, starting from a very young age. I don’t have a whole lot of childhood memories, but some of the most vivid are of times when I was embarrassed.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Caro. Everything you’ve shared makes so much sense, especially how things get dark when you’re alone. HSPs seem to need to be connected to the pack more than typically wired people do, and seem to be wired to fear humiliation and embarrassment in an acute way.

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      • Sheryl – I just wrote a very long comment and then accidentally put “.con” instead of .com on my email address. Got notice: Spam Protection – email domain does not exist. Can your team retrieve my comment? I would like the content for myself. Shared personally powerful stories about how this resonated with me.

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        • Ugh I’m so sorry that happened. I don’t think the comment can be retrieved but I’ll ask.

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    • Dear Caro,

      Being physically alone can bring so many feelings!!! I’m glad you found your way into this blogpost. Sheryl’s work has been an immense help for me in what I think has been my “Dark Night of the Soul”, as she puts it.

      I am now 29 (yes, the twenties) and I have “finally” become “independent” from my parents, which means a lot to me. I never thought I would dread loneliness, always regarded myself as an “independent” person, but living by myself, and especially after learning so much from this horrible isolation period the world has been through, is teaching me (less than 6 months into living by myself) that happinness = connection, at least for me, and perhaps people like me.

      Because I work from home, the weeks I don’t consciously make time for meaningful face to face connections with others are dark weeks, and I too fall into the destructive habits as you said.

      So this is something to take with us for life, I think. We must consciously engage with the practices that connect us to people. We’re not independent, I now know this for sure.

      Thank you, Sheryl, for your work. Again and again!!!

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  4. Oh my! How timely this is for me. I’ve been spiraling deeper into the layers of my anxiety and intrusive thoughts and I keep coming back to this root of shame! Like you state shame breeds intrusive thoughts and intrusive thoughts lead to shame. As a HSP, I recently realized my high integrity or moral compass as you say leads to this seeking perfection as protection and perfection can be in my achievements, my relationships, but also in my thoughts. Any deviation from what I should be thinking or feeling and shame sneaks in. It has been about a year since I was in the grips of my dark night. I have come so far, yet still am gripped more than I want to be, but I can put space between myself and my intrusive thoughts. My journey to becoming a mom and not getting pregnant really opened up the massive amounts of shame stories I had built over the years. Fertility struggles are the surface and I’ve really been able to let go of shame, but there is so much underneath! I think you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head with this root cause! Thank you for your work and for teaching me how to soften the shame so I can truly see the worthy, beautiful, not broken soul underneath. ❤️❤️

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    • Yes to every word, Amber! I’m so glad you’re aware of what’s underneath and have been able to soften some of the shame stories. ❤️❤️❤️

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  5. Im struggling with intense anxiety/depression
    Intrusive thoughts come up regarding being alone..
    This has been the theme for me since my separation, quitting my job, and a few other big life changes..
    I have an amazing daughter who is very supportive, and when I’m not with her I feel like a terrified little kid..
    it’s pretty rough
    6 to 8 months ago, I was pretty high functioning..
    Job, exercising, socializing etc.
    Now I can barely get out to do anything without feeling terror😞

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry you’re struggling, Lisa Eden. It sounds like the transitions have unearthed the underground pain and shame that are needing attention. I hope you’re in therapy with a skilled, loving therapist. We’re not meant to traverse these dark nights of the soul alone.

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  6. My husband of 8 years and I just bought a house. The move and the increase in commitment set off months of anxiety. When I got married the intrusive thoughts were what ifs about harming a child. This time the intrusive thoughts have been about polyamory and open marriages. Again I was initially sucked deeply into these intrusive thoughts. But somewhere I also sensed the familiarity of the intrusion. I was like ‘i’ve done this before’. I’ve asked these types of questions in this way before. The more i backed away from the thought, the more I connected with a fear of loss and death. I realised that while polyamory and open marriages are ok and not ‘bad’, it wasn’t something I wanted to explore. The thought of it filled me terror and then deep grief. I even had the gay spike come up this time too. Oh thats right, and a spike about becoming a nun! Wow, I was really on one this time…Eventually there was a little, quiet voice, one that was barely audible for awhile, that said ‘this doesn’t make sense’. The ‘evidence’ doesn’t add up. I needed to read your intrusive thoughts blogs over and over. I was so lost, I began to doubt what you had written about them. I read other material about intrusive thoughts. While the other material had a slightly different bent, it also emphasised not to take the intrusive thoughts literally. My fear was able to contort anything. My husband and I are also working on big changes in our marriage. The areas that have needed attending. We’re changing our ‘dance’ to better meet each other’s needs. We’re doing EFT counselling as suggested throughout your blog comments. There are intrusive thoughts around this also. ‘my husband is horrible etc’. When in fact he is loving and kind, but also imperfect and can admit where he needs to work and improve to better meet my needs. I’m also acknowledging the same. So when I get underneath these intrusions I’m again left with a fear of loss. But I can also see how shame is interwoven – to imagine either being, or a person you’re with acting in a way that contradicts your values fills me with shame. So many layers to the onion!

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing, anonymous! Your phrase of “being or the person you’re with acting in a way that contradicts your values” really resonates and is so scary! You are brave. How long have you experienced relationship anxiety?

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      • Thats a tricky one to answer. Always I guess. Since i was little is the honest answer. I’ve always “been like this”. But handling anxiety in my marriage definitely has gotten alot better since I have engaged with Sheryl’s work, and in the last couple of years started doing EMDR and healing early trauma. Its help me connect with my husband lots more and let him in, while simultaneously given me the courage to assert my own needs. For me I guess the EMDR therapy has sped up? the healing that is suggested throughout Sheryl’s work. I am becoming more of my own person which is essential, and so thats why I can let him in more, but also say ‘hey, i need this and when you did that, its not cool’. I couldn’t do that properly before. I kept him at arm’s length for years “to protect myself”, but also didn’t assert my needs properly. And big changes bring up stuff. So buying a house, even though we got married 8 years ago, brought up other fears. But I’ve been much much more equipped to handle things. I knew what was happening this time. I knew roughly what to expect. I knew there was work to do. And reading through many of Sheryl’s blog posts I read a comment that went something like ‘one of my clients suggested buying a house was akin to the marriage transition”. And I was like, “ah, i see”. I guess I’m sensing a need for reassurance through your question (does this ever go away), and my answer is “on the whole yes, if you work on yourself”. And “working on yourself” to me has meant becoming more of a whole person so that I can let love in, give, and become more confident that I can handle life stuff that really sux. I’ve done work through: this blog and a couple of courses, counselling, EMDR therapy, a small period of time on medication, reading, reading, reading, meditation, self-reflection, having the love of my husband and daughter, (and the 4 week old in my tummy!). 🙂

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    • Fantastic that you were able to locate that quiet, inner voice who knew that the evidence didn’t add up and stay with the process until you could identify what’s underneath: the fear of loss, the changes that need to happen in your marriage (so happy you’re doing EFT), the shame – all unleashed because of the transition. Good work. 🙏🏽

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  7. “Intrusive thoughts also arise from shame as attempts to “prove” goodness or badness.”

    This really hit home for me. 1), because it resonates with my experience. 2), because I can point to two incidents in which my “goodness” was thrown in extreme doubt by someone else that both occurred right around the time my intrusive thoughts took hold. It is worth saying they were swirling around in the background before, but they hadn’t yet convinced me that “I was bad.”

    Both incidents occurred around February/March 2019, when my uncle (who was shortly after diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies, among other things) was sort of having a mental breakdown and began sending my grandmother pages and pages of emails, many of them containing videos that ranged from misogynistic to sexually inappropriate, as well as just a lot of inappropriate stuff. My grandmother, we now know, was also narcissistic, and so everyone was aware that this was going on- and in ways I think now that myself and my brother and my other uncle (the kids of the family) shouldn’t have necessarily been involved in. I was already feeling very anxious about what was going on, and then my grandmother told me that I could finally cut him loose from the band I was part of with him and my brother. Truthfully, I wanted to cut him loose from the band seven years before that as he had consistently behaved inappropriately, and she always convinced me and my brother to let him stay. Now I was supposed to write the email telling him he wasn’t part of the band anymore. When I showed it to her, however, she was devastated because I “wasn’t warm with him.” At this point I didn’t feel that warm towards him, but my grandmother was telling me what an awful family member I was because I wasn’t being nice enough to someone who was consistently awful to me and my brother, especially around this band. She then did a thing she did every time she was mad at anyone, which was to order us not to talk to her and then ignore us. I was devastated. I was sobbing for hours, and I felt like such a bad person that I didn’t feel like I could even ask my mom if she could make something I wanted for dinner.

    The second incident happened one morning as I was taking my morning meds in my bedroom. I ran out of pills from that bottle and had to go to the kitchen to get the last one, and when I walked through, my grandmother and my other grown-ups were talking about the stuff my uncle was doing. This conversation had nothing to do with me- in my mind it was a “grown-up conversation”, and I know I was 21, but it still didn’t occur to me that it was suddenly my job to be “one of the adults”- and I was just passing through to finish taking my meds. As I started to go back to my room, my grandmother got devastated again that I “didn’t have anything to say about what my uncle was doing to her” and it was the same thing- I was such a horrible person, “don’t talk to me”, and ignore me.

    I’ve already wondered if the fact that my grandmother started targeting me with her narcissistic behaviors had anything to do with the onset of intrusive thoughts- because up until then my “goodness” had never been questioned. I don’t know exactly what it means, but I also find it interesting that one of her most obvious narcissistic behaviors was “seeing perpetrators everywhere”, often as a means of separating people, and my main intrusive thought theme falls under “what if I hurt a child?”

    Reply
    • You’re making critically important links here, Riley. You, as the child in the family, weren’t protected from a perpetrator and were made to feel ashamed and bad about the boundaries you were trying to set around a truly harmful person. It makes perfect sense that this particular intrusive thought would arise at that time.

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  8. That uncle who was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, incidentally, was also sexually inappropriate with me- so for all she saw “perpetrators” everywhere she didn’t see the one right in front of her, and continued to tell me that I was a “bad family member” if I wanted to not talk to him anymore, because “he’s mentally ill and doesn’t understand.”

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  9. Shame plays SUCH a role in OCD. It takes the average OCD sufferer 17 years to receive sufficient care – largely due to feeling ashamed about symptoms/heightened responsibility for “making sure” that the sufferer doesn’t do something “bad” or cause something “bad to happen.”

    Freeing yourself of the cycle – through ERP and ACCEPTANCE – means letting go of that shame and jumping into the uncertain wholeheartedly.

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  10. I’ve been following you for over 9 years and always look forward to your Sunday blog posts. This one hits the nail on the head! 100% shame and the fear of ending up alone and rejected is the cause of my anxiety and intrusive thoughts. The idea that HSPs have a “phenomenally high moral compass” is one that very strongly resonates with me. I don’t even want to be this way, but I can remember feeling this way as a very young child, maybe 4 years old. As an adult I have recognized it would be easier not to be this way. But there in lies the acceptance piece 🙂
    So grateful for you Sheryl, always.

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    • Yes, Carolyn – it’s highly uncomfortable but there are also immense gifts in being wired for high morality and responsibility, if only we knew how to help young people channel these traits in healthy ways. While there is often an external cause of shame (parents, religion, peers), I’ve also seen that there’s an element to the fear and hypervigilence around being humiliated that is intrinsic – meaning we come into the world with it (thus noticing it even at age 4). This is fascinating to me, and an area that needs further research and exploration.

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  11. Sheryl, thank you for sharing this post. Is there somewhere you talk about how to heal shame?

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    • I’ve linked to one post in this post. If you search for “shame” in the search bar at the top of this site you’ll see all of my posts on shame.

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  12. Thank you for posting this, I agree so deeply! I discovered your breaking through relationship anxiety course five years ago and was able to go through with my marriage to a wonderful man. We have two beautiful children now. After the birth of our first child I was hit with excruciating intrusive thoughts about my husband, especially relating to his past relationships before he met me. It was only recently that I realized what I was suffering from was OCD. Therapy and medication helped calm my mind enough to do some much needed healing, but the real lasting relief has come little by little as I have turned from shame to acceptance.
    I am still a very religious person, but my mindset has changed to one of growth. The more I replace shame with learning and acceptance the more free I feel to love my partner and myself as well.

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    • Beautifully articulated Ashleigh: “The more I replace shame with learning and acceptance the more free I feel to love my partner and myself as well.” Acceptance is KEY.

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  13. This whole post struck me deeply, but this piece the most:

    “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.”

    I felt a gush of acidic, prickly sensation wash through my body, but especially my throat and jaw, as I read that. I have carried the crippling burden of moral perfection my whole life, sometimes to devastating consequences. And I am now worried about passing on this unrelenting standard to my children.

    My son said to me the other day “Mama, I sometimes think you want me to be perfect”, and I was so ashamed that I had unwittingly conveyed that message. I thought I had tried to communicate the opposite, always telling him that mistakes are good and nothing is perfect and “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”… but I can see how my unmanaged reactions to what as perceive as the kids’ “carelessness” would absolutely communicate that mistakes are not okay.

    This is big, deep, fertile territory for reflection for me. I am so comforted by your line towards the end the Acceptance is the antidote. I love the idea of practicing and cultivating and honouring a radical Acceptance.

    Thank you, Sheryl!

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    • I relate completely, Clara, and I love everything you’re sharing here. What a wise (and painful) communication from your son, and how beautiful that you’re able to hear it and receive it. Remember it’s not possible to be perfect parents! The best we can do is keep learning along the way, and trust that our children are here to learn the lessons they need to learn as well.

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  14. Yes. I think this is true in most cases. Occasionally safety is not only relational – ie intrusive thoughts around health issues. But mainly it is.

    Reply
    • I think it can apply to health issues in this way: “If I get sick it’s because I did something wrong and everyone will know it’s my fault and reject me. Therefore I have to be perfect in my health to avoid amassing evidence of my badness.”

      Reply
  15. Yesterday I wanted to post something on Instagram but I didn’t because I was too ashamed. I was so scared that my post would be weird or “wrong”/not cool enough. It’s because of this shame that I never dare to post anything on my social media. This morning I was thinking about this a little deeper and I thought of how I’ve been ashamed of my mother since I was very young. My mother is definitely weird and not cool and also a bit unaware of how to behave socially. For instance, she can be very harsh, black and white thinking, judgemental, panicky and so on. I’ve always thought others were thinking she’s weird / unadapted. I don’t want to be like her of course. And so I was thinking my shame might have this purpose of keeping me safe. Being highly attuned to the right social behaviour helps me in some way, even though it’s debilitating in many ways. I truly believe it’s related to the incredible depth that HSP’s have. Because attunement is our super power, but you want to attune to the deeper layers and that is where you find spirituality and art. It is the magic that we have access to, that other people don’t. It could (should!) make us incredibly wise leaders.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you went to deeper to explore the roots of your shame, and it makes so much sense to link it to your mother and how you felt embarrassed of her growing up. This stood out to me: “Being highly attuned to the right social behaviour helps me in some way, even though it’s debilitating in many ways. ”

      Yes, attunement is our superpower when learn how to wield it!

      Reply
  16. In addition to my previous reply, I’d like to emphasise that shame is linked to attunement. And because attunement is our superpower, shame is our “kryptonite”.

    Reply
      • I’m thinking, just like grief and joy live in the same chamber of the heart, shame and attunement live in the same chamber (of the mind?). I think there’s even scientific research about this, it has something to do with the insula.

        Reply
  17. Healing shame would consist of finding the deeper layers that contain more truth than the superficial interpretation of a “shameful” thought, behaviour, trait or appearance. But you also have to let go of wanting to be approved by people that are more superficial thinkers and feelers. I think this letting go is the hardest part, because who is going to catch you? When you come in awareness of your leadership, the role of the wise leader you’re meant to be, you are going to need some life line to hold on to. You somehow need to know that the truth of the deeper layers are more powerful than the superficiality of the masses. If you can show us how to go about this, Sheryl, I’d love to learn more!

    Reply
  18. Also, I’m wandering how there might be differences of shame amongst hsp’s. Because there are very highly sensitive people who are less suffering from shame than others. For instance certain artists dare to share so much from themselves without feeling debilitating shame. How come they don’t feel that strong shame even though they are very attuned and very sensitive?

    Reply
    • It’s possible that they do feel the shame or the fear of criticism but you just don’t see it. We never know what goes on behind closed doors. But yes, there are definitely gradations of shame. I think the higher the sensitivity the higher the fear of being shamed/humiliated. I also wonder about an intergenerational element: shame that is passed down from parent to child even when the parent is very loving toward the child but the child picks up on the shame that the parent struggles with.

      Reply
  19. Hi Sheryl,
    this is my take on the article and topic – based on stuff I’ve learnt from you and others and what also what makes sense to me and my experience 🙂

    Yes agreed- shame is, I think, intrinsically caught up with intrusive thoughts. It’s like it’s a key part of the scaffolding that they are built and maintained on.
    I do believe that HSPs have a high moral compass, but I also think that a big part of the very deep anxiety around being a bad person or being judged (for many) comes from early relational or developmental traumas. That these experience may particularly trigger issues around ‘good and bad’ ‘naughty’ ‘perfection’ ‘closeness’ ‘conditional love’ ‘punishment’ ‘judgment’ and ‘authenticity’ etc.
    Added to the fact HSPs have high moral standards, and are wired to belong, these internal injuries and traumas are very damaging and shame inducing.

    As you’ve discussed, these memories/feelings are there in the background or may be triggered later -perhaps by an acutely felt external judgement, a transition, loss, or a growing commitment to someone. This then starts the fixations on various moral or relational topics you list in the article (related to the actual wounds only on a symbolic level).
    Like you always say, these questions and thoughts may have different surface level content but are all fundamentally trying to answer the same questions – ‘am I a bad person?’ or ‘is it safe to love?’
    That’s what so many of these thoughts all seem to boil down to to me- am I safe to love and be loved? or Am I ok? or inherently wrong in some way?

    Because they are so ‘sticky’ and so hard to budge for so many, it makes sense to me that there are deeper developmental wounds involved around these issues that create shame at the core for so many (as well as societal wounds and wiring). It is why they won’t be given up easily with logic or rationale and are held on to so tightly for many. It’s so deeply important to that person to answer the questions via the intrusive thought because they’re answering very old, painful and important questions about their perceived safety and worth.

    So basically, I agree with much of what you say in this article about shame but just with more emphasis on examining previous hurts and narratives as a big part of these shame stories (which you talk about lots in other articles).

    I also think intrusive thoughts are one potential symptom of shame among many -and one which HSPs are more likely to be drawn to ‘using’

    like you say:
    ‘Therefore, the more you heal the shame story that you’re a bad person, the quieter intrusive thoughts become.’
    I believe this!

    I guess from my experience I think some healing can be found in therapy with a loving therapist or guide who can help one understand past wounds around shame, finding a community of people who experience the same symptoms to de-stigmatise the thoughts (like this site), surrounding oneself with some people that can give positive self regard and over time building an internal wise self to do that when that is hard to find externally (or cannot be relied upon).
    But it’s all very much work in progress for me,

    xxxx

    Reply
    • Beautifully expressed, Anni. Thank you.

      Yes, I agree that most times there are relational and societal trauma that lead to shame and build on the temperamental wiring (rejecting/critical parents; religious messages; peer interactions), but I’ve also seen in some people an innate hypervigilence toward being humiliated without any trauma. It’s all quite fascinating.

      Reply
  20. I really recognize myself in the description of having a very finely tuned moral compass. I’m so lucky I found my down-to-earth husband, who taught (and continues to teach me) that we all sometimes do morally wrong things. We live in a world where often times there are two bad choices. (Mother Nature faces this too!) I did something selfish? Welcome to being human. I now give myself a certain amount of grace around this. There ARE some things that are against my personal moral compass, the values I hold deepest, and those things I either do not do or – hard as it is – fully own up to.

    Reply
    • What a gift your husband is, Lailah, and how beautiful that you’ve been able to accept his influence. I’d love to hear an example of how Mother Nature can face two bad choices!

      Reply
  21. The only thing I would add to this is that in my experience (as a person and a therapist), sometimes the acceptance from others is not felt without first owning and accepting self. This probably happens in a back and forth, reciprocal process. But I have spent much time accepting others, only to find they will not accept themselves, despite my best efforts to demonstrate acceptance towards them. I understand that it is easy to feel blocked in regard to others accepting us. At the same time, to put it very bluntly, I am tired of working very hard to accept others and them blaming me that they are not feeling well because I have not accepted them. This is a projection. They have not accepted themselves. Additionally, I cannot perfectly accept anyone, and they cannot perfectly accept me. Allowing for good enough in this area is also important. So my main question in all of this is, does the acceptance start with another? Or does it have to start within? (I think Janina Fisher’s work is beginning to address this.) These acceptance needs might be regulated by attachment differences as well.

    Reply
    • I think it’s both: we need to be working with self-acceptance and this process can be greatly facilitated by being seen and loved by another. We heal in relationships, and this includes the relationship with ourselves. If someone isn’t willing to take personal responsibility and grow their loving inner parent, all the loving seeing in the world won’t fill their inner well of self.

      Reply
      • Right, that makes sense. Unfortunately, it seems there is a lot of that.

        Reply
    • I will also say that, I experience myself to be very sensitive internally and find that I often set that aside for people are who are internally sensitive and externally seeking about that. Because of this, expressing high sensitivity feels like a “privilege” in some ways that I do not allow myself, in order to be strong for what others need. I am aware of a sense of pressure to set aside my own sensitivity to be available to others sensitivity (and associated shame). Sometimes people resent me for strength or stoicism, because they do not like my response to their sensitivity or because they feel shame that my responses are not the same as theirs. At that same time that I want to honor high sensitivity and the associated shame, I also want to be a voice for those who are being strong and “not experiencing shame.” Many of us are carrying significant weight in that. I think some people say it is easy, but I don’t think it is – I think eventually there are many weak/vulnerable moments, but it might not look like what others want it to look like. We can be different in how we experience our sensitivity and how we respond to it and that is okay. Strength is okay. Do we do a disservice to all to categorize the world into sensitive and not-sensitive? It is just about awareness of our internal parts and what we do with them.

      Reply
      • Nobody will likely see this, but I feel so compelled to say something, even if I’m just writing it for myself.
        As my understanding goes – it’s never about ‘setting our sensitivity aside’, and contrasting sensitivity with ‘strength’ – sensitivity and strength aren’t mutually exclusive, unless we mean something else when we say ‘sensitivity’ or ‘strength’. Trying to ‘set it aside’ I can only see as resulting in a person not being completely present with another person or a situation. I guess there’s room for that in a traumatic situation, to close up a bit, but in a relationship I think it can only hinder true connection and allowing the other person to feel loved/seen by us; it would be an obstacle in our authenticity and in truly being emotionally available to the other. The way I understand it, the goal is to always *hold* and honor our sensitivity, not as ‘a part of us’ but just as something we honor by being present with our inner experiences (which are more hightened/intense than perhaps many people’s), as opposed to invalidating them or fearing them or thinking we’re wrong to be having them. In that way we’re not ‘being strong by putting our sensitivity aside’, we’re strong *because* we’re holding our sensitivity – there’s no ‘weakness’ in it.
        I suspect that being able to do that while leading a therapeutic session is nothing short of an art in itself, and I’m not gonna pretend I know anything about that. (Maybe Sheryl would share some of her tools in a coaching session with you?)
        I also don’t feel that it’s about the dichotomy of ‘feeling shame vs being strong’, that sounds unhelpful to me. Or even ‘sensitive vs non-sensitive population’. People who don’t struggle with this and are living life more free because their ‘skins’ are thicker -good for them. They don’t need this work, but also they don’t need ‘to have someone speak for them’ either. This information is just to give those of us who *do* struggle an “I see you”, as well as to the deeply buried parts of us which are starving for that as well.

        Reply
  22. Shame, intrusive thoughts, feeling alone and all in a bid to avoid the fear of abandonment. I wonder if there’s a way to be able to talk into it, confront it and be so curious about it that it dissipates.

    Reply
    • Yes, there absolutely is! I think it’s a combination of practicing self-acceptance in the context of loving reparative relationships with others, including invisible others in the spiritual realm (nature, ancestors). Also connecting with intrinsic gifts and taking the risk to them into the world helps reduce shame.

      Reply
  23. Sheryl, you know me so well. How I’m wired and how I feel. This blog post is so accurate. I have always felt gravely bad and wrong whenever I feel I’ve made a mistake, whether as a mom with my children, at work, or in other relationships. Thank you because your work is so unique. I’ve not encountered another professional with your level of understanding, knowledge, gentleness and with the ability to move beyond the blocks to the core!

    Reply
  24. Wow. Not only do I feel connected with this article and the shame element, the timing is very ironic. I’m a HSP with OCD, and I’m currently smack in the middle of a “theme shift” (i.e. the content of the intrusive thoughts has morphed) that has sent me into relapse. My initial intrusive thoughts were around sexuality and moved around into ROCD (or RA whichever you prefer to use) and even Harm, and after a few years of therapy and work which lead to some recovery only a few weeks ago I had the thought “what if I start having intrusive thoughts about my kids?” – and then BAM I was hooked into the fear cycle, which has been excruciating because my kids are everything to me. Even though I can recognize the thoughts as intrusive, the intensity of the emotions behind them (fear, shame and guilt) are so strong the compulsive behaviors (mainly rumination, mental checking) happen so quick and automatic you’re stuck before you know what happened. When I can find some small space in all this noise though, I can start to see that the emotion (fear, shame and guilt) are the root here. And I can remember even back into my childhood of having a very high moral compass, especially in myself. This line really stood out: “And it will be my fault because of my inherent badness”. Almost like the worst fear is living with eternal shame and guilt that I caused, which of course would lead to permanent isolation and the loss of anything you value.

    Articles like this do provide a source of hope, which I thank Sheryl for and all of those who have commented with their perspectives

    Reply
    • This is so well articulated, Steve, especially this: “Almost like the worst fear is living with eternal shame and guilt that I caused, which of course would lead to permanent isolation and the loss of anything you value.” The work, as I understand it, is to keep widening those moments when the thoughts quiet down and you connect to the core emotions underneath – the fear of loss being the primary.

      Reply
  25. Wow. Holy crap!
    So I have come to this conclusion this week as well. I have recently been though a break up- I was in your relationship anxiety course and ended up deciding that the best thing for my partner and I to do was to walk away (sorry if that triggered anyone- it was what was right for my situation). I thought that I would be cured from my anxiety and that the relationship was the reason I was suffering so much. It wasn’t- it was what triggered this shame and deep fear that was constantly humming in the background of my life until is completely exploded and the pain and fear was debilitating and begging for attention and help. While I still believe that this was the healthiest thing for me to do- I have noticed my obsessions taking a new form. “Am i a narcissist” is my current obsession. It keeps switching from “am I a pedo” “am I a sociopath” “what if I am secretly mysoginistic” “what if I’m not liberal” and intrusive thoughts and images and constant rumination in accordance to these obsessions. I asked myself…what’s the common theme here? If these things were true- what would be the part that scares me the most. What is the underlying fear here?
    Being Rejected, shunned, unlovable, bad.

    Thats it. BAM.

    That is the foundation of my anxiety. Of my obsessions. I am hyper fixated on thoughts, past behavior or any shred of evidence that these fears could be true.

    I’m so so so glad you wrote this. I feel so seen and understood and a lot less crazy.

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s exactly it, Molly: obsessions as a protection against the fear of being rejected, shunned, unlovable, bad. Now to focus on these core fears instead of the intrusive thoughts!

      Reply
    • Molly I’m right there with you. Especially this part: “I am hyper fixated on thoughts, past behavior or any shred of evidence that these fears could be true”. I love the phrasing you use, hyper fixated. That is truly what it feels like doesn’t it? Just so locked onto the content. And when I am able to briefly look past the content, I see the same fears and emotions you do, and as I mentioned one other angle holds true and that’s the fear/guilt that I would CAUSE it, or even be capable of causing it. Some of the real struggle comes when your mind wants to just take you right back into the content. Kind of like, “oh, that’s nice you found these fears, but what if those fears and emotions are there b/c your thoughts are true”. Anxiety and OCD are clever like that, but I suppose it’s because we’ve all spent a lifetime resisting the underlying fears our minds are just conditioned to continue to protect us from them. I think that’s why simply identifying the fears is not enough (wouldn’t that be nice if that’s all it took!). I think allowing these fears/emotions to be truly felt and pass through us is key, and I think that’s what is truly meant by acceptance (vs trying to compulsively “accept” every thought that enters our minds). I have no idea how to achieve that yet, but I’m working on becoming more hopeful that I can learn

      Reply
    • I found myself laughing while reading a part of your comment (pls bear with me; not mocking).

      The contrast between the content of your intrusive thoughts/fears and then your context around it made me laugh and realize how ludicrous those thoughts are in and of themselves, as I *highly* doubt that any actually harmful person ever expressed themselves with self-aware ‘fancy’ words like “I have these intrusive thoughts, and constant rumination in accordance to these obsessions”. I mean, if I think of some cringey rigidly right-winged bigoted people, and their primitive fear-mongering “*They* are the problem!*-rhetoric and compare it to a person reading a blog on taking responsibility for one’s own emotions, while on their own coming to the conclusion that their obsessions are rooted in their fear of being unlovable. I mean, that’s just humor.

      As someone who was for a while (in a wildly anxious state following something traumatic) tormented with the compulsion to throw away all the knives in the house for fear of harming someone – all the while feeling so sensitized that it was way too intense for me to swat a fly (literally!) – and being unable to connect those dots to calm myself down and reassure myself that I was safe for everyone around me – now I feel through your words it finally ‘hit me’ how completely absurd the content of intrusive fearful thoughts is. I think laughing at it means I’ve grown a bit in my ability to put some much needed distance there. (Not that I won’t ever get sucked in again.. sigh..)

      Reply
  26. This post was quite timely for me considering that I have actually been shunned and rejected by almost my entire family after trying to set boundaries with toxic family members has. The fear has become a reality. And now I’m dealing with intrusive thoughts along the lines of, “What if they are right about me?”.

    Reply
    • That’s an exceedingly painful situation, Lena. Underneath that intrusive thought is your heartbreak and vulnerability.

      Reply
  27. My footprint is lighter today after reading this. Thank you for always including the most personal and yet worldly shared most common intrusive thoughts. Even as I type I can feel the shame of my personal hook and the false belief that it makes me “bad”. Practicing love, grieving letting go of the shame story itself for protecting me when I needed it are all things I am leaning toward. A deep humble bow for your courage to write and continuing to see the essence of being human. Xoxo

    Reply
    • Thank you, Angie. I’m so glad a layer of shame has been released into the great unfolding of humanity stepping into its true nature. Sending love.

      Reply
  28. I have problems with shame. Does any of your programmes could help me with that?

    Reply
  29. I loved this post though it’s difficult to see.
    So intrusive thoughts come from shame and end up generating more shame. But where did the original shame (the one that generated the intrusive thoughts to start with) come from? That’s my first question.
    Also, acceptance implies self-validation, right? How do you do that? What if you never come across someone who accepts you unconditionally?

    The episode you refer here to of Gathering Gold is Dream Work?

    Reply
    • Shame comes from many places: Innate wiring; parents’ judgment/criticism; being made fun of, teased, bullied; religion; school. Highly sensitive people are more attuned to shame because the fear of being humiliated is linked to being shunned.

      Acceptance does imply self-validation, but it’s not only that. It’s meeting yourself with compassion and curiosity, and being able to hold your emotional life with tenderness. Finding a loving therapist can help enormously, as I shared in the post.

      Yes, the episode on dreamwork.

      Reply
  30. Hi Sheryl,

    As with most of your work, this resonates with me on so many levels. Funnily enough, in a journally session today, I hit upon this.

    For years, my anxiety hook as been ‘I just need to find my passion/calling/thing that’s going to always make me happy’ and then the brain has set to work trying to think about what that could be, all while projecting impossible levels of perfection to certain jobs. I am re-reading the Wisdom of Anxiety and today I was reading the part about your client who was obsessing about whether to move home so her daughter didn’t turn into a horrible person (or something along those lines). I just had an a-ha moment realising how the psyche works – I could just sub in ‘obsessing about finding the perfect job’ so I am ‘not a horrible person (i.e. a good person)’ in place of ‘obsessing about whether to move home’. I started to try and think again about the layers underneath and it came back to just wanting to be loved and accepted (there are obviously still important considerations like ‘What job do I feel drawn to?’ but, as you say in the book, they can’t be answered from places of anxiety). I just find it endlessly fascinating how, in the end, we just all want to be loved.

    It’s been a joy that my own self-love has increased overtime through my engagement with your work, my inner work, my hobbies and my connection with others, but in challenging times the intrusive thoughts can flare up along with the shame and I find it takes a long of strength to gather the compassion when your resources are low. In those times especially, reaching across to a loving other can be exactly what we need.

    Thanks so much for sharing this article – I really appreciate these blog posts and taking the time to reflect on them.

    Love,

    George

    Reply
    • This is so well articulated, George. This line in particular stands out to me:

      ” I could just sub in ‘obsessing about finding the perfect job’ so I am ‘not a horrible person (i.e. a good person)’ in place of ‘obsessing about whether to move home’. I started to try and think again about the layers underneath and it came back to just wanting to be loved and accepted”

      Reply
  31. I think it’s fascinating that a couple of people mentioned being 4 years old and something happening. I’m pretty sure that two experiences when I was 3-4 yrs old shaped me. I was and am an HSP with all the feels, but I was trained from a very young age to turn that off – only certain emotions and behaviors allowed, everything else wasn’t allowed. At that very tender age I also was TOLD I was a bad girl…when I was actually just curious and excited about life. But, in my case, shame got mixed with anger: my mother’s spanked me with a belt for normal childhood stuff, never showed curiosity or compassionate inquiry…which struck me as terribly unfair/wrong. In retrospect I see that a part of me grew cold and determined to be quietly rebellious, while another part writhed in shame, while another part worked very hard to be perfect (or at least appear perfect!)/please my parents, terrified of abandonment/rejection. Being rejected by my family or by any friend terrified me – and so I learned how to hide who I was in order to fit in with my family and with any potential friend or mate. All that sensitivity, curiosity got stuffed down, along with the rage and shame, but I also secretly clung hard to what I was told was bad/felt like freedom.

    So yeah – lots of shame, shadow work, but I am wondering about the anger, Sheryl (is it common to have anger and shame go hand in hand?), attachment issues, and also if others here have experienced some feelings of “splitting” or dissociation as well, given the boatload of childhood shame experienced/shared here, and what children will do to survive that devastation. I’m working with my therapist on “integration” of those younger parts of me/selves into a healthier whole.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Emmy, and I’m so sorry that you were treated this way. The abuse is real and of course will lead to shame – and I’m glad you’re working with a therapist to integrate the trauma.

      Yes, shame and anger often go hand-in-hand: the anger is the protector against the shame. You’ll often see children who feel ashamed but react with volatile anger or even rage, which, of course, only leads to more shaming from adults. It’s a vicious cycle.

      Reply
  32. When I’m highly sensitized – usually during a long period of chronic anxiety – I will have intrusive thoughts during the day, but then sometimes nightmares during sleep about shame and anger, almost always involving my family and/or spouse. In the dreams, there will be some kind of argument, or people will be telling me I’m in some kind of trouble…or the worst: my spouse or mother will be “disappointed” in me.

    For some reason, having these two figures in my life be angry or disappointed in me is intolerable, and leads a spiral of awful feelings of shame, guilt, defensive anger and what I can only call hopeless despair. The shame, guilt and defensive anger I understand, but the hopeless despair feels almost alien. I don’t really get what that’s about, but it’s terrifying and is somehow is tied up with some kind of core shame.

    The problem is that this all leaves me in a terrible state of anxiety. I’m working on accepting the anxiety without compulsively trying to “solve” it, which is difficult because it’s kind of like trying not to solve a debilitating migraine that won’t go away.

    Reply

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