The 3 Top Emotions Trapped Inside Every Intrusive Thought

by | Dec 18, 2022 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 27 comments

Continuing from last week’s post where I talked about the most important part of working with intrusive thoughts is to separate the content from the underneath layers that need attention, I wanted to give some direction about what the three most common emotions are that live inside intrusive thoughts.

But first, I want to offer a bit more clarification about this concept of delving into what might be embedded inside the thought without taking the thought itself at face value by lifting up a comment exchange that took place on the previous post.

Evan wrote:

I’m a bit confused by this article. For instance, I have Intrusive thoughts about sexual/gender orientation and health anxiety. What you’re saying is to bring awareness to when these thoughts come up, identify them as intrusive, then get curious and look for the deeper meaning within them?


I thought the main action taken to combat intrusive/ocd thinking was to acknowledge it and then move on, not give it energy.


If I go layer by layer saying “this isn’t about sexual orientation” but something deeper, I get more confused and end up spiraling out. My anxiety response ends up amplifying and then body follows suit.

Can you please elaborate on this?

I offered clarification, but then Steve offered a much clearer explanation (thank you, Steve; the wisdom in my readers never ceases to amaze me :)):

Evan – one thing you mentioned, “bring awareness to the thought” – we already have awareness to the thought – in fact we have hyperawareness to it because it’s usually coming along with emotional distress (fear, anxiety, grief, shame, etc.).


So you don’t really need to “bring” awareness to something that is already painfully there. The awareness, is that you don’t need to buy the content – the awareness that the thought is distracting you from paying attention to the feeling that is crying for attention.


Instead of thinking about it in the moment (i.e. insert thought about sexuality – oh this is intrusive what does that mean, let me think about it for hours), you acknowledge it as intrusive, and ask for space to learn from the feeling it produces (instead of fighting the feeling or wishing it away). The “space” to learn may not come in that moment (in fact it probably won’t), but taking that pause, not giving into the thought as fact, and asking for the space is enough and in time the space will open up.

What are the emotions that are crying for attention?

The three most common – the ones that I see over and over again in my professional and personal life – are grief, fear, groundlessness.

Let’s unpack these a bit more.


We all carry grief. We grieve for obvious losses but we also feel grieve for the smaller moments that are often overlooked (which I’ve written about often in my blog and book, and have also explored in our Gathering Gold podcast). When I talk about grief with a client who had a relatively happy childhood (keeping in mind that even in the happiest of childhood there will still be pain), they often say, “But I’ve never lost anyone I’ve loved and my parents have a good marriage,” as if these are the only sources of grief.

Grieving is part of the human experience, and for highly sensitive humans it’s often a daily experience. Not a day passes when I don’t feel a pang of sadness in my heart, which could be connected to anything from the personal to the global.

Just last night, we were at a beautiful choral concert and one of the songs they sang was a prayer for Ukraine. It was performed by candlelight to honor the power outages that the Ukrainians are currently suffering through, and it broke me open. I breathed into the pain, allowed tears to pierce my eyes, and breathed out a prayer for peace. I also allowed the pain to remind me of the importance of giving charity however I can.

When we allow ourselves to grieve – to feel the pain in our hearts and follow it where it needs to go – anxiety quiets down.


Fear is also a natural part of the human experience. We’re afraid of the unknown. We’re afraid of the dark. We’re afraid of losing the people we love. Highly sensitive people are afraid of change, risk, and especially death.

These aren’t necessarily fears to “get over” or transcend, as some spiritual and pop psychology philosophies espouse, as they are to learn how to accompany, to hold hands with, to accept. It’s through the acceptance of these fundamental human fears that something new, and often something life-affirming, arises. It’s often when we drop the resistance against fear – which can include self-judgement (“I shouldn’t be scared of this; what’s wrong with me?) – that the fear abates and we glimpse a window into the freedom that lives on the other side of fear.

Just as darkness and light are woven together – one dependent on the other – so the contraction of fear and the expansion of freedom are intertwined. And it seems to be one of the laws of the human psyche that quite often we must walk through fear to arrive at freedom. I don’t know why that is, but questioning it doesn’t help; it’s in the very acceptance of this reality that allows us to lay down the fight against core fear and befriend it. And when we do this, anxiety dissipates.


Lastly, we experience a core groundlessness as part of being human. This is the sense that life is largely out of our control, change/loss/death happens, our children grow up, time passes and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

This sense of groundlessness is heightened during transitional times when the very ground of our being is opened up as we’re asked to let go of old patterns, beliefs, and emotions that are no longer serving us and teeter in the liminal, in-between realm where the egg is no longer and the chick is not yet, but the truth is that we’re always in some form of groundlessness. What a task for us humans! And it’s one made even more challenging because we’re not given healthy and meaningful rituals to help steady us during these shaky times.

What helps? First off, naming the groundlessness: “I’m feeling unsteady because I’m in a new relationship, or I’m moving, or I just got engaged, or my firstborn is leaving for college.” The naming brings a piece of ground beneath our feet.

Secondly, finding and creating spiritual practices that ground you is essential. This can feel daunting as, again, we’re not offered this roadmap, and with the mass exodus from organized religion that we’ve seen in recent decades many people are bereft of time-honored rituals.

But it’s well-worth listening to the whispers of your soul, to the places that say YES, I would like to _______ [meditate for 5 minutes a day; commit to a prayer practice; memorize a poem and speak it aloud every morning; commit to a nightly gratitude practice] and follow them.

As we move toward the Solstice, pay particular attention to these three core emotions, and see if you can gently move toward them.



  1. I love your work so much. You (and the examples/others you highlight) help clarify the tangled web of humanity and existence.

    • Thank you Sheryl for your work which always give me a sense of relief and a feeling of being understood!
      I was wondering while reading: I learned that embedded in agressive intrusive thoughts or intrusive thoughts about harm lies unprocessed anger/aggression? Could it be that the anger is a secondary emotion covering up grief e.g. not being allowed to not be “perfect” or “easy-going” in the family context as a teenager? Or could anger be considered a base emotion like the 3 you mentioned as well? All the best and an end of the year full with play and rest, Judith 🙂

      • I’d like to second Judith’s question. I have processed a lot of grief over the last year which has been transformative. I thought that grief was at the bottom of my intrusive thoughts about harm and in some ways I think it is.
        But I feel like there is still anger frozen inside of me that I never felt able or allowed to express as a child. I’m wondering if there’s just nothing else underneath that anger and if it would be most helpful to find a safe way to release it. It’s just very difficult. It is much easier and more acceptable for me to feel and express grief.

        • Judith and Gabriele: We talk about anger in the psychology world as a defensive emotion, meaning that there’s something softer underneath, like grief. But I don’t think that’s always true. Sometimes we’re angry because a boundary has been crossed, or we’re angry about an injustice that has occurred. This is anger for its own sake. It’s especially difficult for women to get angry as we’re conditioned to see it as “aggressive” and “bad”, whereas for men it’s offend the only acceptable emotion. So yes, I do think anger is, at times, a core emotion that needs safe and responsible expression.

          • Thank you Gabriele for backing up on the question -and you, Sheryl, for your insightful and detailed response! I also think that on a more structural level it comes down to women being regarded “hysterical”, “complicated” or “uncomfortable” when getting angry – historically spoken as well as in contemporary contexts. Of course this is a very schematic and short-cut approach of me in regard to gender, society and all its complex nuances – so please don’t get me wrong there.

            Individually, I am still learning to allow to feel the grief as well as anger. Methods that helped me with anger were chair-dialoguing with my inner critic and my compulsions. At some point I could express some anger at the introject aspects hidden in my OCD which tries to keep me safe through perfectionism and moral high standards. I expressed some healthy anger by stating that I see the effort of these parts but that I am now in charge, as my adult self, to work on my grounding in responsible ways. But it’s a journey… And I still search for more somatic approaches and creative expressions for the energy which comes with anger – I’ll try to approach and getting to know it by movement and my songwriting.

  2. Thank you 🙏. I’m very touched by your comment.

  3. Thank you Sheryl – What a gift you are to the human experience 🙂

    I continue to rely on your insight and teachings in my life. I recently started a new relationship and the same old intrusive thoughts arose, and the physical feelings of constriction. The knot in my stomach, the tightness of my diaphragm, the closing of my throat. The questions of whether I’m attracted enough and is this person funny enough etc… And then I identify that these are intrusive thoughts, and I don’t latch onto them. I acknowledge that I’m having a physical response to thinking about things in the future that are beyond my control. I use my breath to calm my nervous system response and bring relaxation to my body, or at the very least tell myself that this reaction will pass. I ask myself “is this a person I can work on love with?” (and the answer is yes). I then acknowledge that life is messy, that love is messy, and that the human experience is messy! I let myself know that these thoughts and feelings are normal and I just need to allow them to move through me, and for this i need to give them the space. It doesn’t serve me to push them down with binges of food and TV… I sit with them and be curious, and tender for the pain that is revealed. I swat away the intrusive thoughts these days because I have learned not to dwell and perseverate, through undertaking your work.

    Your words and wisdom have blessed my life from the very first time I read a post that showed me that what I was thinking was normal. For the first time I began to understand what living as a highly sensitive person was all about.

    • Thank you, Brent. It’s always good to hear from you.

  4. The way you are able to articulate the uniquely acheful experience of being a highly sensitive person with prose and nuance speaks to me in a way nothing ever has before. I am so thankful to have come across your work and your words. These tips and tools will carry me through this life with so much more peace and acceptance than I ever knew possible.

    • I so feel the same way about Sheryl’s work and words. So grateful to have found her almost a year ago now and to find so much comfort in her words.

    • You speak right from my heart❤️

      • Thank you, Meg, Katie, and Miriam. I’m truly touched by your words. ❤️

  5. This may be the most helpful explanation I’ve come across yet. I instantly felt a sense of relief when I applied the practices/recognition to things that have been eating me up for nearly a year, some much more than that. Thank you so much for bringing this guidance into the world!

  6. Wow the concept of not needing to “grow out of” fear is mind-blowing to me. I’ll be sitting with that one. 💗

    Thank you Sheryl. 🙂

  7. I have recently found out I’m pregnant after 3 rounds of IVF. I suffered with relationship anxiety before my wedding. And it seems that similar intrusive thoughts have stuck around my future baby. Highly distressing I must say. Your comment about groundlessness that comes with transitions – “we teeter in the liminal, in-between realm where the egg is no longer and the chick is not yet”. This resonated so much as it feels to beexactly where I am. I no longer hold the identity of infertility, my egg has become an embryo but I don’t know yet if the chick will ever arrive (crippling fear of miscarriage). Thank you so much for helping me to name these feelings and allowing me to identify the deeper meaning to my thoughts.

    • I’m so glad a piece fell into place, Alexa, and sending blessings as you navigate this time.

  8. Sheryl I never cease to be amazed at how perfectly you describe the thoughts & feelings of an highly sensitive person. Thank you for helping me to understand myself & sending seasons greetings to you & your family x

    • Sending love and seasons greetings right back to you, Lynn!

  9. I think that what you say about Groundlessness is hugely important. I believe Pema Chodron talks a lot about this too. Compulsions can serve as a way of trying to avoid the feeling of groundlessness, and for me the bulk of my work, in terms of trying to get grounded, is centred on replacing the unhealthy (compulsions) with the healthy (creating and feeling connected to my art and relationships). I also think it’s important to realise that we are never *truly* grounded anyway – life is inherently in flux

    • Yes, yes, yes, Joshua. Pema Chodron’s words on groundlessness have been a huge influence in my work and in my life. And yes we’re never truly grounded, but when we turn to the healthy rituals that help connect us to ourselves, others, and something bigger than ourselves (art, creativity, nature), we can find more rootedness. Connection is key in all directions.

      • absolutely agree with all of that. Crucial also to recognise that intrusive thoughts are misguided, yet totally normal and understandable, ways of seeking rootedness. Shifting from the unproductive to the productive is the key. As you say, what we water will grow!

        • “Intrusive thoughts are misguided, yet totally normal and understandable, ways of seeking rootedness.”

          That’s it!

  10. This is such an amazing post Sheryl, for me it feels like I’ve been experiencing the 3 of them at the same time. Me and my boyfriend are close to celebrating our 1 year anniversary and I have felt more anxious than ever. My family loves him, my friends love him, he is happy with me, he has a promising career and his love is available and real. I realize that up till this moment I thought that all those wonderful things I mentioned would mean peace, all those exterior factors would give me peace but I realized that fear has always been present in this relationship and I simply haven’t allowed myself to
    enjoy, to take it in. I know he wants to propose soon, and the reality of it all clashes against me so heavily, wondering if I am ready for this, thinking I would miss my parents too much (cause they are my everything), if he would fit in my world long term, if we have enough chemistry; I am terrified of the transition, because it means I must grow up, I must evolve, that my life and family as it’s been till now will change, that I must hold space for someone now and become one with him, that’s scary! I feel so guilty for admitting those fears, as mainstream culture tells me I shouldn’t be feeling this way and if he was the one I would be over the moon, happy and excited with no doubts.

    But I am making a massive change, I am stepping into something new, the risk is enormous, i often doubt of my capacity of navigating the messiness of life, the chaos it often brings, the wonderful thrill of being alive. But, I know that I can choose and build my life, or I can just let it pass me by, let it carry me without participating.

    The scariest time of life for sure! Transitions are very hard, and nobody told me that, nobody warned me. I am learning every day.


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