There is a River of Light Inside Your Intrusive Thoughts

by | Apr 26, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 70 comments

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”  ― Joseph Campbell

We run from the bear chasing us in the dream. We run from the panic that rattles the doors of psyche. We run from the thoughts in our heads. But when we turn to face them, and can reach into our backpacks for the proper tools, we discover our treasures. Encased inside your intrusive thoughts is a light that you can only imagine. But in order to tap the light you have to know how to work with intrusive thoughts effectively.

As I’ve discussed frequently in my work, I view intrusive thoughts in three ways:

1. As distress flares that alert us to something inside that needs our attention. Here we become curious about where in our four realms of Self – body, mind, heart, and soul – we are off-kilter.

2. As protectors that prevent us from touching into our emotional vulnerability. Here we ask, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

3. As metaphors that, when unlocked, help us heal in body, heart, mind, and soul. Here we settle into quiet and become deeply curious about the non-literal metaphor encased inside the alarming thought.

I’ve written about the first two messages from intrusive thoughts in multiple posts and in my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety. It’s the last message, that intrusive thoughts are metaphors, that deserves more explanation. For it’s when we land on our personal metaphor that we realize that thoughts are not literal and are instead carriers from soul that contain a medicine that can transform us from the inside out. And yet it’s this third message that is often most difficult to decipher for one simple reason: we have forgotten the language of metaphor, or perhaps we never learned.

Marion Woodman, in her extraordinary audio series Sitting by the Well, explains:

“The language of soul is metaphor. People say, ‘If Shakespeare’s so smart, why doesn’t he say what he means? And if your dreams are so smart, why don’t they say what they mean? Why do you have to pay all the money?’ I’ve had analysands say that to me, ‘Why do we have to pay all this money? You say the dreams are so wise, bu we don’t understand them.’ It’s because we have forgotten the language. All you have to do is learn the language again.”

We have to learn the language again. We’re not schooled in metaphor; we’re schooled in literalism. We don’t live in a culture that reveres the right brain, the world of imagination, art, instinct, and wildness. In order to gather the fruit in the orchard of intrusive thoughts, we have to learn the language of the soul, which is the language of metaphor.

Consider the following metaphors (keeping in mind that the metaphor encased in an intrusive thought is personal to each person, just like a dream image):

Health Anxiety Intrusive Thoughts:

What if I have cancer: What is eating away at you?

What if there’s something wrong with my heart: Rhythm issues: How are you out of rhythm or overriding your rhythm. Pacing: Are you over-pacing? Doing too much?  Emotional: How is your heart hurting? What is the ungrieved pain?

What if these tremors mean I have _____: Where do I feel unstable? Where am I shaky?

I have a skin rash: How have I been rash or impulsive? Is there an area where I haven’t honored and implemented healthy boundaries? (Skin is a metaphor for boundaries.)

Digestion issues: What am I having a hard time metabolizing and processing emotionally and psychologically?

Pedophilia Intrusive Thoughts: 

I wrote more extensively about this common and highly shame-laden intrusive thought here. In terms of metaphors, you can ask: How am I harming the innocent part of me? How am I not tending to my inner child? Because this intrusive thought appears for highly sensitive people who are incapable of hurting any innocent being, even believing that you’re capable of harming a child is a way that you’re harming your own inner child.

Self-Harm Intrusive Thoughts:

Just like death in dreams is “the most reliable symbol for psycho-spiritual change,” as Jeremy Taylor says, so intrusive thoughts, including thoughts of death, are indicators that the soul is ready to grow and integrate to a new level of consciousness. In this sense, we must interpret an intrusive thought the way we would interpret a dream and not take any element of it at face value but instead dig deeper until we unearth the metaphor and, thus, the true meaning that is longing to be known.

Jeremy Taylor explains this best with a story about Jungian analyst Robert Johnson:

“On one occasion, at the end of an iteration of this talk at an Episcopalian retreat center, I watched and listened as a clearly distressed and depressed young person asked him for clarification on this point.

“Robert responded that, yes, that was indeed what he was advocating: every person facing an important life decision should pay particular attention to the suggestions and implications of his/her remembered dreams and fantasies.

“…But Dr. Johnson!” the youth replied, “my dreams and fantasies are all telling me to kill myself! Surely you are not telling me I should kill myself…!?”

“Ahhh!” Robert replied, leaning forward, his posture reflecting his serious and caring tone, “If that’s the case, then, yes, by all means, kill yourself!”

At this point in his discourse, Trickster Robert paused and took a long sip from the glass of water provided for him on the podium. During that pause, I observed audience members responding with facial expressions and body postures reflecting shock and disbelief, accompanied by gasps and other expostulations of surprise and dismay… Then Robert set the glass back down on the podium and completed his unfinished sentence: “but do not harm your body!”

“No one laughed, but the atmosphere of sudden relieved amazement and surprise in the room was palpable…

“By all means, kill yourself, but do not harm your body!” is in my experience absolutely the best advice that anyone contemplating suicide can receive.”

What does this mean in practical terms for someone who is desperate and feeling like they’re at the end of their rope? It means that we understand that thoughts, fantasies, and dreams of suicide are psyche’s way of communicating that something inside needs to die: a belief system, an ego-identity, a pain that is ready to be release into the fire. As humans we’re in constant flux: some part of us dies in order for something else to be reborn. If we can see thoughts of suicide as an opportunity to enter into a new spiral of growth and healing, an edge of suffering may be alleviated enough to take action in a new direction.


Relationship Anxiety Intrusive Thoughts:

My partner isn’t enough = I am not enough.

My partner is unattractive = Where was I harmed regarding how I feel about my physical body?

Something’s missing = What is missing in my own self?

I’m not in love = Am I in love with my own life, separate from my partner?

When I’m working with a clients and we land on the metaphor together – when “What if I harm my child?” becomes “How am I harming my inner child?” – I can nearly see the rivers of light intersecting in all four realms. I see the light of relief when they realize, not only at the level of thought but somatically, at the cellular level, that the thought is not literal, that they’re not capable of hurting their child or any child. I see the heavy cloak of shame lift off their skin, again as if each cell weight has been reduced. I see the soul being nourished, as if it is drinking from a great well of cool water, quenching the heat of pain and shame that the misunderstood thought has caused.

Again I turn to Marion Woodman to explain what I witness every day – that metaphors are a powerful somatic healing modality:

“If the metaphor is working, it’s working right through the body. Every cell of the body is responding. For one instant we are whole. Body, heart, mind, and soul come together in the metaphor. Emotion, imagination, mind. The metaphor is the transformer.”

The metaphor is the transformer. The metaphor is what brings together our four realms and sets us free for one blessed moment. When we land on the metaphor we taste into our wholeness, our forgotten goodness, and remember that we are brilliant manifestations of the divine, chariots of poetry that are waiting to be seen and revealed.

This is why art heals. This is why poetry heals. This is why music heals. This is why dance heals.

Of course, landing on the metaphor is often only the first step in the healing process. Once we receive the message, it’s time to work with it: journal it out, investigate its roots with the headlight of curiosity leading the way, ask where this belief began, time travel into past memories with the loving inner parent and wise allies guiding the ship, write it, dance it, sing it, draw it. Without the shame truncating the process, the inner work takes on a new intention, one led by curiosity and powered by love. And, as always, it’s love that heals.

What are the metaphors inside your intrusive thoughts?



  1. I have a hard time finding the metaphor in my intrusive thoughts of, “are you meant to be?” I know it’s my ego searching for that ‘one answer,’ but it’s one of the three that I can’t shake. My others I can figure out the metaphor for, “do you really love him? Are you really in love with him? Are you sure you LIKE him?” Is am I in love with myself/my life, am I a good person? Do I like myself?
    Finding the root cause of my thoughts are a hard part I’m trying to figure out as well.

    • “Are you meant to be?” is a way of abdicating responsibility for choices and often stems from growing up in an environment that encouraged a mindset of “destiny” and “God’s will.” And yes, it’s your ego looking for certainty ;).

      • That’s exactly how I grew up and exactly what my thoughts are about. My husband and I also didn’t grow up in good situations and never saw a healthy marriage or even really a healthy relationship. We joked about it the other day that despite all of that, we’re doing pretty good. (Despite my intrusive thoughts and feelings.) haha!!
        I’ve reread and reread many of your blogs and “God’s Will” is one of them. That stinking ego is always getting in the way. 😉

        Hope all is well with you and your family in these times.

      • Hi Sheryl,

        This post resonated with me, and I’m having a difficult time uncovering the metaphor. I am having one of three intrusive thoughts related to my job, which is training others.

        I used to thrive on getting in front of people and training. I had confidence in my abilities.

        Now, every time I have to train others (which is often since that is my job), I get so nervous that I verge on making myself sick. I have a hard time concentrating on my delivery during the session and always think it went horribly when I’m done, even though I receive excellent feedback.

        The recurring thoughts are: that I’m afraid I’ll use a curse word (which would be really bad for my job and career), I’m afraid I’m not as good a trainer as my colleague, and I’m afraid I’ll forget my train of thought and end up coming across poorly.

        • You mentioned “used to thrive on training others”. What changed, if you don’t mind me asking? Why are you no longer thriving?

  2. I’ve had intrusive thoughts about my sexuality for over a year now, which happened because of people thinking that because of my social anxiety and the fact that I’ve never had a boyfriend I am gay. They’ve escalated so much and had made me doubt every single aspect about myself and my life and my past. It worries me that I’ll never be able to find a boyfriend because of this reason and that if I do it’ll be a lie or that I’ll be living in denial even tho I don’t desire to be in a same sex relationship or follow any of these thoughts, it also worries me that I’ll impulsively follow these thoughts someday.

    • Intrusive thoughts also point to a lack of self-trust, which leads to absorbing other people’s opinions and not having a strong sense of self. I’ve written about this extensively on my blog, and in the Collections.

    • My friend struggled with this exact anxiety, Jennifer. I’m so glad you’ve found Sheryl’s work. Sending you love and support.

  3. Wonderful, and timely as always! I’ve spent the last week worried that I have some unknown heart condition. Of course the fear creates panic and chest tightness contributing to the fear, and so on. Interestingly, I’ve been quite content with my husband, who I was struggling with greatly just a week and a half ago! The fear of death is so profound, I find it hard to know what to do with it. Thank you for your work.

    • The fear of death is the fear that underlies all other fears, and we’re being confronted with it in high relief. If the heart anxiety was a communicating a metaphor, what would it be?

      • That’s a great question. I’ve never thought about it as a metaphor, so it’s a new way of thinking for me. I wonder if it’s related to a fear of not being able to love well enough. The fear of death has morphed since becoming a mother 2.5 years ago into a fear of not being here for my daughter who I love more that I knew was possible. It feels like a fear of inadequacy in a way.

  4. Beautiful reminder of the light and journey within us all.
    Thank you Sheryl.

  5. I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well understanding the metaphors in my thoughts-I’ve never felt as though I was enough and I always needed some sort of perfection and aliveness outside of myself to fulfill me. The thought/feeling I’m hooked on lately and am struggling to find the metaphor for is that I didn’t fully choose my boyfriend in the beginning. He pursued me and therefore I didn’t get the feelings of love-(that I do know now are not true love)-and when he asked me to be his girlfriend I said yes but didn’t really want to. I believe it’s because I didn’t have those feelings of a crush that made me feel so good and I believed were true love at the time and fulfilled me but I struggled my whole life giving up my voice and what I wanted to please other people so I’m afraid that since I did that with my boyfriend I shouldn’t be with him because I know how important it is for me to make my own choices so I can know for sure I’m doing it for me. And then I get the feelings of truth that I have to leave him since our beginning wasn’t perfect and I can’t fully love myself with him but it’s hurting me so bad because all I want to do is be with him. He accepts me unconditionally and I can be myself with him unlike I’ve ever really been able to in my life. And I’ve learned about true love with him and for myself! I don’t want to lose him to this fear, any support would be great, thank you!

    • The invitation is to grow self-trust and recognize that even if you didn’t fully choose him in the beginning (which you actually did otherwise you wouldn’t be with him) you’re choosing every day. And I’m wondering if there’s a deeper invitation around a lifelong history regarding choice, perhaps feeling like you weren’t allowed to make your own choices growing up. There is also likely an element of abdicating responsibility: if you stay committed to the belief that you didn’t fully choose him, you don’t have to fully show up for the relationship.

      • I do struggle very much with self-trust (but I’m taking your 30 day Trust Yourself course now, yay!!). It is true I am choosing him everyday now I just tend to feel like I’m staying for the “wrong” reasons, but I know that thinking in terms of “right/wrong” is only fueling my perfectionist mindset that doesn’t allow for any gray area. I definitely have a history of feeling as though I was not good enough to make my own choices and thinking that other people would not like the choices I made so I gave up my voice so as not to be rejected and therefore unloved. I just fear that since my stronger choice was to choose a guy I had a crush on over my bf who I didn’t have those feelings for, then I gave up my choice to my boyfriend to make him happy over what I wanted. I’m trying to see it though that even if that choice of a crush felt better in the beginning, it was a choice based on fear/ego to try to look for worth and feeling alive outside of myself, so even though I didn’t feel as though it was my choice to be with my boyfriend, it was a loving choice to be with a willing and available partner that my heart did want (I’ve always wanted a boyfriend and deep down I’ve always wanted true love-I just didn’t know what true love actually was/is). I do feel as though I must be abdicating responsibility and keeping one foot out the door with my boyfriend since things are not certain or perfect which would satisfy my ego if they were and Im sure I’ve lived most of my childhood trying to satisfy my ego without really realizing it. I will keep working on self trust and filling my well of self to bring my heart the fulfilling life I deserve! Thank you Sheryl! Your blogs and courses have saved me over the years and I always know I can turn to you and your beautiful words for comfort and guidance, thank you!

        • Dear Kristen, thank you for your amazing comment! I have to admit that, as in case of any other Person on this website, my intrusive thoughts pass from one to another, and lately I’ve been thinking of myself as the worst b*tch since “I’m not with my fiance for the RIGHT reasons”. For the reasons are “he helps me in anything I ask, I can go on trips with him, I would be stuck at home if it wasn’t for him”. The only RIGHT answer should be, in my perfectionist mind, “because I love him”. I still have this feeling of “using” him, especially after reading comments on different websites (never do it!), and I feel extremely guilty and that I should leave him for somebody honest. And I’m scared that my truth would be that I don’t really love him. Now I’m having a really smart therapist who is very patient with me (I’m seeing her tomorrow) who also tells me of “gray” areas, but it’s sometimes so hard to accept. Thank you so much for reminding me of them!

  6. This may be my favorite post of yours Sheryl. I wish I would have seen all these feelings laid out 10 years ago to know I’m not crazy. It makes perfect sense when you say it here. Bookmarking this for future reference as I know I’ll use it again. As always, you are a blessing to my life!

    • Thank you, Gina. To be honest, this is one of my favorite posts, too :). Everything inside me lights up when I start writing about Marion Woodman, imagery, and metaphors. There’s so much healing potential here that goes untapped in the culture, and it’s a privilege to be able to share it here. x

  7. I’m struggling to find the metaphor with my intrusive thoughts, especially because I feel like they’ve changed topic a couple times, and the specific thoughts change as well. I’ve been reading your book, but I’m having trouble applying it to my own situation. I always believe there’s a reason for everything, and every experience is a teacher, but I’m always wondering: what could I possibly have to learn from this? What is THIS possibly teaching me?

  8. Metaphors. Yes. We used to understand the world in metaphors. This is powerful!

  9. Sheryl, I am very new to your website and have only realised since last November that I have suffered from relationship anxiety for the past 20 years, it started at 19 and I am now 40. Before I knew this was a even a thing I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I am constantly feeling like I am unable to fall in love with my partner, picking him to pieces and constantly checking my feelings of the “shoulds” I should be feeling, it’s so tiring and exhausting. He is a beautiful man who loves me for me but yet I am still full of anxiety and physical pain that arises and the doubts and questions never stop. This article is very interesting and given me a new perspective and way to see my thoughts and feelings. If I am feeling like I’m incapable of falling in love hence why it never “feels” like it can happen and I’m constantly “trying and “forcing it to come because of my deep set fear of it not happening, does this interpret into “why am I scared to fall in love with myself? Why aren’t I allowing myself to fall in love with me?
    I would appreciate your beautiful insight and wisdom into this thought, thank you xx

  10. I have loved a married man for 8 years, he feels the same about me, we had a brief affair a few years ago, because of where we live, distance is not possible. Neither of us have been brave enough to take the next step. If we were meant to be, would something have happened by now? The rest of my life is good, I am a breast cancer survivor. I don’t seem to be able to let go, what is the message here that I am missing?

  11. I love this port! Thank you!

    I have had intrusive thoughts telling me “I want to die” for so many years. Sometimes I have had indeed outgrown and something new was born afterwards. But how to know what wants to die when we are in the middle of the pain of wanting to die? How to investigate that and give ourselves the death and growth that wants to take place!

  12. I’ve been trapped in intrusive thoughts lately. I was triggered (childhood sexual abuse it seems) by a gay man almost a year ago. I am not, nor have ever had, gay thoughts in my entire life previously, but suddenly after this triggering moment (the first time in person – had been triggered only once before by a movie) I can’t stop doubting if I am gay or not and have intrusive thoughts constantly (sometimes it can take over entire days) that make the body clench. I never had a trigger by someone before this, despite having been around gay folks in the past. Even sometimes now while with a woman, an intrusive thought will appear, and even though I have never had a gay dream or anything like this in my life (30+ years), I am suddenly constantly doubting and actually worried I will “become gay” just by the thoughts. This makes me sad and very anxious, as I always desired a family and a wife, and makes me lack a lot of trust in being able to “know who I am”. I have always been sensitive and artistic, and it makes me afraid to be either in fear that it is gay as well. The world, in some way, was turned upside down a bit and the body has never been on such high alert around men. It has also led me to stop hanging with male friends (something that was a very safe place), or talking to them (which has led to loneliness and more pain). I guess I am struggling to find the metaphors, despite working with professionals. Any thoughts or reading suggestions? I didn’t quite grasp it in “Wisdoms of Anxiety” in relation to sexual orientation related intrusive thoughts, but maybe time to read again. Many, many thanks for you and your work.

    • Also, very sorry if that was too much info for a comment Sheryl! It felt good to vent anonymously regardless. Thank you again and sending so much appreciation, especially during these times. <3

    • Hi AC – I wanted to say that I have been where you are! It totally freaked me out. I’m open minded, have gay and bi friends, etc. I even remember a time when I would notice a girl checking me out (I’m a girl) and my reaction would be to feel flattered that someone was attracted to me, but not at all going down the path of feeling attracted back (or WONDERING if I felt attracted back). So when all of a sudden I was hooked by the thought “what if I’m gay” (which once I overcame a bit became “what if I’m bi”), I was very taken aback.

      For me, the thoughts happened the year before I got engaged and right after/during relationship anxiety. Looking back, I think my body/mind was trying to control the situation… I love my partner so much and I kept imagining every different way that I could lose him. That I could lose the life we were envisioning together. Being gay would be one way that I would have to lose him! So perhaps you’re in a similar situation. If you don’t have a partner but you have always wanted a wife and kids, and you’re in your 30s, perhaps you’re feeling the clock ticking a bit (society has us freaking out in our 30s if we don’t have certain things in the works! oy vey) and this is your mind’s way of having a say in the situation. I’m just spitballing here, because the intrusive thoughts/anxiety related to them have ALWAYS been worse than the core feeling (fear of loss/death, craving control, etc.).. so I wish our bodies didn’t try to deal with pain this way. But I guess maybe our bodies have been whispering to us for years (ex. I had anxiety before I met my partner, but it really flared up as relationship anxiety) and now our bodies are yelling at us through these alarming thoughts.

      As I said about being open minded, when this thought flared up I also needed to take time to challenge why I was so freaked out about it. Firstly, losing my now husband was my biggest fear. Secondly, it was humbling to realize my privilege, that I had always been accepted by the world around me, my family, etc. because of my heterosexuality, and me being afraid of being anything else was just very eye opening. To get a glimpse of what some of my friends have gone through and the bravery they have shown. So I wanted to be open to the possibility of being bi (I was able to write off being gay at that point) to honor their journeys and shine a spotlight on any blind spots of resistance in me. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s something I was thinking of.

      This next part was hard, but in all of my looking back/looking for evidence of my heterosexuality, I realized that maybe I wasn’t a 10/10 straight. I have also never wanted to be with a girl, never been attracted to a girl in person, never had a crush, etc. but I have felt aroused by suggestive images of girls (which still confuses me, because I’m also turned off by our society’s beauty standards/exploitation of women, “Victoria’s Secret” standards and things like their fashion show, etc. so I still feel kind of confused at my arousal. Also, earlier in my life, I knew that I felt this way but I never jumped across the wide gap of feeling a little aroused to assuming I was gay). But my therapist mentioned that sexuality is a spectrum (just like gender) and we all lay somewhere on the spectrum. (sorry if that flares your anxiety.. it still flares mine a little too). So I feel more comfortable now, having opened many old memories, many doors of possibilities, etc. with the guide of a loving inner parent (and not the franticness of a scared child, which is where I started). For sensitive souls like us, it’s hard to not be 100% something, or to fit into a box, or to definitely know. Those things seem like they would provide so much comfort, reassurance, and security. But alas, we are human and as Sheryl says, there is no test to know if you are 100% gay or straight, if you would be happier living in a different state or country, etc. So we have to take a deep breath and love ourselves as we are. And know that we will keep figuring it out. And trust our history — if you have 30 years of engaging with and loving women, then ask your inner parent to help you remember that the next time the intrusive thought comes. And hopefully knowing that you are not alone in this will bring you some comfort! It sure does for me.

  13. As always Sheryl you post the right thing at the right time. I’m so grateful for your work. This is my main challenge. I understand but can’t tap into that feeling of knowing. Every day is like Groundhog Day. I feel ok when I wake up, but within 30 minutes or so the tension starts in my throat, I’m anxious and then the thoughts start. I manage to get myself together, then dip in and out throughout the day. By the evening I feel better and before bed I’m wondering what all the fuss was about. But the next day is the same. I know I love my husband when the anxiety lets me go but doubt is front and centre when the anxiety is in my body. I know I’m not leaving him, it’s not what I want, but at the same time I don’t want to be in this spin cycle anymore. I know it’s in me, but can’t find my metaphor.

  14. I have found the courage to start the path of healing. Panic and axiety attacks were common as a teen, and my youth was promiscuous. My shame has reflected in the relationship with my husband, and my role as mother. My ego keeping me in a vortex of self loathing and denial. Not trusting myself but seeking approval from others. Intrusive thoughts prevail. I am working through your book Wisdom of Anxiety, and have started the course on self-trust. Thank you for your support and i look foreword to learning about , and loving myself.

  15. Sheryl, thank you. You’re such a gem. After becoming a Certified Life & Strategic Intervention Coach and finishing my two year Expert’s Degree in Transpersonal Psychology, I’ve decided to let go of my Language Teaching altogether and devote my days to helping others soothe their fears and live an unfolded life (like origami birds) The thing is when I quit my teaching job and I started planning and giving shape to my private practice the pandemic hit us. At the beginning I was all hope and light but then my insecurities started to morph into intrusive thoughts. “Are you crazy? You’ve been a successful language teacher for over 22 years! Continue helping people as a hobby as you have all your life but don’t risk your stable income. You’re a bit passed the age of career change. You quit your job, like really?! Are you out of your mind?! Your family needs your income” I could go on and on. I’m lucky to have learned the language of metaphors but the intrusive thoughts always come and go. I feel they are a metaphor for my need to control, my need for security, my need for recognition (which I always had as a teacher), when they inner chatter starts I feel I’m caught in the trance of unworthiness. This will be as long as all my posts (sorry Sheryl), so for the sake of brevity, I could just add that my parents lovingly but oblivious of the consequences, led me to believe from an early age that teaching would be the safest thing for me to do. I was always a good girl, so I did what they induced me to do. Life in the late 70’s and 80’s was different, my parents thought my income was just going to be mine and I’d have a husband that would provide for the family. My intrusive thoughts also point to that, I’m challenging the status quo, how come?!. Love you, always, remember that. A big hug.

  16. Hi Sheryl!

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I’ve been following your work for a year now and found great solace in your book. I’ve done a lot of work with intrusive thoughts in therapy (and with your book) and have made great progress with many different kinds and with healing in general, but there is one thought that still shows up sometimes and I’m really not sure what the metaphor for it is, but it causes me great anxiety. The thought is usually “what if I go crazy or lose touch with reality?” And various offshoots of that. Do you have an idea of the metaphor for that type of fear?

    • Yes, it’s a common one. The metaphor I love regarding “What if I lose my mind?” is “… and come into my body.” We’re so addicted to the mind-space that to “lose one’s mind” is a potent invitation to come into the body – and when we can see it in positive terms it loses some of its fear charge. It also points to a fear of losing control, which underlies most intrusive thoughts.

  17. Thank you Sheryl, your words are very timely and healing as always. In this time of covid-19 I am struggling constantly with intrusive thoughts around my health and the health of my love ones (fear of getting sick / someone I love getting sick), and intrusive thoughts around fears of economic insecurity (what if I lose my job / my partner loses his job / we both lose our jobs / why haven’t I made better economic decisions in the past so I would feel more comfortable now). I think the metaphor behind it may be a fear of not trusting myself to be resilient if and when hard times come. Thank you for continuing to post Sheryl, your posts help bring me comfort in this time of extreme uncertainty for all of us.

    • YES: There is a huge invitation to grow our belief in resilience during this time. I’m so glad you’ve been able to name the metaphor.

  18. Hi Sheryl – hope you and your family are safe during this time. Love this post, I’ve been following your work for a year now and it has been so healing. The RA course has been magic. Of course, my ego taps into the space of your situation is different, I’m curious to know what the intrusive thoughts around sexual orientation (what if I’m a lesbian) point to metaphorically. Been trying to figure it out, but get stuck or my thoughts convince me other wise. Lots of love and peace.

    • There’s a wheel exactly on that spike in the course in the section on intrusive thoughts!

  19. I keep trying to submit a comment, but it’s not showing up and nothing is going to my email?

  20. I submitted a comment last night and am not sure if it went through either?

  21. What would the metaphor be (or possible metaphor) for a sudden inability to physically write? I noticed my handwriting declining around the time of my wedding a few years ago when I was dealing with huge family issues. Since then I all but lost the ability to hold a pen and write. I’ve been to every specialist out there, spent thousands of dollars, nothing is physically wrong with me and I’m certain it’s an energetic thing now. I just moved to a new house and found old journals with my beautiful handwriting while packing and was instructed to burn them (I tend to compare my current state to my old one) and release that version of me. I was planning on doing that this week but I’d love to hear your thoughts before I do. If there is a metaphor here I haven’t been able to find it on my own (this began happening in 2016). Thank you so much for any insight you can provide!

    • That’s a fascinating and painful symptom, and I have no doubt that there’s a metaphor embedded inside of it. The fact that it happened around the time of your wedding is important. Some questions to consider: What was it about that transition that felt “too heavy” to write about? What grief are you carrying connected to the transition that is “weighing you down”? I suggest holding off on burning your actual journals until you spend more time unpacking the metaphor.

    • I highly recommend somatic and attachment focused EMDR. Oftentimes our mental/emotional pain presents as physical pain. 🙂 I am a trauma therapist, and I have seen EMDR work beautifully for chronic pain. My thoughts are with you!

  22. Thank you for writing all of this down Sheryl,
    I just completed your book and loved it. All of my instructive thoughts seem to center around mental health.

    What if I become depressed and stuck in it? What if I have a desire to die? What if I become schizophrenic? What if my kids become depressed?

    The thoughts all started once I had kids. Since reading your book I have been working on dropping into my body and I have been a thousand times more accepting of my emotions. It’s only been a week though, so any insights That could help my healing would be very appreciated. Thank you so much.

    • Another interesting and potent aspect of intrusive thoughts is to explore them through the lens of intergenerational trauma. Is it possible that since having kids you’ve opened a portal to past generations who struggled with mental illness? Much of what we struggle with isn’t directly ours, and when we name that we can move through it with more ease.

      • Intergenerational trauma is an interesting thought. I think I wasn’t quite clear enough in my original question though.
        I think it might have more to do with the fact that my older brother struggled with major depression when I was young and it was hard watching him go through that.
        I think it made mental illness a trigger for me. I get scared of anything that feels like it would make me not enjoy my life or feel out of control or anything that would be like him. My intrusive thoughts just sort of freeze me with fear that I couldn’t handle it or get through it if anything like that we’re to happen to me or my kids. I just want to completely run away from anything that has to do with mental illness. (Since schizophrenia is the absolute worst example of mental illness I could think of I think that why that thought had crept in.)

        So since I read your book It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I realized that I’ve been running away from depression and negative emotions with every fiber in my body. I didn’t want anything to do with anything that reminded me of what my brother went through. Any feelings of sadness or guilt or anything were immediately rejected because they might lead to depression. So I’ve working on sitting with those feelings of uncertainty and fear and just being super loving and compassionate. I’ve been trying to welcome in sadness and all my emotions really. I’ve been practicing dropping into my body and out of my mind and it’s been very helpful.

        So I just wanted to know what you do when you really just need to get comfortable with the fact that life is messy and that negative emotions are a healthy part of life, but getting stuck in them is really scary.

        • Hi Juliet,

          I felt compelled to respond to you because I’ve never encountered someone who struggles with the same intrusive thoughts as I do regarding mental illness. I’d absolutely love to hear how you’re doing now! I am at rock bottom.

  23. Hello Sheryl, I’ve been following from afar for a while now, I’ve been taught over a Period of time that In Order for Me to move on I needed to Recognize the “What If’s, Could of Been’s, Should of Been’s ! To Embrace the “Thoughts” Knowing That Thoughts Aren’t Real ! They bring me to a Place Where I Need To “Pause”, Contemplate, Mindful Of There Existence, Maybe Metaphors………. Metaphors, Have Always Meant to be Teaching Tools For Me ! In Buddhist Traditions Obstacles, (Metaphors), Are There to Teach, or for me to Learn From! I Recently Had to use the Metaphor, (Story), Walking in the Forest alone, &, Suddenly Hearing a Twig Snap, A Bear, A Serpent, a rush of Fear / Anxiety, Flight, or Fight, Alas just a Squirrel ! This Metaphor,(story), Enabled me to Start Calming a very Fearful / Anxiety, Fraught, Partner, With all that was going on around Her in Our Community ! I have been very Fortunate to have a Few Fine Mentors, Others Like Yourself that I’ve Tuned Into Over the Years, Providing Me With Direction, &, Support ! Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the Tools I do, Or The Reminders on How to use Them Both With, Compassion, &, Self Compassion ! Thank You Again !

  24. This is helping me a great deal as I’ve recently been thinking that I will suddenly die froma brain tumor and leave my 1 year old child. I believe this metaphor is that something about the way I think or process is paining me and prohibiting me from freely enjoying motherhood. Does that make sense?

    • Yes that makes perfect sense and I love that you landed on you own metaphor.

  25. Thank you for this post, Sheryl. I’ve been struggling with a recent increase in panic attacks; I used to get them once or twice a year, and in specific situations (e.g., flying on a plane, inside a cave) and I believed them to be due to a fear of loss of control or a lack of trust that I am ever really safe. In the past two weeks, however, I’ve started having them at seemingly random times, just sitting in my house or waking up in the middle of the night, and I’m now living in constant fear of the panic itself. Since my panic now seems to result from a fear of panic instead of being in a certain situation, I’m feeling unsure about how much I should investigate the underlying cause. I really appreciate any insight!

    • I recommend two books for panic attacks: Dare by Barry McDonagh and my book The Wisdom of Anxiety. Sending love. Panic attacks are hell on earth but they are also resolvable.

  26. Hi Sheryl! Great article and nice examples! Im struggling with finding out my metaphores. My wosr intrusive thoughts usually are “What if you are person who should be alone and will be happy alone?”, “Maybe Im unable to care for other people” , “I’m bad for not caring about others”, “Maybe I should be doing bad and exciting things”. Do you have any suggestions how to tackle them?

    • Hi Zoe,

      I have also been struggling with these thoughts. I know there are people out there that are happier alone than being in a committed relationship. I have the fear that maybe I am one of those people, because at times I feel like being in a relationship is restrictive. I love my husband and don’t want to leave him but these thoughts and questions mess with my mental health.

  27. This is SO good. You have opened my eyes to not taking my intrusive thoughts at face value and has been life changing for me. I was about to ask, “while my intrusive thought is almost always the same, can the metaphor change?” but then I realized that my fears have changed a bit over time, the root is always loss and uncertainty. So, I guess I don’t have a question! 🙂

    • It’s always wonderful when we can answer our own questions ;).

  28. Hi Sheryl! First off, thank you for your soothing, wisdom-filled words. In this time of Covid-19, my mind has had plenty of time to ruminate and be inundated with intrusive thoughts. I am still, however, having a hard time with two intrusive thoughts, that I was hoping to get your wisdom and advice on because I can’t seem to figure out the metaphors of these thoughts.

    1) The first thought is, “my partner is lazy.” He also grew up in the midwest, so he would be content watching sports, playing video games, and relaxing, while I grew up in California, with an over-active family. He also hasn’t had the best GPA in college; however, he just got accepted into a prestigious grad school and has been slaving himself in school in finishing up his degree for undergrad. I, on the other hand, pride myself on my grades. Somewhere in my childhood, I equated being successful in school with self-worth. Though I have been able to come to understand this about myself while working with my intrusive thoughts, I fear that my partner will always be lazy. And if he is lazy, then he won’t be successful, and if he’s not successful, then we won’t have sound finances, etc. etc. The thoughts attach themselves, and before I know it, I feel as though I am in a pit of darkness. I know in your relationship anxiety course, you mentioned that having different preferences in activity levels are not “red flags,” but my ego always says, “run, you are too different. He likes to relax and be lazy; you like to be super active; it’ll never work.”

    2) The second thought, my partner wants to go into ministry. Rather than supporting him in this, I have secretly wished God called him to another vocation because I am scared of the lack of money that will bring us. I know that seems shallow to be so concerned with finances, but I grew up in a home where finances were never an issue. My dad ALWAYS emphasized the importance of finding a partner that could provide for me. I know he had my best interest in mind, but as I dive deeper into this thought, I realize that my dad’s mindset may have caused much more damage and unrealistic expectations for my partner. When I begin to think of his future in ministry, my ego says, ” Run. You already know you don’t want to be in ministry, and if you know that, then you must leave.” This is such a horrible thought because he is the best person in my life, and I want to support him in his passions and future endeavors, while also feeling confident in his ability to provide.

    One aspect that I do acknowledge about these two intrusive and reoccurring thoughts is that they are both future-oriented and revolve around being successful or having sound finances. I’ve never been good with uncertainty, and it makes me feel unsafe, which makes me feel as though I am just afraid of the future in general.

    I’m sorry for the long post, this has just been on my mind for a while, and I desperately need some guidance on what these thoughts may be pointing me towards or what may be needing attention within me. Thank you, Sheryl!

    • Hi Hannah. While I don’t have much to share about metaphors, I did resonate with both your concern re your partner being “lazy” and also that he is called to ministry. I started struggling with relationship anxiety that really flew off the handle when my now husband and I got engaged. We’ve now been married for 22 years next week 🙂

      I was a straight A student and have come to understand at a deeper level as I’ve gotten older how much that simply was my identity for the most formative parts of my life. It wasn’t hard for me, it wasn’t forced on me by my parents- it’s just the message I absorbed from the culture. I was someone who did the right thing, and getting good grades was the right thing. High school, college, law school…. I honestly think that my brain really never had considered how one evaluates decisions outside of that external framework- when it came time to consider whether to marry him, I grabbed frantically at externals and really had no relationship with an internal knowing or curiousity or sense of calling or passion to use as a guide because I never had to develop that- I just was good at whatever I put my hand to academically.

      My husband on the other hand struggled in school mightily. In college he did just what he needed to do to get by- he was smart guy, but not in the “by the book” kind of way that our Western culture places such high value on. But there was just something about him- his character, his sense of integrity, his way with kids, his sense of play that I knew I needed in my life. We have very different approaches to how we like to spend our time- I’m very physically active and driven, he prefers to chill, spend time watching sports, play games on his ipad, read articles, watch videos. What I’ve come to realize (and believe me, it’s taken a lot of time to unlock this) is that my way of spending time and his are equally valid…that his is not “lesser”. This is something I still need to defend with my Dad, who is just constantly doing jobs and tasks and I know his work ethic is just different- my husband works incredibly hard in his ministry…and then he likes to relax. It has not been easy, but no marriage that is worthwhile is, I think.

      The call to ministry is a very unique issue- and one I feel doesn’t get enough written about it, maybe because spouses don’t want to be really honest about questioning their partner’s calling because it might impact how their parishioners see them. Being a spouse in ministry is not easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding. I never felt called to be a ministry partner and my husband has been very respectful and supportive of that. I’ve still had to work super hard on forging a new path, though, as so many high profile ministry people work as a spousal team and I always default to externals as my guideposts before I catch myself and turn inward.

      A father’s words and actions, no matter how lovingly intended, have a very, very deep impact on the way we see the world and set our expectations. I’m not sure of your cultural context, but men don’t have to be the providers- it can be a team effort. In fact, my husband’s schedule can be fairly flexible, making part time work for me easier, and it also meant he was around a lot for our kids. For us it’s about partnership- just figuring out as we go along the best way to provide for our family. It is definitely a calling, and not something to go into for the money though.

      I could probably write a book…hope you might find some reflection in this that is helpful.

      • One other thought Hannah- your focus on your partner providing…was reflecting that may be along the lines of looking to our partners for our sense of aliveness and joy, when we need to be cultivate that for ourselves. I wonder if it would helpful for you to explore how you can provide for yourself- growing your self trust in your ability to take care of yourself (of course, this can be done with help from others, but ultimately, we need to nurture and grow our ability to take care of ourselves).

      • Seriously thank you for your insight! I needed to hear all that you said and your wisdom on ministry and your own experience with anxiety. Sometimes it can just be so overwhelming when our culture inundates us with different messages of success and the dichotomy of diligence and “laziness.” I put this in quotations because I, too, feel that I am hyperfocused on that aspect, as opposed to just being accepting of our different activity choices!

        I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion on building more self-trust and trying to do activities that bring wholeness and joy into my life. I often project this onto my partner and expect him to be responsible for this; however, I know, deep down, that my aliveness and wholeness are my responsibility.

        Once again, thank you. It has been challenging to find someone to relate to. I would love to connect more on this topic. If you are interested, it would be great to hear more of your wisdom around these topics, please comment on this and hopefully, we can find a way to connect further.

      • What a great comment. I can totally relate.

  29. Sheryl, I’ve been struggling a lot with relationship anxiety over the past few months and the focus of my anxiety keeps changing forms. Recently, it’s longing for the attention from a guy who isn’t my boyfriend. I love my boyfriend and I want to marry him and I don’t feel attracted to this other guy, it’s more that I crave attention from him. He’s good friends with myself and my boyfriend so I don’t want to cut him out of my life (and something tells me if I didn’t I would just shift my focus to someone else), but I can’t help but stare at him and constantly want him to give me attention.
    What do you suggest to stop seeking this attention from someone else (especially outside of my relationship) because it’s killing me inside thinking about it and making me not want to see or talk to anyone outside of my boyfriend in fear of needing attention from other people or, worse, becoming attracted to other people.

  30. Thank you all for your beautiful and vulnerable comment. Please know that I read as much of them as I can and respond when I’m able, and I encourage you all to respond to each other as I know that there is immeasurable wisdom in this community.

    Keep in mind that, as I mentioned in the post, metaphors are like dream images in that they’re highly personal and individual. We have a tendency to outsource our wisdom and look like to places like Google to tell us what a dream means. I don’t have the answers to what the metaphors might be inside your intrusive thoughts, but you certainty do. And they’re not so much “answers” as guideposts.

    If you would like to learn more about metaphors and Jungian theory, I strongly recommend listening to Marion Woodman’s audio series and reading all of Robert Johnson’s books.

    Thank you for being here.

  31. Hi KH,

    Your comment is remarkable in that it almost to a T describes me and my husband early in our relationship. I had all the same thoughts throughout dating him. We are now married with two awesome toddlers and I’m so grateful I got through it and chose to be with him. I write to you to hopefully give you hope that you too can grow and get past this.

    What it came down to for me was realizing that while the intrusive thoughts about him not being smart enough would enter my mind frequently, I would invariably come back to a feeling of love and safety and home. He always has my back, adores me, is one of the most loyal human beings and is honestly probably the most emotionally intelligent person I know. It really took me learning to value his kind of intelligence and seeing that my intelligence isn’t better than his. It’s just different. I still sometimes get annoyed here and there, but it’s a fleeting annoyance and not something that sends me down a rabbit hole of anxiety.

    Also naming the thoughts and feelings when they occurred and actually telling myself that they were just thoughts and would eventually go away really helped me immensely. Eventually they came less and less and the anxiety vanished as a result.

    So keep doing your inner work and try to focus on his positive attributes. I wish you luck in your journey!

    • Hi KH,

      Just wanted to also reply to say that you’re definitely not alone in this. My intrusive thoughts include ‘maybe she’s not intelligent enough’ and ‘do you even like her enough’.

      Same as you, I felt that the key way to get approval was through my graded achievements, both at school (‘book smart’ intelligence was really valued in my family) as well as other things (e.g. music). As a child I also internalised, ‘OK people love me/pay attention to me because I’m intelligent/people love me/pay (positive) attention to me when I do well at school’. I don’t even think that I *am* super intelligent in comparison to many people I know, but it’s something I really value in other people and in myself. My partner doesn’t have the same type of intelligence as me and sometimes I miss that. But, like your partner, she’s got a big heart, is really caring, is kind to me and is emotionally available and supportive. She also is a good antidote to the ‘seriousness’ inside me, and keeps me silly, which I also really appreciate (even if sometimes it also annoys me), as sometimes the seriousness means I get too bogged down and in my head (something which I think ‘book smart’ intelligence encourages in me), preventing me from being playful.

      What you said about connecting with your partner heart to heart is really important and is so valuable! To me that definitely sounds like something worth treasuring and ascribing value to, which you *are* because that’s something you landed on as a positive difference between your current partner and previous partners (just maybe it wasn’t something you are *used* to ascribing value to).

      I too have a horrible habit of scrutinising my partner and looking for flaws and focusing on the negative. I also constantly ‘check’ to see if I’m actually enjoying myself ‘enough’ with them, feel like I like them ‘enough’, whether our conversations are stimulating ‘enough’, how much they’re irritating me. But I’ve realised that these checks are a way to try and cling on to certainty and an absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and none of that exists. It’s so difficult to accept that there is no objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘enough’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here (as long as there are no red flags). It’s about my desire to have certainty, my fear of loss, my desire to be ‘good’ and make the ‘right’ decisions (because that’s how I believe I will prove myself to be worthy of love).

      I’m still working through my projections, but I think it’s probably got to do with that I’ve found it difficult to trust myself, like myself, feel like I’m enough and even fully rely and trust and like my own kind of intelligence. I then project these onto my partner and OBSESS over them. But doing the work and understanding what lies under it I really think helps take the power away from it and makes it easier to accept things as they are, and that maybe he isn’t the partner you thought you would end up with when you were younger, but that that’s totally OK!!

      Sorry for the long post, but just wanted to share in case it helps. We’ll get through it 😉

  32. I’ve been dealing with intrusive thoughts for about 3 years. It started with a mild panic attack and feeling stressed out to googling anxiety and seeing it can lead to depression and depression can lead to suicide and from there the intrusive thoughts were born. I started attaching my situation to the end is near. I have other intrusive thoughts but none have stuck to me like “I want to die” which by the way have no intention of hurting myself overtime the thoughts haven’t caused such despair in me due to the fact that I learned normalization of being human and having weird thoughts all time is part of the experience. What I’m stuck on is how to cut the root out, sometimes I don’t get stuck other times I do. I’m confused sometimes because i have very bad gut issues and my health isn’t 100 percent. So I’m stuck between is it my body out of balance is it just trauma?? I have no idea what is the root cause and that in itself can cause more worry

    • I’m so sorry you’re suffering. I recommend working with a skilled therapist and also reading my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety, as it addresses many of the elements you’re struggling with.

  33. Sheryl, I was wondering if you could give a suggestion on how to handle an intrusive thought that I have used about every piece of your work to try to get it to fade away. I have many around my marriage/husband. One of your blogs one time-which I can’t seem to find again-was when you said something along the lines of, “do you LIKE this person” when you were talking about the not being in love intrusive thoughts.
    Before the anxiety/intrusive thoughts my world revolved around my then boyfriend/fiance who is now my husband. I thought he was the best man to walk this planet. Now I do question it-do I like him? Of course I love him and I still struggle with the, you don’t love him, you’re not IN love, you don’t love him enough but those have faded a lot but this one I can’t seem to shake.
    I obviously LIKED him before the anxiety so I keep telling myself that it’s just the anxiety, it’s not actually true.
    He can be a very complicated stubborn man and him and I have overcame and still working on overcoming a lot in our childhood and the way he grew up was not at all how a child should have lived like. With that said, sometimes he is a little harsh and not always the kindest-I try to respond with, “well im not always that way either” then a thought of if I was with this or that person they would be a lot kinder and have a lot more compassion but the truth is, I don’t know that!!
    We have a deep understanding of each other and my mind can be dark and make him seem like a bad guy and I hate it-I don’t know how to stop it because he isn’t. For example literally two nights ago I explained how I was feeling regarding him not talking a whole lot in the evenings (he gets like that and I understand after a few years nothing is wrong-this is just who he is and doesnt feel like talking.) but it had went on for longer than usual. I talked to him about it and how it’s made me feel and my mind instantly went to the worst of, “he is just going to get mad and be unreasonable and not care.” the next evening after work he was his “normal self” again-i could literally see him trying. Acting like kids again and laughing and told me he is going to start helping me more around the house.

    I am SO sorry this is so long but I can’t seem to find the root, or what this thought is protecting me from feeling. The best thing I can think of is just telling myself I didn’t have these thoughts until the anxiety hit, he loves my to death as I do him, he is my absolute best friend, and nobody is absolutely perfect and we all have things that could be better, etc.

    Thank you for any input and for reading..

  34. Hi there. Thank you again for your insights. I have two questions. Firstly, is it possible to doubt your relationship without having ROCD? I don’t experience my thoughts as being intrusive. Just as thoughts. There are also few ‘what ifs’. Just statements. I also never experienced much anxiety about my thoughts. I do Google and analyze, but when I read about ROCD or RA I don’t feel the same because I dont experience physical anxiety. I do struggle with this doubt about my relationship for a year.

    My second question is about something I am currently worrying about. Can it also be that this doubt is stemming from finding out I just do not like him enough? I am not sure whether I see a future with him. I just keep thinking ‘be honest to yourself. You were just in love and now you found out he isnt a good match for you. You are too different. Just admit it. Even if you have anxiety: people with anxiety can also break up.’

    After a year of doubt my view on my relationship changed and that sucks 🙁 Before all this I loved him so much, we had so much fun. And he is sweet, supportive and always there for me. But now I just don’t know. Maybe now that we moved in together I just realize we are not as good together as I thought.

    Whats your opinion on this kind of thoughts? Are these thoughts my thruth?

  35. I am struggling with RA at the moment but it is more that I’m not good enough, pretty enough, fun enough or thin enough for my partner. Its frustrating because he says and does everything right and couldn’t be more loving or supportive but I just can’t seem to believe him. Really struggling and finding my own psychologist isn’t the most knowledgable in RA and therefore isn’t that helpful. Thanks for all the work you do Sheryl!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Pin It on Pinterest