This is One of the Most Effective Ways to Break Free from an Intrusive Thought

by | Dec 5, 2021 | Anxiety, HSP, Intrusive Thoughts | 25 comments

I’ve written many times about the confluence of my work with my personal life, and how they each inform the other: what I learn parenting my sons influences how I work with my highly sensitive clients and what I learn from my clients influences how I parent and how I live.

The recent theme that showed up in both spheres is what happens when we drop underneath the content of words or story and respond instead to the emotional and spiritual layers. If one of my sons is upset and I try to convince him out of his feelings by going straight to a solution, the tension escalates. But if I’m able to validate the emotion underneath, he feels deeply heard and the charge softens.

This showed up in one of my small groups last week, and the conversation touched so beautifully and succinctly on this crucial piece of how to respond in the moment to an intrusive thought that I felt compelled to share it here (with the member’s permission). This group member is deeply connected to creativity, and you’ll hear in the following transcription that poetry falls from her lips when she speaks. When we’re in the realm of the poetic, we’re also in the realm of soul, and that’s often when a teaching that you’ve heard dozens of times drops down from head to heart and finds more integration. I hope you have that experience here.

The member was talking about an experience she had while doing yoga where she had a felt-knowing about her future child, and then how quickly the intrusive thoughts piped up, both about worthiness and relationship anxiety. We then rewound into that initial space so we could slow down into the moment when the intrusive thoughts took hold.

“What did it feel like when you were in that dropped-in space and you had that sense of knowing?”

“It feels like sort of this timeless space that I can tap into. It feels like this sense that everything is going to be okay, and it feels like a cosmic holding of some kind. Like a mother energy. Trusting life, I guess, and how it wants to move. I spoke recently about how I’ve been having a lot of death anxiety, and I’ve been using this mantra – because my mom was so resistant to death or grief and I think I inherited some of that – but I’ve been trying to tell myself, ‘Death is natural.’ It helps me loosen something, and I think that’s connected to life. Something that I’ve been holding onto is wanting to stop time and not move, but this other space is a feeling of a cycle that’s much bigger than me, and somehow this feeling of okayness. And also a lot of beauty in the idea of having a baby. I feel glimmers of excitement but then I feel this inner predator or critic who takes it from me and says, ‘You’re just being selfish. You want to believe in the goodness because you want things to go well. You don’t get to have that.’ That’s what comes really strong. But before that I feel a sense that there’s some kind of divine continuity.”

“Yes, so beautiful. This place of trusting that it’s all okay, it’s going to be okay, there’s an unfolding, there’s a timeline that’s bigger than you are, it’s life happening, trusting in life happening. And then the other voice comes in: ‘Who are you? You don’t deserve good things.’ So it’s this wrestling between a very spacious, trusting place – connected to the divine – and that scared place that tells you lies and is very mean and doesn’t believe that you deserve to take your place in the ancestral line? To be in life unfolding? For good things to come?”

“Yes, all of those things. That it’s selfish.”

“Yes, and that shame voice is a protector. Then relationship anxiety comes in as the next protector. Protecting you from how vulnerable it is to be in that other space. The space of goodness. How unfamiliar it is. The other one is much more familiar – you don’t deserve good things – that’s been the running commentary for a very long time. So the other place is going to feel unfamiliar and then by definition it’s going feel threatening because it’s unfamiliar. It’s growing that new pathway in the brain and in the soul that learns to trust in a different story. ‘What if do deserve good things?’ What if that shame story really isn’t yours, and that’s also part of the ancestral link – to put that shame story aside and put it in its rightful place, which is somewhere way back beyond you.”

“I think you named it. This wrestling between these two spaces. The one feels more familiar to me, but I’ve been journaling every day for three years with this loving mother character who I didn’t trust at all at first, and now sometimes I don’t trust her but more often than not I think, ‘Well, she’s saying something that sounds pretty good. Even if it’s not true, it’s soothing.’

“Yes, and maybe it’s not about proving that it’s true but choosing to believe in what feels soothing. And saying, ‘I can go with the voice that makes me feel horrible or I can go with the voice that makes me feel comforted and soothed.'”

“And now I notice the anxious voice popping up to what you just said. It’s saying, ‘Well, but that’s just because you’re avoiding the truth and you’re spiritually bypassing.’ What should I say to that?”

This is the moment when I often turn a question back around to the client. She wants me to step in as her wise parent but I know – because I know this woman quite well – that she’s more than capable of accessing her own wisdom. And so I say, “What might you say? I’m going to put it back on you.”

An audible sigh.

“That big breath was good. Big sigh.

“I feel like I’m drawing a blank.”

This is often resistance to connecting to one’s own source of wisdom, the longing is so great for someone else to play the role and be that voice.

“It’s there,” I encourage her.

“I think part of the problem is trying to argue with it and get into litigation with the voice and defend myself so I think I would just say, ‘It’s safe to trust.’ Which is sort of a bigger trust.”

“Good. So good to name how futile it is to try to get into arguments and disprove and make the choice instead to go underneath and respond to the fear. It’s just fear. ‘Oh, you’re scared. You’re so scared. It’s safe to trust.’ I’m not going to respond to content. I’m going to respond to what’s underneath.’ What happens to the anxious voice when you respond with “It’s safe to trust”?

“Well, I think it quiets down. It often comes up with other stories, but I’m understanding trust more deeply now.”

“It sounds like you’re experiencing it more deeply now at a somatic level, not just in your head. It’s dropping in.”

“Yes, yes. It’s like trusting something bigger, which I’ve said for a long time, but now I’m feeling it.”

And we could all feel it in that moment. Through breath and silence, she brought us into the timeless space of trusting in life unfolding, trusting that everything is okay.

Here’s the bottom line: When the anxious voice pipes up no matter what the storyline is – relationships, health, fertility, death – if you respond to content you’re going to be going back and forth in litigation, and you will lose because anxiety is smarter. It will always find another angle, another story. And this is also a parenting tool, it’s inner and outer parenting: if you respond to the story, you’re going down the drain. If you respond to the emotion, if you respond to what’s underneath with empathy – “I understand you’re so scared right now. I get it. I’m with you. And it’s okay to trust” – then something softens inside and people find their own wisdom. We all need – almost more than anything else – to be understood, to be heard, to be seen – all parts of ourselves. But not from the words, not from the content, from what’s underneath.

Here’s the audio version of this last part:


Where does this land with you? What do you notice when you respond to intrusive thoughts with empathy for the feelings that live underneath. (Hint: these feelings will almost always be some version of fear, grief, or vulnerability/groundlessness.)



  1. Amazing

  2. What’s coming up for me is the time I was talking to my boyfriend after an argument, and suddenly feeling called to stop defending my point of view, or question his, but just listen. In that moment I sensed that he wanted to be listened to, so I told myself that for the time being I’d focus on just trying to understand him. Once I heard him, I told him what I heard him say, and that alone diffused a lot of the tension. I asked him if there was more, and after doing a bit more of listening and telling him what I was hearing, we both felt much more open. Then he said something along the lines of “I just wanted you to understand where I was coming from”. In that moment it felt to me that sometimes it’s so much less about the specific issue, but more about being able to hold space. And this feels fitting for intrusive thoughts too. The more I remember that my initial thoughts dont need to be taken at face value, the more I can listen* with compassion. And I’ll admit that it’s tricky! Especially when my inner well isnt full or I’m feeling overall disconnected from Self. But I also remember how listening to my partner hasnt been a once and done thing. I still need to remember to engage with the intention to actually listen and make sense. My relationship with Self and Fear also call for practice and compassion!

    • Listening with presence is EVERYTHING! That’s a beautiful parallel with your boyfriend, and yes, it’s much harder to do with intrusive thoughts :).

  3. This makes sense to me in several ways… personally, when I am caught in the grip of my own fear and loss of contact with my inner ground… sometimes I have to allow the story & the emotions to run, then I can begin to see beyond it, soothe myself & ground again – but equally in client work: the fear can be contagious in the moment, until I disidentify from the swell of anxiety and see that there is something very important happening, something older being met, experienced somatically in the moment… this helps me hold both aspects of the being: the one frightened by all the energetics and the soul stabilising in the present, experiencing the effects from an older time and place IN THE PRESENT thinking it’s new. It’s difficult to out into words without seeming dismissive. It is important healing work. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Tracy. It makes a lot of sense.

  4. Wonderful post!

  5. I really enjoyed this post and it reminded me of the concept of “dress rehearsing tragedy” that Brene Brown talks about. It’s the idea that if we someone anticipate or think about the worse-case scenario or outcome then we somehow protecting ourself from pain should it actually happen. The problem is that by “dress rehearsing tragedy” we are actually robbing the day of its joy and it is that very joy that serves as a buffer that protects us when bad things do inevitably happen. It’s the leaning into the vulnerability and trusting in the moment that makes that hard. Anytime I’ve ever dropped out of my head and into my body/all, I have found I loosen the grip on the wheel a bit and I’m actually able to steady myself to meet the moment with the grace and resilience that I actually need and not the anxiety and control that I think I need. Thank you for these reminders.

  6. ❤️ This resonates so much. For me, fear pushes down my passion and ‘knowing’ about my next career steps with voices like ‘you don’t really like it that much’ or ‘you aren’t right for that’ or ‘you won’t be any good’. Seeing it as fear is hard as that voice of self-trust is sometimes so squashed down that I can barely hear it. I find that that voice totally disappears when I am engaging with my area of interest and less tapped into each anxious thought.

    • That makes sense, George, and you’re not alone in terms of having difficulty accessing self-trust. I’m curious what your area of interest is 😊.

      • Thanks, Sheryl. My interest is in all of these topics really – emotions, the human experience, processing pain, seeing emotions as part of the experience, recognising our innate goodness, living a healthy and well life. I think I would love to be a therapist as I have always been so drawn to ‘below-the-surface’ experiences and the meaning of life, as well as people’s lives and stories, and I am comfortable with going to those ‘deep’ places, more than I am with small talk. I do struggle with the ‘stories’ that I’m not the right person for it, but I think that the best thing to do is trust that ‘knowing’ and to at least move in that direction and see what happens! The next step is being okay with the outcome if it doesn’t end up resonating with me. 😊 I’m sure I’ll end up discussing this with you in the group call at some point as I’d love to hear your thoughts but am also trying to tap into my own wisdom.

  7. ❤️ 🙂

    I love the audio, too, thank you for sharing that clip!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the audio, Jamie :). ❤️❤️🙏🏽🙏🏽

  8. I just love this. I relate to every moment of it.

    I was stuck for so long because of the voice that kept insisting: “you cannot trust the soothing voice just because it’s soothing; you need to prove that it’s true before you should trust it”.

    Some truthes can never be proven. And many falsehoods can be. I loved your words “You will lose because anxiety is smarter”. That is so true. We cannot beat anxiety at its game. We cannot heal the personality at the level of the personality. We need to trust the space long enough to let a little presence in.

    Thank you Sheryl. And your wise group member. I connected so deeply with this today.

    • “We cannot heal the personality at the level of the personality. We need to trust the space long enough to let a little presence in.”

      That’s exactly it, Clara. Beautifully expressed.

  9. “Choosing to listen/trust what feels soothing” This landed inside me big time. It is so hard on my body,mind, daily life and family around me, when I don’t trust what is soothing. I think I don’t trust that ‘what is soothing’ will keep me safe. Some inner cynic rolls her eyes ‘ha, choose what is soothing, yeah right!’ And yet choosing the horror stories literally bleeds me dry and leaves me immobilised, looking in at life from the outside, wondering how or when I get to join in. And it feels so masochistic, because ‘what is soothing’ feels so much better!!! Why do we not just automatically choose what is soothing?

    • Because we have a part of our mind called “ego” that is committed to the belief that hypervigilence keeps us safe – likely because for most of human history it DID keep us safe!

  10. Thanks a lot. I am rumunating all the time over my future . Do I see a future for my relationship and I am mental checking it. Do I really like his family or not by checking photos. There’s always a new angle and new anxiety. Is it helpful to do your course?

  11. Simply wonderful, Sheryl! Thank you for your beautiful work <3 My core feeling is most of all fear, and boy has it been telling me so many different stories throught the years. As your client, I think I'm finally starting to feel the wisdom in my body after years of "studying" it.

    Looking forward to life unfolding!!!

    • *As it’s happening to your client,

  12. I’d love to know how do you get to the root emotion if you feel challenged not knowing what it is, rather than assume?


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