An intrusive thought arrives…
- What if I harm someone?
- What if I’ve harmed someone in the past and I don’t remember?
- What if I’m with the wrong partner?
- What if I’m gay/straight?
- What if I left the stove on?
- What if I have a terminal illness (or covid)?
- What if I lose everything?
… and we have a choice: to hook into the thought, take it at face value, and believe that it’s categorically true OR to challenge the thought by naming it as intrusive and working with it as a messenger and metaphor. The untrained mind – the mind that has never learned basic facts about thoughts like just because you have a thought that doesn’t mean it’s true – will naturally default to the first response, and before you know it – especially if you struggle with self-trust – you’re off and tumbling down the rabbit hole of anxiety until you land in the flames of mental hell.
The trained mind – the mind that has learned how to work with thoughts effectively and attend to feelings – can respond using the 3-step approach that I’ve taught in several places, including in this blog post, my book, and in several of my courses. Here they are again:
- Notice the Thought: This sounds like saying out loud, “This is an intrusive thought.”
- Name it Accurately: Say, “Intrusive thoughts are trying to keep me safe. They’re a misguided attempt to ensure safety and create control.” For many people, just naming and normalizing what’s happening inside their minds – knowing that the thoughts are not indicators that there’s something wrong with them but are actually coming in the service of health and healing – is half the battle toward recovery.
- Become Curious about the Thought as a Messenger and Metaphor: Once you break the habitual response and thought-loop by noticing and naming the thought, you will be left with what the thought-protector is covering up. This is where many people feel stuck. They report back to me something like, “I asked the cut-through question – what is this thought protecting me from feeling/addressing – but I come up blank.” I’m expanding on this below, but know that even if you come up blank, just asking the question will help you heal at the root as the question itself recognizes that the thought is a messenger and is not to be taken at face value.
The most critical piece in terms of re-wiring the neural pathways in your brain is this:
Every time you take the thought at face value, you feed the fire and the intrusive thoughts get louder. Every time you can work through the three steps above – even if you can’t answer the third question – you strengthen a different neural pathway, one rooted in clarity, wisdom, and safety. When you meet the thought with your loving and wise inner parent – the one that would show up for a friend or child who was scared – you grow the pathways in your brain that are wired for safety.
Responding differently to the thoughts is a practice. It’s a muscle that you grow over time. If you’ve been responding to the thoughts by believing them you’ve been strengthening that neural pathway in your brain just like you would strengthen a muscle by working out at a gym. If you’ve been doing this since childhood, that pathway is as fibrous and tenacious as a bodybuilder’s biceps. It’s going to take time to grow the other pathway, and the process isn’t linear; once you start practicing responding differently to the thoughts you might feel some immediate relief but then the thoughts might double or triple their forces to try to bring you back to their comfort zone. Your task is to keep practicing. This is warrior work and is best done with a skilled and loving therapist.
As I’ve written here and here, the ability to respond differently to an intrusive thought hinges on having a witness self and an inner parent/wise self: it’s the witness that can see that this is an intrusive thought and avoid the habitual tendency to take the thought at face value and it’s the inner parent that can name the thought as a protector then ask the following cut-through questions in Step Three that invite deeper healing:
What is this thought protecting me from feeling (ie: boredom, loneliness, grief, vulnerability, uncertainty)?
What are the other areas on the wheel that are needing attention (fill my inner well of Self and grow my inner parent so that I learn how to trust myself; reconnect to my passion and purpose; grow my connection to others; develop a spiritual practice; etc)?
What is the metaphor embedded inside this thought (ie: the need to connect with my inner feminine/masculine embedded inside sexuality anxiety; the need to be loving to my inner child embedded inside harm anxiety; the need to grieve an aspect of my life that is dying embedded in death anxiety; etc)?
Let’s dive a bit deeper into what’s embedded inside intrusive thoughts. Please refer to this PDF – Inside Intrusive Thoughts – as we walk through each of the spokes/circles on the wheel together. I encourage you to print out this PDF or keep it handy on your phone so that you can refer to it quickly when a thought arises.
- We start from the ground up in the physical realm by asking: How am I disconnected from my physical body?
- How do I treat my body in unloving ways?
- Where am I off-kilter in terms of sleep, hormones, substances, exercise, food?
- The body is our roadmap and wise messenger, yet we often learn to disconnect from the body early in life as a way to manage pain. Moving toward practices that help you heal somatically is an essential component to inner work. This might be yoga, 5-rhythms dance, mindful walking, somatic experiencing, to name a few.
- Cognitive Distortions: As we don’t learn the truth about love, sex, attraction, relationship, love, loss, thoughts, and life (whew!), it’s easy to attach onto a thought like, “What if I hurt my baby?” or “I’m not attracted to or feeling in love with my partner right now; that must mean I’m in the wrong relationship” and believe that it’s true.
- Working with Thoughts: We also don’t learn that sometimes a thought is just a thought. The cognitive distortions we received early in life can easily cascade into the avalanche of intrusive thoughts when the first thought arrives. The work is here is to learn how to work effectively with thoughts: The thought-flare may need to be doused with truth-water. After that initial douse, the work is to avoid giving the thought further attention through ruminating, reassurance-seeking, researching (no google).
- Shame: Shame, while experienced as a feeling, is not actually a core emotion but rather is a belief that says: “I am bad, unlovable, broken, unworthy.” In this sense, shame is a defense against the more vulnerable emotions (grief, fear, disappointment, loneliness) that often arose in early life as a way to try to control the environment: If I’m bad, then I can fix myself. If I’m bad, then I won’t have to see my caregivers’ deficits (which would be unbearable for a child to see.)
- The more you learn the truth about yourself and life through correcting cognitive distortions, the more shame heals. Normalization reduces shame, which is why shame is often healed in community when you learn that you’re not alone with your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- There is also an element of shame that did not start with you; it’s likely that you’re carrying a long legacy of family shame that needs to be identified and handed back. This is part of the individuation process of delineating where you end and others begins – the process that says “This is who I am separate from you” – that is so central to inner work.
- Shame is when you forget your intrinsic worth. Shame is when you forget that you are worthy, loved, and accepted exactly as you are. Shame is healed when we correct cognitive distortions, when we connect in community and learn that we’re not alone with our thoughts and feelings, and also when we have a direct spiritual experience of our intrinsic worth and lovability. As Glennon Doyle writes in Love Warrior, “I am loved and have always been loved and will always, always be loved. I have never been separated from this love, I have only convinced myself that I was.” I’m including shame in the Cognitive Realm but actually it’s an experience that touches on all four realms of Self.
- Loneliness: Loneliness is an invitation to befriend solitude and an indicator that we need to connect with other people in safe and meaningful ways. We are not meant to do life alone.
- Boredom: Likewise, boredom is both an invitation to sit with nothingness without distraction and a signal that we need to connect with passion and purpose. I wrote about this in this post.
- Grief/Fear of Loss: Intrusive thoughts are a defense against pain; they’re where the mind learned to go in early life as a way to manage the overwhelm of big feelings of life. Often, an intrusive thought will arise in a moment of grief, especially when we tap into how deeply we love. Instead of feeling the love, the risk that accompanies loving, and how vulnerable we’re rendered when we open our hearts to loving others, we travel up to the mind as way to have a false sense of control. The question to ask is, “How do I ignore, deny, judge, distract from my pain?”
- Spiritual Disconnect: When we’re disconnected spiritually we create inner gaps that make ourselves available to the flood of intrusive thoughts. I wrote more about this here.
- Lack of Purpose: When we’re disconnected from our purpose, we cut off from how we can best serve in the world. This creates an inner gap and anxiety floods in.
We now move into the pink spokes on the wheel. These are separate from and yet deeply connected to the Four Realms of Self. Lack of self-trust and the need for certainty/safety are often the first two spokes to arise when someone starts working proactively with their intrusive thoughts.
Lack of Self-Trust
- Lack of Self-Trust: When you trust yourself – which is dependent on self-knowledge and self-love – you can respond to intrusive thoughts with a fair amount of certainty. For example, if the thought arises, “What if I’m gay/straight?” when you know yourself and trust yourself you can respond with, “Well, I’ve always had this orientation and I’ve never wanted to date the other sex so I’m going to trust that even though sexuality exists on a spectrum I’m with the sex that is aligned with who I am.”
The Need for Certainty and Safety
- Need for Certainty and Safety: Highly sensitive people have a heightened awareness of loss, change, and death, which, in the absence of healthy rituals that help us navigate and cross over the thresholds and transitions of life, often lead to a fear of uncertainty and a misguided attempt to find certainty by answering fundamentally unanswerable questions and engaging in rituals (compulsions) that create a temporary but false sense of control. The need for certainty is also intimately connected to the fear of loss, for when we trust that we can handle loss and have healthy rituals and practices that help us metabolize the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly transitions (which, by definition, include loss), we move through our fear of loss and learn to becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.
- Family Trauma: There’s an element of your pain that didn’t start with you. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, you may be carrying your dad’s ungrieved losses or your mother’s early trauma. When you can identity the stories you’re carrying the aren’t yours, you can learn how to give them back. I touched on family trauma here.
Metaphors that Point to Needs
- Metaphors that Point to Needs: Here are the few examples I listed above: The need to connect with my inner feminine/masculine embedded inside sexuality anxiety; the need to be loving to my inner child embedded inside harm anxiety; the need to grieve an aspect of my life that is dying embedded in death anxiety. I’ve discussed many others in my book and throughout this site
As you can see, working with intrusive thoughts and anxiety through a depth psychological approach veers dramatically away from the mainstream CBT model. Whereas CBT is primarily interested in managing symptoms, a depth model is interested in exploring root cause and recognizes that it’s when we heal at the root that the symptoms diminish or abate. As this is not a fast or easy process, I will say again here that the work of sifting through the above points and healing at the root is best done with a skilled therapist who works in a psychodynamic or depth psychological framework.
Where does this land in you? Which spokes on the wheel resonate most deeply? As you work with the three steps and the wheel, notice where you feel stuck and how resistance shows up. I’ll be sharing in future posts what direct actions are connected to each spoke on the wheel, and you may want to refer to some of my posts on resistance if you notice this character showing up. Also, in case you missed it, here’s the PDF I shared earlier in the post: Inside Intrusive Thoughts. Thank you for being here.
Note: I had planned to run a live version of Trust Yourself at the end of the month, but for a variety of reasons I’ve decided to postpone until Spring. However, if you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts and know that low self-trust is a prominent spoke on your wheel, I encourage you to take the self-paced version now then join the live round at no additional charge in a few months. As the information and tools that I offer in my courses run counter to the cultural messages and conditioning you’ve absorbed, all of my courses are meant to be worked through multiple times. It’s for this reason that taking a self-paced version before a live version can amplify and deepen your healing. Trust Yourself is also a course that will help you grow your inner parent, which is essential to breaking free from intrusive thoughts and engaging deeply in inner work.