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.
Thank you for this post Sheryl. It has been very helpful and I feel I need to re-visit these again. My current thoughts is “do I want to have children” I have never really felt I wanted children, but now Iam getting older and and I’m questioning alot of things around being a parent Xxx
I’m so glad the post was helpful, and yes, definitely revisit as you sit with this next big question.
I have been having intrusive thoughts lately regarding my fiancé. I keep thinking to myself… what if I disappoint him? Or I keep thinking about saying I need a break… then I keep thinking how bad it’ll hurt him and I start to panic. One minute I am fine and in love and the next I am thinking these things. I am not sure what to do to stop these stupid thoughts because I just want to love him the way I did a week ago.. does anyone have any advice?
Thank you! I am so so glad i stumbled accross this. Food for thought (pun intended)
Ive been wondering why I had intrusive thoughts and your post has sparked lots of ah-ha moments. Thank you!!
Hi Sheryl – I would love to know when you are going to be running the live trust course again?
March 5th! Registration is open now:
Gorgeous as always 🙂 Sitting with nothingness without distraction is… everything.
Thank you and yes :).
As far as the saying that the thought is a lie and not true…isn’t that the opposite of ERP for OCD?
in some ways it’s different and in other ways it’s similar. It is different in the sense that this article advocates a way more deep and holistic approach to the mind; it is similar in the sense that all OCD treatment fundamentally involves learning to accept uncertainty and ambiguity. I hope this helps.
Beautifully said, Joshua. Thank you. x
Wow. I totally connected to the parts where you talk about not being able to find the metaphor and when the thoughts come back stronger in an attempt to stay in their comfort zone after you’ve doused them with truth water. I have been trying for months to figure out what my metaphor is, or what it is that I’m protecting myself from feeling, and I’ve come up with a few suggestions, but I have yet to find the “aha!” moment. I also have had the experience where I was able to say “this is just an intrusive thought, and it is not yours” only for something even worse to pop up after that, making it harder to convince myself that it’s a lie. Thank you for sharing this, because now I feel like I’ll be able to recognize that and keep working on the practice.
Thank you so much! I am a support worker and this has been incredibly helpful not only for myself, but will also be for my client. 🙏
– Now to read more/all of your writings!
Thank you again.
I’m so glad it was helpful!
It’s a work-in-progress, Riley, and it can take a long time to build these new muscles.
I found trying to force the aha moment and trying to force the awareness has been dangerous as well. It leads me to constant ruminating trying to figure my thoughts out. I’ve found a “maybe, maybe not” response to be most beneficial and when allowing uncertainty in, slowly and naturally you start seeing the depth. So you may not get an aha moment, as I think the process is a slow healer, just like the anxiety was a slow build up until the nerves and emotions had no more room in their house. It’s tough to stay patient, because you want to heal “now”, but I think it’s key not to rush. I’m 42 and 2 years into my journey with OCD and anxiety as a “disorder” and still working. When I’ve tried to force it, things go the wrong direction
Thank you, Sheryl.
The idea of “fundamental human ambiguity” is confusing and scary to me. Does it mean that there is no truth? That seems contradictory to other aspects of what you’re saying here, so I just wonder if I’m not properly understanding it.
I have a lot of intrusive thoughts saying that there is no truth, there is no “you”, you could be anyone so how do you know for sure that you aren’t (or couldn’t become) “insert scary thing here”?
The intrusive thought you’re struggling with points directly to lack of self-trust and self-knowledge. I encourage you to take the Trust Yourself course if you haven’t already.
I love this so much. And love the Glennon quote!! She takes Lexapro, by the way. So do I. Without it, I would never be able to do this work. Just sayin. 🙂
Your post resonated with me on so many levels. I felt as if you were writing to me. If we take the course now do we get access to a group where we can connect to others who have taken this course (last spring or previous year?) While I don’t really want to wait until the live group course next spring, it would be nice to have a community. Thanks.
Hi Sheryl, I am confused on the meaning of lack of self trust in regards to sexuality anxiety? I’m engaged to my beautiful partner and I’ve been dealing with intrusive thoughts of what if I’m gay? And they have formed into other thoughts/images. It’s like I’m believing the thoughts now and I can’t challenge them
Anymore. Any advice?
I recommend taking my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course where I talk about intrusive thoughts and the gay spike in depth. If that’s not feasible for you, read my book “The Wisdom of Anxiety.”
Susan: If you take the course now you’ll receive access to several of the group calls from past rounds. The forums, however, are only active when a live course is running.
Thank you, Sheryl. This is helpful and timely! I recently signed up for Trust Yourself after a recent spike in my intrusive thoughts. While not as intense as in the past (as I’ve learned from you how to not go down the rabbit hole), I feel disappointed that my typical intrusive thoughts have come back. Is it normal to have the same recurring intrusive thoughts when anxiety strikes? I do think I have work to do with self trust given I’m specifically stuck on if the intrusive thoughts are actually – even though I just had months of “clear eyes. “ I know healing happens in layers so I hope this is just pointing me to additional learning and healing. Thank you! Your work is invaluable to me.
That should say “…thoughts are actually true” 🙂
My girlfriend and I have been dating for about 5 months. The first three were entirely over FaceTime. I had a ton of relationship anxiety, still do. We’re starting to see each other more regularly now. I feel like the girl I fell in love with on Facetime is different than the girl I see in person. She’s so beautiful and incredible both ways. Just different.
Any tips to adjust to this transition without freaking out?
Reading this is so familiar now and, this morning, I really acknowledged just how far I have come. It does take a long time, but my goodness, what a transformation. The self-trust piece has been so important for me, as well as naming thoughts and exposing their lies. It seems so simple, and in a way it is, but that practice really helped me to cultivate that self-trust, something I didn’t have much of two years ago.
Also, the mantra ‘just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true’ still gives me chills. Such an important, profound piece of information that really did change my life.
Thank you for this lovely Sheryl. Sending you much love after your scare with the fire, that sounded so frightening. I too weep and breathe in love for our beautiful planet x
Thank you for this lovely comment, and it’s been a joy to witness your growth over the years.
One other question – does dropping into the body differ from feeling somatic symptoms? I did the body scan at part of the Trust Yourself course and anxiety always sits in my stomach and tightness in my chest and neck. I’m just not sure what to do the focus on those body parts, yet it feels different than walking or yoga. Thank you for any clarification.
Sending warmth and courage to you, your family and all in Colorado who have been affected physically or emotionally by the fire. I imagine a circle of people in an embrace that sustain each other to live through this.
Thank you for, even after such an event, take the time to send us our weekly post, and one so full of details.
Thank you, Marie, for this very thoughtful reflection and expression of gratitude. I appreciate it :).
With the pandemic going on, losing my job, starting school to get my Substance Abuse Counselor certification, facing my addictions (without the distractions I normally use unknowingly), and essentially cut off from any kind of connection via helping others, I have been having some of my lowest of low days in the last few months. With winter coming, the SAD is kicking in as well and I recently started an awareness of intrusive thoughts that are very uncomfortable for me. I can clearly see I am a kind and loving person and it is so difficult for me to not judge myself based on these things, but I know i have to practice it, it’s just hard because some days I don’t have the mental energy to.
I do on the other hand have a wonderfully loving partner, a deep thirst to get through the old behavior patterns and find new ways of living, finding that alive feeling within myself regardless if I am with someone or not, and I am looking forward to getting through this mess our US is in currently and restore some level of normalcy. I do see there is good in all of this, but it does make it more trying when you are in the middle of it and, “treading pudding,” as my dear friend so lovingly put her state of being. I also know it’s not just me, that almost everyone I have spoken with is going through a process.
I can clearly see grief under the surface, there is a sense of not being protected in our world right now and I feel that on such a deep level, having to admit I have no control over this other than my choices. Sitting with the grief is hard and I am trying to be mindful to practice extra self care and to be ok with just not feeling that great.
It’s such a challenging time – really beyond words – and as you know you’re far from alone. This disconnect in all realms, including and especially the ability to be of service and help others, can be crippling. We are here to connect, to serve, to live out our gifts and purpose, and when those channels are blocked for any reason intrusive thoughts often fester and emerge. Sitting with grief is essential, as are any self-care practices that are feasible. Sending you hugs and love. This too shall pass.
What i don’t understand though is how I confidently could call out my intrusive thoughts as lies, when I don’t feel that I KNOW that they are… I absolutely doubt if they’re true or not… It feels like there’s truth in them, because my brain delivers evidence…. I feel like my life depends on figuring them out. I can’t imagine how I could just let them go… But still I’m stuck, I don’t know what to do…
I feel the same way. I’d love to just be certain and know for sure that any intrusive thought is not true but I often feel the opposite and am convinced that they are true and that I’m lying to myself by saying they aren’t. But as I’m learning, certainty is very fear/ego/control based and self trust seems to be the best thing to work on. A previous counselor once told me to use “imperfect courage” meaning even if I’m not totally sure about something, I still focus on trusting myself and eventually my truth will present itself. I don’t know if this makes sense because I’m still very much in the depths of the anxiety and have been for a long time but just know you aren’t alone.
My intrusive thought is consistently: my husband doesn’t love me. My insecurity has driven him away, and now he’s just married to me. He doesn’t really love me anymore.
No matter how many times my husband reassures me that this isn’t true (which does make me feel better temporarily) the intrusive thought returns. Your post is very helpful and I’ve written down my answers so I can read them and learn to reassure myself – but I feel like it’s going to take a long time to feel secure and independent again.
Repairing low self-worth is a long process, but don’t give up hope. It sounds like you’re projecting your lack of self-love onto your husband, which means when you start to like and love yourself, the intrusive thought will become quieter. You may want to consider my Trust Yourself course to facilitate your healing process.
A gem of an article – thanks as always.