If you are afraid of your own thoughts, you’ve got a lot of company. Fortunately, this fear is based on a misunderstanding.
Why would you be afraid of your own thoughts? After all, they are just thoughts, right? No. Not if you have read any of the wildly popular books on manifestation like The Secret or Ask and It Is Given. In that case, you’ve learned that “thoughts become things.” As a result, you may have developed an inner watchdog who barks at the least sign of “negativity.”
Looking back, I think some benevolent unseen force tried to protect me from all that by preventing me from downloading the video of The Secret. Despite multiple attempts, I never managed to access the file. I even remember thinking, “Maybe I’m not meant to watch this.”
But I ignored this small voice. I checked out a hard copy of The Secret from the library. Now I have my own “negativity watchdog.” I’ve got him on a short leash. But he still barks from time to time, reminding me that I should have listened to my spiritual intuition.
In short, I get it that manifestation philosophy has some positive aspects. But I have a big bone to pick with it. I’m very concerned that so many people have become afraid of their own thoughts. I often hear clients say, “I’m afraid to say this out loud, but…” They are afraid that by speaking their fears, they will make them happen. No wonder they try to ignore, repress, or squelch any “negativity.”
But if you’ve tried to stop thinking anxious thoughts, you’ve discovered a (dirty) secret. It doesn’t work. In reality, if something is important to you— and particularly if it concerns your sense of safety— your brain will focus even more intently on that thing.
This phenomenon is called the frequency illusion, or selective attention bias. Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky explains the frequency illusion as “a result of two well-known psychological processes, selective attention (noticing things that are salient to us, disregarding the rest) and confirmation bias (looking for things that support our hypotheses, disregarding potential counterevidence).”
How you become afraid of your own thoughts
Some instances of the frequency illusion are benign. For example, after we bought our red Prius, I was startled by the “sudden appearance” of many red Priuses on the Rochester roads. But I wasn’t upset by it. If you are highly sensitive (HSP), though, and if you are already afraid of your “negative thoughts,” then the frequency illusion acts like gasoline on a fire. It causes you to look for what you fear, and to see what you are looking for. Add your deep processing ability and your vivid imagination, and you can end up in a dark place.
Fortunately, as we’ll see, your thoughts themselves are not the problem. What matters is whether you are present with the parts of you that are scared. If you aren’t present, then your scared parts are running the show. That’s when the going gets rough, as it did for Kara (not her real name.)
Kara kindly agreed to let me share her experience of fearing her thoughts. Hers is a powerful example of what we need to do to reclaim a sense of safety. Kara came to sessions because she was tormented by anxious thoughts. She was considering getting pregnant. But having had a miscarriage earlier, she was terrified she might have another one.
As we listened together and began to sit with her fears of another miscarriage, an even deeper fear came up for Kara. She could hardly say it out loud. All those months ago, the night before she lost her pregnancy, she had dreamed about having a miscarriage. Ever since then, she’d harbored a secret terror that she had somehow caused the miscarriage.
No wonder Kara was terrified of her own fearful thoughts. If she had in fact “caused” the first miscarriage, then she’d rightly fear that she could cause another one. If she had endured these fears in silence, trying to make them go away by sheer force of will, we couldn’t have addressed them. Thank goodness she found the courage to speak despite her fear of “making these negative thoughts real.”
Now we could sit together with Kara’s fears, seek their source, and create space for them to shift. What Kara discovered was startling and heartbreaking. Our work revealed three valuable insights:
1—Acknowledging your fear is the (essential) first step
If you are afraid of your anxious thoughts, your first step is to acknowledge the thoughts are there. If you find this hard to do, you aren’t alone. Our most feared scenarios are those which we might have to face heartbreak or horror without support—especially if this happened to us as kids.
The combination of powerlessness and loneliness of early trauma, including subtle trauma, can be so overwhelming we will do almost anything to avoid feeling it. But if we can face this fear just long enough to acknowledge it, we have set the stage to form a relationship with something in us that is terrified.
Kara needed company—mine, in this case—to look her worst fear in the face. You may need that too. When your nervous system is dysregulated by fear, the calm company of another person provides essential support to help you recover your balance and equanimity. Over time you develop the inner resources to self-regulate, as Kara did.
2—Foreknowledge does not cause events
One December night in 2017, I dreamed I was in my parents’ basement washing load after load of laundry. No matter how many times I ran the clothes through, they wouldn’t come clean. Five days later, I really was in my parents’ basement—doing load after load of laundry. Suddenly I remembered my dream. I realized it had been prescient: two days after the dream, a skunk had died in our basement. My laundry marathon marked the beginning of a cleanup that took 18 months to complete.
Because I don’t have emotional charge around skunks, I was able to accept this dream as one of those advanced-notice intuitions I sometimes get as an HSP. But Kara’s reaction to her prescient dream of a miscarriage was more complex. Like many HSPs, she knew she had powerful spiritual intuitions, but had learned to regard those intuitions with profound ambivalence.
Our deeper knowings are not always welcome. If you grew up in a very difficult family environment, for example, to have acknowledged the reality that you would be spending the next decade or more with adults who weren’t able to parent you adequately might have sent you over the edge into complete hopelessness.
Under those circumstances, sensitive children may bury their inner knowing. If you coped this way, it’s your task as an adult to reclaim your spiritual intuition. It is your most powerful resource.
3—Repetitive anxious thoughts may act to “protect” you from deeper pain
Once Kara had established an inner relationship with the part of her that was scared she had caused her miscarriage and might cause another one, she made a surprising discovery. This anxious part was trying to protect her.
How could anxiety possibly be protective? In Kara’s case, her anxious thoughts were so preoccupying that they served to distract her from feeling her powerlessness…and her profound grief. A miscarriage, in reality, is not something anyone can control.
Acknowledging the truth of one’s helplessness in the face of such a heartbreaking event is exquisitely painful. On top of this, for Kara, this pain also triggered memories of overwhelming childhood helplessness.
Her “inner worrier” was trying desperately to help her handle all this helplessness by suggesting she could control the outcome of the situation. But the more it worried, the more her inner negativity watchdog howled, terrified she would create the event she feared the most.
Interrupting the spiral of anxious thoughts
With support to help her hold a space big enough for all this, Kara learned to interrupt the downward spiral of anxious thoughts. She began by turning towards something in her that was terrified. Using Focusing Presence Language, she’d say, “I’m sensing something in me that feels terrified.” Presence Language helped strengthen the inner experience of being with her inner parts.
The more she stayed with the relationship, acknowledging and describing what was happening, the more Kara’s nervous system could regulate itself, and the more easily she could be present with her inner experience. At long last, Kara was learning how to offer her inner parts the respectful attunement and attention that had been a missing experience for her as a child.
For Kara, attuned company (from me, in this case) provided a key support for this shift towards greater calm and presence. When you’ve suffered trauma, as Kara had, your fears and anxieties were born from the dysregulating effect of mis-attunement with important caregivers. If this is the case for you, then only with the experience of attunement to another person in the present moment can you learn how to re-establish self-regulation around intense emotions.
We can be a safe space for all our thoughts
When we are terrified, our sympathetic nervous system is so activated that it’s hard to experience ourselves as the bigger space that can hold our anxious parts. We feel like we are “in the river” with the fear. But with the support of attuned company, we can begin to directly experience ourselves as adult bodies with an adult capacity for holding intense feelings.
Once you can hold your frightened or “negative” thoughts this way, you realize you don’t need to fear them, ignore them, or dismiss them. On the contrary. “Negative” thoughts are simply a sign that something in your inner world needs your attention. As you listen to your scared parts with acceptance and care, they gradually relax and release their burden of fear. Even better, when you hold your fearful thoughts in this loving inner embrace, they have no power to manifest.