11/02/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What If I'm Gay?

Among the many intrusive thoughts that those on the precipice of marriage suffer from, two of the most disturbing -- and surprisingly prominent -- are, "What if I don't love my partner enough?" and "What if I'm gay?" I addressed the first thought in an article entitled, "The Architecture of Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts". The second I'll address here.

When an engaged client first shared the thought "What if I'm gay?" with me several years ago, I thought she was an anomaly. I worked with her the same way that I work with all intrusive thoughts -- understanding that it's a flare sent from the inner self designed to attract your attention and then unpacking the feelings and beliefs that the thought is covering up -- but it was only when I started hearing the same thought from other clients and courageous e-forum members that I understood how many people perseverate on this question.

What separates this thought from the other common intrusive thoughts is that there is, in fact, an element of truth to it. If you've studied human sexuality or examined your own with an observing and non-judgmental eye, you know that sexual orientation exists on a spectrum with many people having bisexual or bicurious tendencies. In our ego's desire to delineate life into nice, neat, manageable packages, we like to say that people are either this or that: either black or white; either Democrat or Republican, either gay or straight. We don't like shades of gray. We're uncomfortable with ambiguity. So when it comes to sexuality, most people cringe to think that their own orientation cannot be folded inside a tightly locked box.

But sexuality is just that: it's an orientation. Most people are oriented toward preferring one sex over the other. But many heterosexual people -- more than you would ever guess -- have experimented sexually with the same sex or fantasize about the same sex. And if there's shame about this, if you don't know that experimenting with or fantasizing about the same sex doesn't mean that you're secretly gay but is a normal part of healthy sexuality, the natural impulses are pushed underground where they mingle with shame and emerge, sometimes years later, as anxiety.

The "Am I gay?" question points to two of the most challenging concepts for the anxious mind to accept, especially when you're on the verge of marriage: that love is a choice and that there are no guarantees or certainties regarding the outcome of this choice (this also applies to the converse situation of someone in a same-sex relationship perseverating on the thought, "What if I'm straight?").

Our culture certainly doesn't help us accept the reality that love is a choice. As I've written about extensively, we live in a romance-addicted culture and we've all, from the time we're old enough to absorb information, been steeped in the fantasy that love is a feeling and when you meet The One, you'll know it and be swept off into the landscape of happily ever after. (Buzzwords in italics.) So it's often a long, hard road to recondition the mind toward the truth, and when the anxious thought of "What if I'm gay?" infiltrates into consciousness, it preys on an already faulty foundation and quickly develops into a mental earthquake of seismic proportions.

This leads to the second challenging concept to accept: in order to make the choice to be with one partner, those prone to anxiety believe that they need 100 percent certainty that they're straight (or gay if the person is committing to a same-sex partnership). The anxious mind says, "How can I commit to my partner if I'm questioning my sexuality? That's not fair to him (or her). What if, years down the road, I discover that I really am gay? Don't I need to figure this out now so that I avoid the possibility of divorce?" And herein lies the underlying root that instigates the need for certainty: if you're certain about your sexual orientation, then you can divorce-proof your marriage before it begins. So the fear of being gay is connected to the need for certainty, which is connected to the fear of loss and failure.

Treatment: Pulling the Thought Out By The Root

The traditional treatment of OCD-type thoughts follows two routes: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and/or medication. While the success rate is high with CBT, I have also found that, unless the root cause of the thought is addressed, one healed thought will often give way to a new intrusive thought. It's much like banging the gopher back into the hole only to find it popping out from another hole.

I work a bit differently from the traditional treatment of OCD. I dig deeper into the roots of the intrusive thoughts and recognize them as a cover-up for deep wells of pain and false beliefs that need attention. They're like flares that your inner self are sending up as a way to get your attention, but they're not the truth. Working with the thoughts on the surface level may offer short-term relief but it doesn't address them at the core, which requires pulling them out by the roots. This is challenging, painful work. It requires reversing the false beliefs that say, "I can't handle my pain. If I feel my pain, I'll never stop crying. If I feel my fear, I'll go crazy." While these beliefs may have been true as a young child when you didn't have the support of a solid, loving parent to hold you as you cried, they're no longer true as an adult. Feeling your pain is a necessary part of healing yourself from the inside out.

If you find yourself plagued with the thought, "What if I'm gay?" the first course of action is to develop a tolerance for the possibility that you may have gay or bisexual tendencies but that you're choosing to be with the opposite sex. The next step is to recognize that attaching on to the thought is your fear/pain/uncertainty trying to protect you from the risk of opening your heart to love. You likely have an old belief that plays silently in your subconscious that says, "Love isn't safe," because perhaps what you knew of love as a child only felt like pain, betrayal, heartache, despair, and loneliness. The intrusive thoughts are designed to keep you safe, in a box, and protected from the risk of love. The work is about unearthing the old stories, bringing compassion to your scared self, allowing yourself to feel the old pain and sit with the current fear, developing a practice of letting go as an antidote to the wounded self that tirelessly tries to control, and finding the faith and courage to take the risk of opening your heart with your loving, present, available partner. Sound easy? It's the work of a lifetime.

Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of the Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity.