Updated: Oct 21, 2020
It is a well-researched fact that everyone experiences unwanted intrusive thoughts. One of my favorite studies on OCD was carried out by Jack Rachman in 1978. He studied a large population of individuals without OCD and presented to them a number of intrusive thoughts that individuals with OCD commonly experience – thoughts of harming people; sexual thoughts towards animals or children; thoughts about one’s sexual orientation and so on. The interesting and important lesson of this research was that individuals without OCD endorse having the same thoughts as those with OCD. What does that mean? It means that we ALL experience intrusive thoughts. Why is that important? It is critical to the treatment of OCD because it means that we can’t change the experience of having intrusive thoughts. We can, however, change our relationship to our intrusive thoughts.
For those individuals with OCD who experience sexual intrusive thoughts or harm-related intrusive thoughts, they will often feel immense shame and guilt for having these thoughts and will not share them for a very long time, if at all. When an individual with OCD experiences thoughts related to having sex with children (pedophilia OCD) or same sex intimate thoughts when they are heterosexual, they often become extremely distressed and question what these thoughts mean about themselves and their lives. People with harm-related thoughts towards their children or partner might question what kind of a parent or spouse they are. In response to these thoughts, individuals will typically develop elaborate thought-stopping rituals or neutralizing rituals in an effort to wipe the thoughts from their brain or purify their brain from thoughts that feel “bad” or “taboo”. They also experience intense distress because of these thoughts.
...in life we are judged on our actions and how we carry out our lives; not on our thoughts alone.
However, these intrusive thoughts are actually the same as having thoughts about the weather, or something else that is quite benign. You might wonder – how can we compare thoughts about the sunshine to thoughts about suffocating your partner with a pillow? Well, in both cases these are just thoughts, plain and simple. Thoughts do not equal action. Individuals with OCD often engage in a type of cognitive distortion that we call “thought-action fusion” This means that individuals will think – “because I have this thought, that event will happen”. But in life we are judged on our actions and how we carry out our lives; not on our thoughts alone. I often tell my clients that people do not end up in jail for having a bad thought. And OCD preys on these bad thoughts by convincing the individual that more and more elaborate rituals are needed in order to neutralize the thought and make everything safe.
So let’s remember that our thoughts are just that – thoughts. Sometimes I sit with my clients in July and we look out the window and try to think hard about making it snow. So far we haven’t yet been successful. I must admit I always choose to do this on a sunny day though ☺
If you find that your thoughts are overwhelming that is hard to see them as just thoughts and you spend a great deal of time trying to get rid of them, come and see us at Forward Thinking Psychological Services. We look forward to working with you!