Although many, many intrusive thoughts center on the possibility of doing something awful (sexual, murderous, blasphemous), that is by no means the only content of these intrusions. Sometimes, when the content is quite different (for example, the fearful thought that someone will kill me, rather than I will kill someone else; or the repeating thought of seeming to be producing too much saliva), people wonder whether this is a true Unwanted Intrusive Thought (UIT).
In my upcoming book, “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts,” Dr. Winston and I have provided a comprehensive list of every type of UIT that we have ever encountered. It is a long list, and you will be able to read it when the book comes out.
In the meantime, here is the general rule that defines an unwanted intrusion: First, remember, content does not matter. The content of a UIT is irrelevant and extremely misleading. So, what is important?
An Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts is defined by just two characteristics: How it feels and how it acts? What does this mean?
First, it feels awful. It often comes with a whoosh, and it scares or embarrasses or disgusts or irritates you. You want to get rid of it, and you want to get rid of the feeling that comes along with it.
Second, it repeats.It comes back again and again. It feels stuck. It may morph for a while to something somewhat different, but then it might come right back to the original thought.
This second point might need some further explanation. Even if we have a truly awful thought, those thoughts that are not UITs show some progression. Here’s an example of what I mean: Let suppose that I lost my wallet with my credit card and all my personal ID. So I have the thought, “What if someone steals my identity?” That thought feels awful. But after I beat myself up for being so careless, retrace all my steps in an attempt to recover my wallet, I would then think of what exactly was in it, how do I cancel credit cards, apply for a new driver’s license, get a new health insurance card, etc? I might ask around to see if I should purchase to an identity-theft insurance program.
I would continue to try to solve the problems, addressing each “what if?” thought as it arose. I would be making plans, and–here is the essential point–my thoughts would progress. From ‘what if my identity is stolen,” to “How to cancel credit cards and get new ones,” to “how do I set up all my automatic accounts with the new credit card?”, etc. This is the opposite of thoughts repeating in the same stuck way. This is progression.
Therefore, I can be sure that this is not an Unwanted Intrusive Thought.
So remember, if you have a thought that feels bad and repeats in a stuck manner, that is all you need to know to determine that it is an Unwanted Intrusive Thought. Forget about the content. Pay attention to how it acts, and how it feels.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP