The last newsletter focused on intrusive thoughts concerning your fears of what you might do in the future and how terrible it would be if, in fact, you did that. As I mentioned, this is one of the the most common themes of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. But a second major category involves thoughts about things that you might have done in the past, (and it would be awful if you actually did those things), and how can you know for sure that you didn’t do them? This is what we are going to focus on in this newsletter.
Sometimes the content of the intrusive thought is really and objectively terrible. Here are some common examples: Did I molest that girl (boy/child/old lady/old man) when I was walking back from work yesterday? Did I put my baby in the freezer before I left for work? (Don’t laugh—it’s quite common). Am I a sinner/child molester/murderer because I sinned/molested/murdered last week when I was driving to my parent’s house? Was I raped/did I rape someone on the way to the grocery store yesterday? Did I run over someone when I drove my kids to school? Did I leave the victim lying in the street. What an awful person I am for not going back and checking to make sure.
Here, the issue is one of certainty. You might think, “I don’t think these things actually happened, but how can I know for sure? I’m pretty sure those things didn’t happen, but I keep on thinking about it, I have images in my mind about it and I’m afraid thoughts that keep on repeating must mean that there is something there.” We’ll get to this in more detail in a minute, but there is also a second category of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts about things that might have happened in the past.
These are thoughts about things that might have happened in the past, and they keep on repeating and are unwanted, but what might have happened doesn’t seem so awful. Still, you might be saying to yourself something like, “I can’t get it out of my mind, and it causes me great distress thinking about it.” Here are some examples of these kinds of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. Did I offend someone years ago? Did I keep the change when someone gave me money to buy them a cup of coffee? Was I unkind/unsympathetic/un-understanding/short tempered/grouchy when I interacted with someone. One other type is in the form of “did I make some mistake years ago” that either was not good for me, or not good for someone else. Here are examples of these types of thoughts: Did I marry the wrong woman/man? Should I have accepted his invitation to go out? Did I give bad investment advice to that very nice person? Did my stares make that woman uncomfortable? This could have happened yesterday or 20 years ago. The point is that the thought keeps repeating and it makes you upset.
The myth that drives both these concerns is the false belief that repeating thoughts must be important, and have some special meaning. This is simply untrue. In fact, thoughts that repeat are thoughts that you push away. Stuck thoughts get stuck because you are fighting them, and the effort you use to fight makes them push back even harder. You fight them because they feel unlike who you are. They violate your own personal values and sense of self. Sometimes it’s very hard to accept that our minds (and I’m talking about all of us) can send out junk thoughts.
It is also true that people with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts are enormously empathetic, and feel other people’s pain more intensely than most. So there is a real sense of concern for others. But stuck thoughts are much more than that.
Now let’s get back to the issue of certainty. People with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts want certainty that their thoughts will not happen in the future, and never did happen in the past. But think to yourself, where else in your life do you insist on such certainty?
Remember that certainty is a feeling and not a fact. The feeling of certainty is inconsistent with the feeling of anxiety. So you can’t relieve your anxiety by trying to find certainty. However, lowering anxiety will allow you to accept reasonable certainty, and that puts you on the path to recovery.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP