Newsletter July, 2018.
First, let me explain the long break since my last newsletter, and give apologies: the good news is that my co-author, Sally Winston, and I have been writing a new book with the working title, The Reassurance Trap. I think of it as a companion book to Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, since so many use reassurances as a means of trying to be convinced that intrusive thoughts don’t describe the sort of person we are, and we would never do the things that pass through our minds. (In fact, the last newsletter I sent out was about reassurance.) The book will be published by New Harbinger and should be out in about a year. That writing has taken a lot of my time.
In this letter, I’m going to try to answer a question that is asked by many. I get a multitude of questions from people who ask me some variation of the same question, and I’d like to address that question in this newsletter. Usually, the question is from someone who has read my book, Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts or some other article or posting on the web.
The question goes something like this: “I saw all the varieties of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts you listed in your article (or book), and mine is different. How can I be sure it is an intrusive thought? It isn’t one of your examples.”
I addressed this issue in the January, 2017 newsletter, but I get the question so often I think it needs to be re-addressed.
So, let me start by saying that the listing of varieties of intrusive thoughts that are in our book is quite long. But it isn’t a complete, comprehensive, and total list. And that is because the varieties of intrusive thoughts is as large as the variety of thoughts that people can imagine. Any creative person (and if you have unwanted intrusive thoughts, you are a creative person) can have more thoughts than could be listed on any document.
So, if you have intrusive thoughts that aren’t listed in our book, how do you answer that question?
Remember that I wrote in an earlier newsletter about the concept of disentanglement. That’s the concept where you realize that the content of your thought is misleading, just like the misleading content of an email that aims to scam you. This can be hard to understand, because it means that some of our thoughts are simply worthless. Even worse than that, because they turn out to be bullies in our head, and we let them boss us around.
The key here is to learn that thoughts are just thoughts. You can have them or not, and pay attention to them or not. Your job is to learn how to pay less attention to unwanted intrusive thoughts: to learn how to not take them so seriously; to understand them as bullies, or noise, or just junk thoughts.
You aren’t out to stop the thoughts, because trying to do that triggers all the paradoxical effort effects that make the thought stronger and more upsetting. But, if you learn to take them less seriously, they recede into the background and fade away on their own.
So, how do you determine that you are having unwanted intrusive thoughts?
Your job is to understand that unwanted intrusive thoughts are not defined by their content. They are defined by
- How they feel, and
- How they act.
Let’s look at these separately:
The first part is how they feel:
Unwanted intrusive thoughts feel awful. They create anxiety, guilt, sadness, worry, etc. They are thoughts that feel like they are coming from someone (or somewhere else). Psychologists call this feeling ego-dystonic. The awful feeling is called dysphoria by psychologists.
So, if you have a thought that feels terrible, it might be an unwanted intrusive thought. But that isn’t all.
The second part is how they act:
Unwanted intrusive thoughts are stuck thoughts. They are immobile. They don’t move on. They repeat. They come back again and again. This is fundamentally different from other thoughts.
Other thoughts–even if the content is terrible and catastrophic–progress and change over time. For example, your house burns down. You are shocked and numbed, but eventually you think, “Oh, no, is there anything left? Where will I sleep tonight? Do I have any friends or family to put me up? Do I have insurance?” Your thoughts progress down the road to trying to solve this problem, get past it and move on.
But that doesn’t happen with unwanted intrusive thoughts, no matter what the content.
Now, let’s put both of those together. An unwanted intrusive thought is defined by the fact that it feels terrible, and it doesn’t move on. Content has nothing to do with it, and–here is another important point–paying attention to content will send you in the wrong direction. Just like paying attention to the content of the email scam that says your “long-lost uncle in some foreign land died and left your 3 billion dollars. Just click on the link….. “ You know that no good will come of it. And no good will come of paying attention to the content of your unwanted intrusive thoughts
So now you have a formula for determining if you have unwanted intrusive thoughts, whether or not they have been listed.
Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts:
1. If you have a thought, a physical feeling, a mental intrusion, a song that you hear in your head,
2. It causes you distress–anxiety, guilt, irritation, anger, frustration, or any other sort of mental pain, which we call dysphoria
3. It sticks, doesn’t go away, repeats itself, stays stuck in your mind.
Then, you know you are dealing with an unwanted intrusive thought.
So, think about the stuck, upsetting thoughts you might have that didn’t make the list in our book. Now you can apply this formula and determine for yourself whether they are unwanted intrusive thoughts. That’s the first step in recovery.
All the best to you,