First, I want to apologize and give an explanation for the very long delay in writing this current newsletter. My colleague and co-author, Sally Winston and I have been hard at work writing a companion book to Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. The new book is titled, Needing to Know for Sure, and focuses on reassurance seeking and checking compulsions. It continues the use of the three voices of the mind dialogues, Worried Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. It will be published in December, 2019, and is already listed on Amazon.
And now let’s turn back to unwanted intrusive thoughts: many of the emails you write ask questions that appear to fall into two general categories, but they really ask the same question.
The first type of question is some variation of “I have this stuck, bothersome thought, but it doesn’t fit into any of the categories that you specifically mention in your book. Is it really an intrusive thought?”
The email below is typical of the second type of question:
I got to a stage where my thoughts did not bother me and then a new thought pattern of “You’re not bothered by these thoughts so they must be true” started up. What do I do? Maybe I really want to do it, which would be horrible.
So, why do I say that both questions are really the same thing?
Let’s review how I would like you to define an unwanted intrusive thought.
First of all, the content of the thought doesn’t matter. This is quite an extraordinary concept. I think one of the hardest aspects of overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts is trying to come to some intuitive understanding of how this can be. We are verbal people, and we tend to take the content of our thoughts very seriously. That’s why we are bothered by them so much, and work so hard to push them away.
Still, we are often capable of disentangling or de-fusing messages from their content. The example I often give is when you receive an email of the sort that says,
Congratulations! You have just inherited 2 billion US dollars from some long-lost relative in a foreign land (whom you have never heard of). Just click on this link, enter your bank routing information, and you will soon receive the sum of $ 2 Billion.
How many of you would take the content of that email seriously? I’m sure you would recognize it is a scam, and send it to spam. You would understand that the content of the email has nothing to do with the message. The writer is really saying, “Be a fool, give me your bank information, and I’ll steal your money.” That is definitely defusing or disentangling from content!
Here is another example: Linguists tell us that only about 40% of the meaning of a communication is transmitted by the words themselves, and the other 60% is communicated by style of speech, body language, intonation, etc. So, the words, “That was a smart move,” can mean “that was an intelligent move” or “that was a stupid move” based on the tone of your voice. The words can have the exact opposite meaning. Here again, the content has no meaning outside of the context.
So, if intrusive thoughts aren’t defined by content, then what is the best way to define and recognize them? There are two aspects of every intrusive thought, and that is the way to recognize them.
- First, they cause distress. They are upsetting. They make you anxious, guilty, embarrassed, annoyed, or distressed in some other way. They feel bad.
- Second, they are sticky. They keep on coming back. They loop around. They feel stuck. They don’t progress.
These two elements are part of every unwanted intrusive thought. I would say that this is a definition that addresses the function of the thought, and not the content. I am convinced this is the only correct way to define them.
Still, a lot of you get hooked by the content, get upset that you have thoughts like that, feel bad about yourself, and then get into a dialogue with these thoughts. Your goal is to push those thoughts away, keep them out of awareness, convince yourself that they can’t be true, get rid of the uncertainty that is driving you crazy, or some combination of all of these.
And this attempt to fight with or argue away the thoughts is exactly the process that keeps them stuck.
Now let’s get back to the title of this newsletter: Morphing. You have probably found that unwanted intrusive thoughts tend to change. Here is a typical example: you might have thoughts of harming others for a while. Then you find yourself having thoughts of your house burning down. Then you might think of hurting yourself. And then you have this tune in your head that just won’t go away, and it’s driving you crazy! And then, it morphs once again, this time having thoughts of hurting others once again.
This changing of content, or morphing, can be slow or fast. Each thought can last just days, or a part of a day, and then change rapidly. Or, each thought can be stuck for years.
If you remember that the content of the intrusive thought doesn’t matter, then morphing makes sense. Whatever thought (or somatic sensory intrusion) triggers your sensitized reaction–that becomes the next stuck thought. Content is meaningless, but not random. Not random because unwanted intrusive thoughts are always the opposite of who you are, and opposite to the values you hold dear.
So now let’s get back to the two types of questions:
Is this an intrusive thought, even though it isn’t mentioned in your book? Give it the two-part test:
- Does it cause distress?
- Is it stuck?
If you answer “yes” to both these questions, it is an intrusive thought, regardless of the content.
Next question: My thought is, “I’m not bothered by these thoughts, so maybe I really want to do it.”
The answer is that your intrusive thought has morphed to a new one, and this new one needs to be dealt with in precisely the way your addressed your original one. Do you wonder about this? Give it the two-part test:
- Does it cause distress?
- Is it stuck
Of course your answer is “yes.” These are your new intrusive thoughts.
Try to keep your mind open to the possibility of morphing. Remember that your intrusive thoughts will always try to outsmart you. Don’t forget that these intrusions have exactly the same IQ as you do. Knowledge is power, and you need to use your knowledge to outsmart the tendency of unwanted intrusive thoughts to morph.
I hope this answers some of your questions.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP