“What if you are secretly a violent person who is going to kill someone in the future?”
“What if you are going to hell?”
“What if you have cancer?”
“What if you don’t really know yourself?”
“What if you are going to lose your mind in the future?”
“What if that dust on the counter is lead dust?”
“What if you are racist?”
“What if you don’t really love your partner?”
If you find yourself struggling with questions like these over and over, you may be experiencing an OCD symptom called intrusive thoughts. And if you’re like most people with OCD, you’re probably doing all you can to silence these thoughts. Maybe you’re looking for that one argument, or that one piece of evidence, that will prove your OCD wrong. Maybe you’re hoping that if you think about the situation long enough, you’ll eventually figure out the truth. Or maybe you’re hoping that if you do enough checks, enough rituals, the thoughts will just stop. There’s a problem with all these efforts, though. They’re all attempts to achieve the impossible. If you take a look at those intrusive thoughts above, you’ll notice that most of them are things that can’t be proven or disproven. There aren’t any tests to confirm whether or not you love someone, or whether or not you’re a racist, or whether or not you’re going to hell. And, in those cases where there are tests (biopsies and MRIs for cancer, for example), you can’t exactly go about performing these tests every second of the day. The minute you’re done with that full body MRI scan, might be the moment when you first start developing cancer cells. In other words, if your goal is to stop your intrusive thoughts by disproving them beyond the shadow of a doubt, you will be engaged in this battle with your thoughts for the rest of your life. So what’s the alternative?
The answer is that you actually need to stop the arguing. You need to put an end to the fighting. You need to accept that your OCD is right to a certain extent, that all of these things “might” be true, and that there is always risk and uncertainty in life. It’s a task that’s more easily said than done, no doubt, but here are a few tips to get you started.
1. First off, in the case of medical and safety concerns, take the recommended, reasonable steps to protect yourself and your family. Identify the reasonable precautions for preventing lead exposure. Learn about the physician-recommended measures for preventing cancer. If you are really struggling with OCD intrusive thoughts, these precautions will not, of course, be enough. Your OCD will still want you to have your house tested for lead paint a second, third, fourth…time, or google the term “moles and skin cancer” again. But you will now be able to say that you’ve taken the recommended, reasonable measures and that any additional risks fall under the category of inherint risks of living life.
2. Make sure you label the thoughts for what they are. These are not “your” thoughts. These are OCD intrusive thoughts. It’s a concept I cover in a little more detail here.
Instead of saying, “I’m worried I don’t love my husband.”
Try saying to yourself, “I was having a fine day until I got a little annoyed at my husband for talking during a movie and OCD put the thought in my head that I might not love him.”
3. Don’t try and disprove the intrusive OCD thought. Acknowledge that OCD could be right.
“You’re right OCD. There is always a possibility that a mark on my skin could be, or will become, cancerous. But I’m not going to spend the rest of my life worrying about every mark on my skin.”
“You’re right OCD. There is a possibility that I may one day “go crazy,” but I’m not going to waste the present thinking about it. I’ll worry about it when the time comes.”
“You’re right OCD. That dust on the counter could have lead dust in it, but it might not. The fact is that dust is everywhere, and I can’t go around having all dust I see tested for lead.”
Can you feel the argument in your head being diffused already? I know I can. The fact of the matter is that your OCD intrusive thoughts are a waste of your time. You’re probably in love with your husband. You’re most likely not going to hell. And you’re almost certainly not going to kill someone in the future. But also remember that these things can’t ever be proven. Learn to be comfortable with “probably” and “most likely” and you’ll be on your way to ending the argument in your head.