I remember the first time I called a thought “bad.” I was 6 years old, and at that moment I felt like the worst child in the world. I felt unlovable and unworthy. I was full of shame and guilt. I believed that my thoughts were evil and represented who I was at my core, my very character.
As a child with a developing brain, it would have been impossible to see that this was not indicative of my true character. I remember vividly describing the thoughts to my mom as “bad” thoughts, or as nightmares that happened while I was awake. My mom cleverly started referring to them as “daymares.”
Looking back on this, my mom and I gave these thoughts way more attention and power than we should have. This was a time period before the internet (can you imagine?), when we didn’t have information about this disorder at our fingertips. I spent years calling these thoughts “bad,” not realizing the damage that this would cause to my sense of self and my belief system.
The truth about our thoughts
The truth is that thoughts are neither good nor bad: they just “are.” They are neutral. They are meaningless until you give them meaning – in other words, it is you who give your thoughts meaning, and this is what can cause distress.
If I wrote something down on paper does that make it true? What if I am at a grocery store and all of the sudden I decide to yell “fire” at the top of my lungs? Does that mean there is a fire? Maybe I even tell everyone I started that fire, when there clearly is no fire. How is this different from thinking about it?
The same is true no matter what the thoughts involve, whether it is harming a loved one or doing an illegal act. Yet, we tend to give so much weight to our thoughts. This is especially true when we have OCD.
Discomfort, in and of itself, doesn’t equal “bad.” Anxiety doesn’t equal “bad.” We may not like how it makes us feel, and we may prefer not to feel it. But when we label things as “bad,” particularly our own thoughts, we start to see ourselves in this light and incorporate certain beliefs about ourselves, our values, or our identity.
When we have OCD, we doubt the very core of who we are. We doubt that these thoughts don’t have a deeper meaning or mean something sinister. We question whether we are secretly “bad” people who want to do the things that pop into our heads. This can be a terrifying way to live. It is not until we flip the script and refuse to characterize a thought as good or bad that we can find freedom from this debilitating disorder.
My thoughts shaped my sense of self
For so many years, I had developed a poor sense of self due to my own intrusive thoughts. It made me feel negatively about who I was as a person. I had difficulty forming friendships and struggled in my relationships. The way I felt about myself trickled into every area of my life. I always thought people were mad at me or that they didn’t like me. I could turn even the most neutral comment from someone into a confirmation that they hated me. It felt so real, and I never questioned it.
That’s what OCD does. It sneaks in and makes you believe that the thoughts that you have about yourself are real: that you are the monster it tells you that you are, or that your worst fear will come true. For me, it would take years to challenge this and to see it for what it was.
A pretty stable fear of mine was having a life-threatening reaction to medication. I remember being so afraid of having a reaction that just the suggestion of anything “new” relating to medications or shots threw me into a panic.
There was the time I told myself that my third childbirth would be different, and that I would not let fear stop me from having pain management medications as it did with my first two children. I knew this would likely ruffle OCD’s feathers. I received a spinal block and instantly I began to panic: it felt like my world was spinning, my throat closing in. I truly believed that I was in anaphylactic shock – but I was not.
There was the time I was having a standard outpatient mole removal procedure and was given a numbing shot. I immediately told the nurse and doctor my throat was closing and I was dying – but I was not. Another time I had to get my tooth pulled and warned my dentist that the shot I needed for the procedure would cause me to “freak out.” He was so confident and said it would all be fine. As soon as the shot hit, I told him my throat was closing in and I needed help. Not true – I was just fine, only slightly embarrassed.
Then it happened, I was having a surgical procedure. At this point in my journey, I was several years into treatment for OCD and feeling capable of taking on any fears. After all, I had faced several fears already and made it through them, so what could go wrong? Turns out I actually was allergic to a medication they gave me and had a reaction.
And that was it. All these years accumulated to one fairly uneventful event. And it actually wasn’t as scary as I imagined it all those years.
As you can see from my own examples, OCD makes it hard to let go of the thoughts – but not impossible. It is a skill I had to practice over and over. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) – the gold standard OCD treatment – taught me the skills I needed to be able to do this.
Learning that thoughts are neither “good” nor “bad” – and how to sit with them
ERP allows you to retrain your brain to know that there is no real danger at the moment. Using ERP, I repeatedly allowed myself to sit with the discomfort and anxiety that each thought brought without trying to rid myself of those feelings. Gradually, I was able to see that the thoughts I had did not come true, and in the extremely rare incidents that something difficult happened, I was able to handle it. I survived it.
Getting treatment also helped me recognize more readily that everyone – whether they have OCD or not – has these same thoughts, they just don’t necessarily get stuck on them. Instead, they can often more easily shift unwanted thoughts from their brain, without even paying attention to them. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of that ability. I would love to be able to move on quickly from a thought I don’t like.
I also wish I could say that I perfectly follow ERP everyday and never struggle with OCD, anxiety and intrusive thoughts. But I would be remiss in telling anyone that. I do still struggle, but far less than before I knew how to respond effectively. The important thing is that I get it right about 80 percent of the time, and that is okay with me. I am in recovery, I still have OCD, but it is manageable.
Today I am careful to not refer to the thoughts that I get stuck on as “bad” thoughts; instead, I just say they are thoughts, and they are neither good nor bad. They just exist. I no longer have “bad” thoughts. I have thoughts, like everyone else, and sometimes they get a little “stuck.” I know how to handle it. The wonderful thing is that the more I respond differently, the less the thoughts are there, and the less they bother me.
How to manage unwanted and intrusive thoughts
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, ERP can teach you how to not stop engaging with the thoughts causing your distress. You will learn how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and resist the urge to do compulsions. You will see that anxiety, like any other feeling, eventually passes, and you don’t have to do anything to make this happen.
The best way to practice ERP and manage intrusive thoughts is to work with a therapist trained in ERP. At NOCD, our therapists specialize in OCD and ERP, and they will provide you with a personalized treatment plan designed to best meet your unique needs. Your therapist will teach you the skills needed to begin your OCD recovery journey and will support you every step of the way. They will guide you in taking small steps to reach your goals.
Our team of therapists at NOCD are passionate about the treatment of this debilitating disorder and are trained by world-renowned experts. To learn more about working with a NOCD therapist, schedule a free call with our care team.