Have you ever had a thought that is so untrue to who you are and what you believe that it feels as if it came from someone else’s brain? If so, you’re not alone: these are intrusive thoughts, and nearly everyone experiences them.
Intrusive thoughts are, by nature, out of alignment with one’s values—I’ll get more into that later. And if we care about other people, particularly people who are different from us and have been historically marginalized, intrusive thoughts about people’s identity groups can be especially troubling.
They can feel extra tricky to approach because we might very well have a co-occurring implicit bias. When I was in high school, I suffered from intense sexual orientation OCD (SO-OCD). While at my core I truly valued equitable rights and dignity for people of all sexual orientations, I also felt terrified of being anything other than straight.
On the one hand, implicit bias and internalized homophobia, inherited from the community and wider society I grew up in, led to a subconscious belief that queer people lived lives that were less fulfilling and not “normal.”
It took me longer to recognize my intrusive thoughts as intrusive, and made them all the more terrifying because I had a foundation of homophobia—it felt almost impossible to untangle my beliefs and my thoughts. It took me the better part of a decade to voice my intrusive thoughts out loud. I couldn’t imagine mentioning them to the therapist I saw as a teenager because I felt too much shame around the concept of possibly being queer.
Maybe you feel this way, too, about sexist intrusive thoughts. You might worry that if you tell anyone about them, you’ll be labeled a misogynist and shunned. You might feel guilt, too, hoping that the women in your life never know about the thoughts you’re having. You know that they don’t align with your values, but your brain responds “But what if they do?”
As frustrating and confusing as intrusive thoughts related to aspects of identity like gender may be, there is effective, evidence-based treatment that can help. There are specially-trained therapists who understand that intrusive thoughts are not indicative of your values or character, and who can help you live with confidence in the values you hold dear.
To help me better understand the nature of sexist intrusive thoughts, I spoke with April Kilduff, a licensed therapist who has spent almost fifteen years treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Kilduff first explains that the term “intrusive thoughts” is a little misleading—intrusive thoughts can also present as images, urges, sensations, and feelings. She says they’re a “normal human phenomenon” and that everyone experiences them.
They are also referred to as ego-dystonic, meaning that they don’t align with our values, beliefs, or what we actually think. People without a condition like OCD are generally able to brush off these thoughts, recognize them as untrue to their values, and move on with their day. Those with OCD aren’t so lucky.
When OCD is present, our brains interpret intrusive thoughts as an urgent alarm. We believe our intrusive thoughts are emblematic of a real threat that we urgently need to deal with or figure out. This emotional, often panicked response leads to even more intrusive thoughts—when we try not to think about something, we actually end up thinking about it more. That’s why you might notice that the greater your distress and anxiety around your sexist intrusive thoughts, the louder and more frequent they become.
Intrusive thoughts vs. Implicit Bias
Intrusive thoughts are distinctly different from implicit bias. All of us experience implicit bias toward some group(s) of people, also referred to as unconscious bias, based on our identities and the communities we were raised in. Implicit bias occurs unintentionally and automatically, but still affects judgements, decisions, and behaviors.
Implicit bias is different from intrusive thoughts. Biases are beliefs or attitudes we hold. Intrusive thoughts are ideas, feelings, urges, and sensations often indicating things that we’re afraid of. While unchecked biases may cause you to act in a way that upholds your beliefs, intrusive thoughts do not uphold your beliefs or values, and don’t mean anything about how you’ll act. That’s what makes them intrusive and unwanted.
Implicit gender bias is not a personal defect, but a societal issue that, again, all of us experience in some way. It may not be our fault that we have bias, but it is our responsibility to recognize and challenge it. This is how you can prevent behaving from a place of bias. On the other hand, we are unable to prevent intrusive thoughts—we can only control how we respond to them.
Of course, you might have both implicit gender bias and intrusive thoughts that are sexist in nature. However, if these thoughts cause intense worry about the possibility of being sexist, this is likely a positive sign that you are ready and willing to challenge any implicit bias you may have.
Why are you having intrusive thoughts that are sexist?
As I’ve alluded, having recurring, sexist intrusive thoughts that bring you distress is most likely a sign of OCD. OCD attacks the things we care about and value. Kilduff says that OCD likes to come up with “the scariest version of you.” It’s also dubbed the “doubting disorder” by some, as it causes us to doubt everything we know to be true about the world, ourselves, and our values.
Beyond intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings, OCD is marked by compulsions, which can be mental or physical. Examples of compulsions you might engage in in response to sexist intrusive thoughts include:
- Avoiding people, places, or things that trigger intrusive thoughts; for example, you may avoid hanging out with friends of other genders
- Mentally reviewing past experiences with women and people of other genders, combing through every detail to assess whether your actions or words were sexist
- “Checking” your body or thoughts for urges or sensations that would be sexist, controlling, or harmful toward women or other genders
- Reassuring yourself, repeating thoughts like, “I am a good person. I would never really believe that.”
- Conducting excessive research online to find a definitive answer on whether or not you’re sexist
Based on the subtypes, or themes, of OCD that we currently have language for, this would be best categorized as scrupulosity OCD, sometimes referred to as responsibility OCD. Scrupulosity OCD occurs when one has intrusive thoughts around breaking their moral, ethical, or religious values.
However, OCD can truly latch onto anything. Kilduff says she’s started referring to this sort of theme as “social justice OCD.” As topics of social justice gain more and more coverage in the media and world around us—and matter more and more to real people—Kilduff says she’s seen a significant increase in people experiencing OCD symptoms related to social justice themes.
Remember, having intrusive thoughts that are sexist is not the same as being sexist, but if you think you may also have implicit bias that influences your beliefs and behavior about sex and gender, you can work to recognize and challenge those biases. In fact, doing so may build a sense of confidence in your values that helps you change how you react to your intrusive thoughts! At the end of this article, I’ll provide some resources for learning more about the history of gender discrimination, how it persists today, and what you can do to identify your own biases and make a difference for marginalized genders.
The goal of OCD or anxiety treatment is to accept uncertainty and imperfection. Especially in the case of social justice-related themes, we have to recognize that we are all works in progress: we can commit to accountability, do our best to examine our values and continuously work toward living those values, and learn to live with imperfection and uncertainty.
How can you get help?
Luckily, there is a highly effective, evidence-based treatment for OCD and anxiety disorders. It’s called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). It involves gradually exposing to your fears, providing you the opportunity not to engage in compulsive behaviors and mental actions.
Kilduff gives me some examples of potential exposure exercises designed for people struggling with sexist intrusive thoughts:
- Writing down the worst-case scenario about being sexist
- Writing down a word or phrase relating to the individual’s specific trigger for sexist intrusive thoughts
- Reading #MeToo stories
- Watching movies or TV shows with misogynistic characters
You would begin with the exposures that bring you the least amount of discomfort, working your way up to more difficult ones. You won’t be forced into anything you don’t want to do, but your therapist will encourage you to do difficult things so that you can learn to tolerate anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty.
As you face these fears while not performing compulsions, guided by your therapist, you train your brain to stop seeing intrusive thoughts as threats or indications of your character. You build your tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty, learning to accept unwanted thoughts while focusing instead on your values and intentions.
Naturally, ERP will feel hard at first. Challenging the OCD cycle, which may be ingrained in you, will feel scary and unnatural. Over time, though, you’ll notice your distress decrease as your intrusive thoughts and ensuing compulsions decrease. You may even find that remaining actively committed to your values of not being sexist, alongside ERP, helps to decrease your fear of future sexist intrusive thoughts.
When I left my community of origin for a city where queer people lived openly and proudly, I was able to further invest in my value of viewing all sexual orientations as valid, none of them being “bad” or “wrong.”
Though I still wanted to “get to the bottom” of my sexual orientation, I learned to be open to possibility and uncertainty—even if it wasn’t always comfortable. This naturally decreased the intensity of the alarm bells that went off in my head when intrusive thoughts and doubts came.
Resources for challenging sexist beliefs or bias
This section itself may trigger some anxiety. Still, because you are reading this article and, therefore, value not being sexist, I want to offer some resources for challenging sexist beliefs or implicit gender bias. Keep in mind that addressing sexism is less about you and more about the history—past and contemporary— that has upheld gender oppression and inequality, and how you can be a part of positive change.
If you’re interested, check out:
- These implicit bias tests from Harvard. There’s one that tests the link between women and liberal arts versus men and science, and another that tests women’s association with the home versus men’s association with careers.
- These documentaries, all on Netflix, that center women, gender equality movements, and other efforts for and by people of marginalized genders.
- This essential reads on feminism list from the New York Public Library.
- These feminist Instagram accounts.
How to seek help for uncomfortable intrusive thoughts and compulsions
It’s a positive thing to care about other people and your impact on them. Distressing intrusive thoughts and disruptive compulsions, however, are not positive things for your life—you don’t need them to be a “good” person.
If thoughts like these are keeping you from living the life you want to live, I encourage you to find the professional help you deserve—even if the decision to open up is a difficult one. As a first step, I recommend that you read more about NOCD’s evidence-based, holistic approach to treatment for OCD and anxiety.