Anxiety Files

Simple and powerful techniques for coping with anxiety and worry.

Are You Afraid of Your Thoughts?

How obsessive people think of their thoughts.

obsessive
A number of people have written to me about their unwanted, obsessive thoughts, after I published my article on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder some time ago—Those Damn Unwanted Thoughts.

Of particular note have been people who wrote about their fear that they “might be gay” because 1) they have a thought, “I might be gay”, they believe that 2) it would be terrible if they were gay and 3) having a thought is a sign that you are gay. Now certainly if someone is gay it is an important period of growth and courage to recognize that this is the case and to embrace one’s true identity. Not to sound like a cliché, but there is nothing “wrong” with being gay, but there is something dehumanizing in rejecting one’s true identity. However, the people who are writing to me indicate that their sexual history is heterosexual, they do not feel aroused by gay fantasies, and that they are troubled by these thoughts. So I thought I would address some of these issues here.

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Here is how obsessive people think of their thoughts (from my book, Anxiety Free):

People who suffer from OCD have certain characteristic ways of evaluating their own obsessive thoughts. These often take the form of false beliefs that not only distort reality, but strengthen the obsessions. I have listed below problematic ways of thinking about your thoughts and some possible realistic and helpful ways of challenging your intolerance of these thoughts. See if any of this fits you.

  • My thoughts are abnormal.  The things that go through my head are totally weird. Other people don’t have thoughts like this. There must be something wrong with me.

The obsessive person believes that the thought, “I might be gay”, is unusual, weird, and unique to him or her. But isn’t it possible that anyone can have this thought? What is so “wrong” or “weird” about having a thought? What if you normalized any thought as acceptable?

  • My thoughts are dangerous.  Imagining a certain reality could make it come true. If I can’t control or eliminate the images in my mind, there will be terrible consequences. The more I think about bad things happening, the more likely it is that they’ll happen.

The obsessive believes that they must rid their mind of the “unwanted thought” that they are gay lest it come true and they unravel, lose control, and experience terrible consequences. This is a form of “thought-action fusion” where you believe that your thoughts and images will become reality. Of course you can have the thought that there are white bears dancing in the waiting room but –--if you look-there will be no white bears.

  • I can control my thoughts.  If I keep bad thoughts from entering my mind, they can’t exert power over me. I can influence the kind of thoughts I have through effort and will power. Giving my thoughts free reign is too dangerous to be an option.

This is a form of “Pure Mind” thinking where you believe that you need to rid your mind of any unwanted thoughts. But the mind is a noisy place, filled with lots of information—most of it irrelevant.

Moreover, the more you try to suppress the thought about white bears the more likely you will have these thoughts.

  • I need to be perfect.  It’s not tolerable when things don’t go exactly as I need them to. The slightest mistake can set off a chain reaction in which everything will unravel. I must maintain vigilance at all times.

The fear is that one has to have pure thoughts—and only pure thoughts—and that allowing anything else in will lead to a chain reaction. So, you may be “watching for those thoughts”---“Maybe I am gay”—and, sure enough, you find them. Try this--- watch for any thoughts of white bears and see if some of those bears pop up. If you watch for something you are destined to find it. That’s because to tell yourself, “Watch for white bear thoughts”, means that you have to think about a white bear first.

  • I am totally responsible.  It’s my fault that these thoughts have arisen; I need to take responsibility for them so that nothing bad will happen. That means doing everything I can to keep them from getting out of control.

You may think that having these thoughts means that you may want something and that you are responsible for having these thoughts. So, now you think you are responsible for getting rid of them. But what if you thought of thoughts as random “firing” of neurons with no particular meaning? After all, you didn’t sit down at 2:30 on Tuesday and decide to have these thoughts.

  • I must have certainty.  I can’t tolerate not knowing things for sure. Uncertainty means an inability to control. If I am to feel comfortable, all dangers must be identified and all risks eliminated.

You are thinking, “Well, there is no guarantee that I am not gay if I have these thoughts”. Yes, there is no guarantee about anything, but that does not mean that anything bad will happen. Living with uncertainty is the first step in living in the real world. Trying to eliminate uncertainty is like chasing the air. It never works.

More about how to handle your obsessions in my next post.

Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., is the author of Anxiety Free,The Worry Cure and Beat the Blues. He is Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School. more...

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