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Nine Myths that Contribute to Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

Bust these myths to keep your thoughts from getting stuck.

Photo by Manyu VarmPhoto by Manyu Varma
Source: Photo by Manyu VarmPhoto by Manyu Varma

There are nine myths about thoughts in general that contribute to intrusive thoughts becoming stuck. Busting these myths with facts will go a long way toward helping keep such thoughts from getting stuck.

Myth 1: Our Thoughts Are Under Our Control

Fact: Many of our thoughts—perhaps most of our thoughts—are not under conscious control. There are times when we welcome this fact: An insight or inspiration can help solve a problem. Ask a poet or songwriter how she finds lyrics, and she might say it just comes to her.

Belief in this myth leads to the common but unhelpful suggestion to replace negative thoughts with positive ones because that this will help you control what you think. The facts indicate that you can deliberately think positive thoughts and distract your attention, temporarily, from unwanted thoughts to chosen ones. But thoughts you are trying to replace tend to persist and usually return even more forcefully. Research has shown that the more distressing the thought, the stronger the rebound after trying to suppress it. (Wegner)

Myth 2: Our Thoughts Indicate Our Character

Fact: Thoughts have nothing to do with character. Character is a reflection of how you lead your life and what you actually choose to do or not to do. Thoughts are what pass through your mind. Character is about the choices you make in life, not what pops into your mind. Everyone has pop-up thoughts they do not approve of.

Myth 3: Our Thoughts Indicate the Inner Self

This is the belief that whatever is in our mind is a reflection of our true thoughts and feelings, no matter how we might protest.

Fact: Everyone has passing weird, aggressive, or crazy thoughts. If every thought spoke to underlying character, then 90 percent of people would be weird, aggressive, or crazy. That is because about 90 percent of people acknowledge having intrusive thoughts that they characterize as weird, aggressive, frightening, or crazy. And think about popular horror movies and TV shows: These awful, weird, aggressive, and crazy scenarios are thought up by normal, creative people.

Myth 4: The Unconscious Mind Can Affect Actions

Fact: Analyzing the meaning of Freudian slips, automatic associations, and dreams are popular ways of trying to understand the complex workings of the unconscious mind. But the momentary thought of dropping your baby certainly does not reveal any unconscious wish to do harm. And the sudden thought that you could jump off the balcony because the railing is low does not reveal hidden unconscious suicidal wishes. A moment of doubt about sexual attraction or identity is not a “signal from below” that you are ignoring latent tendencies.

Myth 5: Thinking Something Makes It Likely to Happen

Fact: This is a complete misunderstanding of what is known about thoughts. Psychologists call this myth thought-action fusion (Rachman 1993, Salkovskis 1985) or magical thinking. The fact is that a thought is not a message about what is going to happen. Similarly, a thought is not a prediction or warning of an awful future action or occurrence. Thoughts do not warn of plane crashes, automobile accidents, or natural disasters. And certainly our thoughts cannot make actions or events happen. Thoughts do not change probabilities in the real world. They do not move objects, nor can they hurt people.

Myth 6: Thinking Something Makes It Unlikely to Happen

This is the exact opposite of myth 5. An example is worrying about someone as a way of protecting them.

Fact: Thoughts do not change probabilities in the real world. While worrying about someone might make you feel like you are doing something to protect them, in reality you are only training your brain to reinforce a cycle of worry.

Myth 7: Only Sick People Have Intrusive or Weird Thoughts

Fact: No one is entirely free of weird, repugnant, or disturbing passing thoughts. This means that just about everyone you know, including friends, colleagues, teachers, and doctors have also experienced intrusive thoughts. In fact, even Mother Theresa confirmed that she had unwanted intrusive thoughts (Teresa 2009). So do your favorite celebrity and your pastor.

Myth 8: Every Thought is Worth Thinking About

Fact: Like cable TV, we have many different channels of thought going through our minds at the same time. It is impossible to think about them all, and some channels are just full of junk (like the infomercial channel or the local high school announcements). Not all are worthwhile to think about. But when an intrusive thought arrives with a whoosh—no matter the content—then, if you believe that all thoughts are worth thinking about (i.e., you believe that there are no junk channels of the mind), you might choose to focus on that one thought and grant it meaning and attention it does not deserve. Your attention may be hijacked by junk.

Myth 9: Thoughts That Repeat Are Important

Fact: The importance or meaning of a thought has little to do with how much it repeats. Thoughts tend to repeat if they are resisted or pushed away. Any thought that you attempt to squash is more likely to keep repeating, like “Don’t think about that itchy spot,” or “Stop noticing the piece of food in her teeth.”

When we invest energy in any thought, it builds up neural connections and makes the thought more likely to happen (Pittman and Karle 2015). This applies to any thought, regardless of its importance. The simple fact is that attempts to keep certain thoughts from coming into your mind are what makes them come round again and feel stuck.

Believing even some of these myths can be responsible for ordinary intrusive thoughts becoming stuck. Knowing the facts will make intrusive thoughts less likely to stick.

More from Martin Seif Ph.D. ABPP and Sally Winston Psy.D.
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