Why Is the Content of Intrusive Thoughts So Awful?

Violence, blasphemy, abuse, and tormenting doubts are common themes.

Posted Oct 28, 2019

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Source: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

People often want to know why unwanted intrusive thoughts have such terrible content. Common ones include: harming a loved one, impulsively killing oneself, a sudden weird doubt about sexual orientation or identity, blasphemy, sexual abuse of all variations, turning into a mass shooter.

There is a common but mistaken belief that having repeated “bad thoughts” means that you are, down deep, a “bad” person. Or that these thoughts are unconscious expressions of wishes. Believe it or not, the opposite is true.

You might wonder how that can be. To answer, let’s take a look at what goes into making a thought get stuck.

First, everyone—yes everyone!—has passing intrusive thoughts. They range from “Wait! Did I bring my cell phone with me?” to “What if I drop the baby?” to “I can push that guy onto the tracks.” These thoughts are usually quite ordinary, but they can also seem bizarre, weird, or funny. They come from out of the blue and we usually forget about them soon afterward. Insights are intrusive thoughts, as well as creative moments. Poets, authors, problem-solvers, moms, dads, all have thoughts that intrude from out of the blue.

Second, neurologists know your brain is processing a huge number of thoughts and feelings at any given time. Right now, as you are reading these words, you are vaguely aware of whether you are hot or cold, thirsty, tired, what’s happening with the rest of your day, do these words make sense, did you eat too big (or small) a breakfast, should you be using your time reading this, you have to buy milk, pick up the kid from school, make the dentist appointment, etc. 

Your stream of consciousness is more like a mighty river than a babbling brook! Our minds are broadband, and yet we can only process just three to seven mental events at any given time. Most of what goes through our mind never makes it into our awareness.

So how does our brain know what to focus on? We automatically focus on things that either seem dangerous, urgent or else “violate” our expectancies. Here is what I mean by violate: You come home, flip on the light, and hang your coat in the closet. You barely pay any attention to flipping on the light, and you barely remember doing it. But, and this is important, if you flip on the light and nothing happens, your expectation of the light going on is violated. So you focus your attention on it. 

Another example: If you drive a certain way to work every day, you might barely remember driving on any given day. But if your usual right turn onto Main Street is detoured, your expectation of that right turn is violated, and you will focus your attention on the process of getting to work. A violated expectation snaps your attention onto that aspect of your stream of consciousness. Importantly, the stronger the feeling you have about that violation, the more it sticks in your mind.

These three simple facts about the way your brain works:

  1. Everyone has passing intrusive thoughts
  2. Consciousness is broadband, but we are only aware of just a few channels at any moment
  3. We focus on things that seem dangerous, urgent or violate our expectancy, lay the groundwork for the content of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.

Now, imagine you love chocolate, and you have the fleeting intrusive thought, “Chocolate is no good.” That would seem odd: It would violate your sense of yourself (at least with regard to chocolate). You might start to wonder: “Does that mean I don’t really like chocolate?” “Is my unconscious mind telling me that I have to keep away from chocolate?" Or “Is any other message behind that intrusive thought?” 

You would then put that thought on your “watch list.” After all, you would want to make sure you don’t have any more thoughts like that.

Why do you put any thought on your “watch list? Because you are trying to prevent thoughts like that from crossing your mind again. And, of course, as soon as you try not to have a thought, it keeps coming back and will get stuck in your mind no matter what you do. You soon become worried about yourself. 

A psychologist named Daniel Wegner studied this in the 1980s and the 1990s. He called it the Ironic Effect. It’s simple. Try this experiment. For the next two minutes, try not to think of pink elephants. You can think of any other thought of any kind, but you must keep pink elephants out of your mind. Set a timer for two minutes. Get ready, get set, go. 

How did you do? Most people find that they are unable to keep pink elephants out of their minds. The lesson learned: Trying to keep a thought out of your mind actually makes it more likely to get stuck in your mind. Effort works backward. Wegner found that neutral unimportant thoughts can be suppressed, but the more important or emotional the thought, the more it gets stuck and returns.

Suppose you are a peace-loving, gentle person, and you have the passing intrusive thought, “I could push that person into the ditch.” This would violate your sense of who you are. If you reacted to that thought like the chocolate lover reacted to “chocolate is no good,” you would put that thought on your watch list. And—guess what?—the thought would soon get stuck. And you would soon worry about being out of control or not as nice a person as you thought.

So the content of your intrusive thoughts, horrible as they might be, are the opposite of who you are, and how you see yourself. They are the exact opposite of a wish. They violate your sense of yourself. They are not messages from below.

This is why your best efforts work backward. The key isn’t trying harder. You probably try very hard indeed. The key is to try in a different way. And that means changing your beliefs about thoughts and your attitude towards stuck thoughts. It has to do with giving up the struggle because these thoughts really just don’t matter.

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Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(1), 5.