Do You Have Doubts About Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts?

Morphing and meta-level Content: Your thoughts about thoughts are still thoughts

Posted Nov 27, 2019

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We receive frequent inquiries in the form of requests for reassurance that a particular sticky unwanted thought qualifies to be treated as a bonafide unwanted intrusive thought. People offer the content of their stuck thought, or they offer a catastrophic thought about their stuck thought. They implicitly ask us to validate that this, too, is meaningless, despite how dangerous or disturbing the content. 

We label these as yes-but doubts: “Yes, but what about__?”  

Typical “yes, buts” include: “You don’t list my particular thought.” “But it feels like I want to do this horrible thing I don’t want to do.” “I tried your advice and now I am comfortable having a terrible thought. I must be sick because it was way too easy.” “ I got okay with this thought, but then suddenly I started having a different even worse thought.” “Now all I am thinking is what if the thought comes back.” Or commonly, “What if I am wrong and my thought is true?”

There are two essential points. First, unwanted intrusive thoughts are recognized not by their content, but by how they feel and how they act.  

Second, thoughts about thoughts are also thoughts, and they behave just the same way, getting stuck when you take the content too seriously.  As we have talked about in earlier posts, the fuel that maintains the intensity and repetitiveness of any thought is our struggle to get rid of it.  

If we start examining the thought for its truth or falsehood, or for what it implies about us or the world, we risk being hijacked by content and lose our ability to step back, stop struggling and accept and allow the thought to dissipate and pass on its own.  

But how can it be that the content of the thought does not matter? What an extraordinary concept. Certainly, there are some thoughts that do matter. Indeed, thoughts we think deliberately, as we try to solve a problem or make an observation, evaluate a situation or plan a course of action—these thoughts matter. 

Yet there are other thoughts, indeed, most of our thoughts, that are automatic associations, conditioned, random, silly, and weird, and they pass through our minds in an endless flow. If we do not seize them, they just go by. If we make meaning out of the content of these thoughts, we are bothered. We may try to push them away and thus we can turn almost anything into a torturous repetitive unwanted intrusive thought.

Actually, we are quite capable of disentangling or defusing the meaning of words from their content. Here is an example: You receive an email that reads:

Congratulations! You have just inherited 2 million US dollars from some long-lost relative in {foreign land}. Just click on this link, enter your bank routing information, and you will soon receive your inheritance. (This idea is from Carbonell, The Worry Trick, 2016)

None of us would take the content of that email seriously. The context (what we actually know about our circumstances and how email scams work) tells us not to get excited. The content, here is some free money, is not the message, which is actually let’s see if you are fool enough to believe this content

When you send this email to spam, you are defusing or disentangling from the content. In the same way, it is possible to treat a passing mind-spam with benign neglect and disregard the content. The context will allow you to see that these thoughts, the opposite of who you are and what you value, are the way your sticky mind is trying to scam you and get you involved.

So, if the content is not how you identify thoughts worth considering versus thoughts of no value, how do you identify unwanted intrusive thoughts? It is how they feel and act? They feel terrible, and they act in a way that is stuck, looping, repetitive and intrusive. 

They arrive, either triggered by an event or apparently at random, “out of the blue,” with a whoosh of anxiety or distress, and they seem to demand urgent attention. When you resist them, they come back. Eventually, they are stronger and more frequent, waylay your attention, and can make you miserable, guilty, or anxious, no matter how your life is going.

In the natural course of a sticky mind, content morphs. It can morph along one theme (eg. harm to others, first worry about having unknowingly caused an accident, then it becomes the worry about having insulted someone, then it hooks onto that glass you broke, and did you pick up every shard?)  or along with many different themes (e.g is that spot skin cancer? Could I have bed bugs? Did I plagiarize without intending to? Why can’t I stop that song in my head?).

Content can also go meta: You can focus on stuck thoughts about your stuck thoughts. This looks like “Maybe my last unwanted intrusive thought was actually a red flag, what if I ignored it and I shouldn’t have?” "What if this is not OCD even though I think it is?” “This thought doesn’t bother me so much anymore. What kind of person am I who doesn’t care about doing such a horrible thing.” 

Morphing (changing content) can be day to day, hour to hour. Or one content can last for years and then suddenly become different content. One thought can disappear and be replaced by another as if there is a space vacuum that needs something in it. None of it matters. Because the content is worthless. You can tell by how it feels and acts, not what it is about.

Stuff only gets stuck if you are hooked by content; otherwise, it will just float by if you give it the time to pass. Your sticky mind can be very tricky. So, when you find yourself in those thinking loops, ask yourself if you are experiencing morphing or meta-worry rise above the content, and float past.