On obsessing over disturbing thoughts

We all have many thoughts in a given day. Most of them tend to be neutral, some are pleasant and then, alas, some can be quite disturbing. Regarding the last group, these thoughts tend to arise suddenly, can seem inexplicable and are found to be disturbing because they do not 'seem like me'. From the guy that has the sudden thought of pushing the elderly gentleman down the escalator to the mother that has the image of throwing her baby out of the window, these thoughts have the attended quality of 'not me' because they violate the person's moral code, and their sense of who they are. This article is written for those people who have become troubled by them to the point that they obsess over them.

I wish to make two important points about how to cope better with these disturbing thoughts:

1) The first important thing to keep in mind is that research has indicated that most people have disturbing thoughts now and again. This means that the thoughts themselves are not the issue, but rather how you respond to them.

What distinguishes those who start to obsess over these thoughts from those that don't become troubled by them is that the former group tend to lend great significance to these thoughts. More pointedly: those that get troubled by these disturbing thoughts come to believe, explicitly or implicitly, that these thoughts have exposed a 'dark', 'sinister' side to their personality that undermines their sense of being a good person.

Given that this is the case, the most direct way of addressing these troubling thoughts is to do what other people do, namely to see them as just thoughts, without any great significance and certainly not as some malign indicator of how you 'really' are. Your moral code that you live by does not desert you as soon as you have a thought that is in conflict with that code, otherwise your behaviour would be distinctly different after having one of these thoughts.

So when you next have one of these disturbing thoughts, just witness it, don't fight it or wish too ardently that it goes away (a sure-fire recipe that it stays longer), but see it as only a thought, one of many and of no great significance (even if it is unpleasant). Over time detaching from the thought and seeing it as insignificant should make it a less prominent part of your mental furniture.

2) Apart from people assuming that the thought tells them something about their personality, another reason that people obsess over disturbing thoughts is that they believe, on some level at least, that the mere thinking of a bad act is as bad as committing that act. In other words, that the thought and the act are fused together and thinking is acting.

To help dispel this notion, consider the following scenario:

You are walking along the street one day and you notice, all of a sudden, a burning building and you hear distinct notes of distress emanating from the place. With no one around, you decide on impulse to run into the building and you manage to rescue everyone trapped in the fire. Afterwards, your community hails you as a hero, and you win a variety of awards for having saved those people's lives.

No doubt this Walter Mitty-like fantasy is not unpleasant, as few people would not wish to be considered justifiably as a hero. Here is the key point, though: I seriously doubt that you believed that thinking about this scenario actually made you a hero, that you had, in fact, committed a very brave and good act. 

So from a logical point of view, if thinking about a heroic act doesn't make you a hero, then a disturbing thought about a wrongful act doesn't make you a bad person. This is because moral judgements are based primarily on our actions, not on our fleeting thoughts, whether they be heroic or otherwise.

For those people who wish more information on this topic, please consult the book 'The Imp of the mind' by Lee Baer. As always, if you feel that you are not making headway with your disturbing thoughts, please consult a professional counsellor.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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