What does it mean to “sit with unwanted, intrusive thoughts” and how does someone with OCD do it? Especially when the thoughts are frequent and intense.
If you’re like most people you’ve got weird, sometimes scary thoughts. If you’ve got OCD, how you experience those thoughts can get very complicated and time-consuming.
An OCD therapist won’t analyze your thoughts. Instead you’ll be shown how to “sit” with your thoughts. “Sitting” with your thoughts doesn’t necessarily involve a chair. It means “experiencing” your thoughts in an accepting way.
No matter how ugly or bad, just allow the thoughts to be in your mind. Do nothing compulsive to get rid of the thoughts. Do nothing to get rid of the anxiety that comes with the thoughts.
What follows is a conversation I often have with clients about how to sit with thoughts. Warning: This conversation may increase your anxiety. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Client: My mind is a constant chatterbox. I’m not getting a break from my thoughts.
Me: What are the thoughts about?
Client: I’m worried I might hurt people. I know I never would in a million years. But, it’s the kind of OCD I have. I’m worried something bad will happen.
Me: Are those thoughts wanted?
Client: No! They’re totally unwanted!
Me: Are they intrusive?
Client: Believe me these thoughts interfere with my life. I can’t even concentrate.
Me: So they’re pushy.
While you’re trying to do other things the thoughts hammer away at you. Like a sideshow playing in your head?
Client: Yeah. It’s a sideshow and it’s not fun. I’m frightened by these thoughts. Sometimes it’s not just a show playing off to the side. It’s the only show playing in my head!
Me: So sometimes you aren’t doing anything else but having the thoughts.
Client: Yeah there are days I’m in an OCD trance.
Me: What are you trying to accomplish when you’re in this trance?
Client: I’m trying to feel certain that nothing bad happened or is going to happen.
Me: You’ve spent 100’s of hours trying to get certainty?
Client: Probably 1000’s of hours.
Me: How’s it going? Have you achieved certainty about this yet?
Client: Not yet. Why? Is there another way to get rid of the sideshow?
Me: You can get rid of the sideshow by playing the sideshow.
Client: I don’t get it. You want me to voluntarily play the sideshow? This sideshow isn’t fun!
Me: Yeah, gladly let the sideshow play. In fact, invite the thoughts.
Client: You want me to welcome the thoughts that scare me?
Me: It’s not the thoughts that scare you. It’s your interpretation of the thoughts that scare you. It’s the way you experience the thoughts. Lots of people get the same weird thoughts as you, but don’t get scared by them. OCD makes you experience the thoughts as if they’re real. You can change the way you experience the thoughts.
Client: Well, my OCD makes me think about hurting people. Don’t you think that’s pretty scary?
Me: Your OCD doesn’t make you think about hurting people. That sort of thought crosses everybody’s mind at one time or another. The way you experience such a thought…your opinion of that thought…that’s OCD.
Client: Well, I don’t like these thoughts and I’m trying to get rid of them. That’s what I want.
Me: That’s what I mean by changing the way you experience the thoughts. In all your efforts to get rid of the thoughts…using compulsions and mental acts…the reassurance-seeking…has the sideshow ever stopped?
Client: It might take a while to get the compulsion to work but, yes…I can stop the sideshow and get relief by using a compulsion.
Me: For how long do you feel relief? How long before you’ve got to do another compulsion or mental act? How long before you need more reassurance?
Client: It could be minutes.
Client: Yes, sometimes.
Me: How’s this technique of yours working out? Is your brain resetting and learning anything new about fear when you do a compulsion. Haven’t you become a reassurance-junkie?
Client: Okay, I get it. It’s not working well. I waste a lot of time and it hurts my relationships. I avoid anything that triggers my thoughts.
Me: So let’s turn up the volume on the sideshow!
Client: You want me turn up the volume? I thought you’d show me how to turn down the volume!
Me: I am!
Client: By turning up the volume, I’m turning down the volume?
Me: Maybe! (No reassurance from this therapist!) Wanna try it?
Client: Oh wow. I don’t know. How do I just let the thoughts be there?
Me: It all comes down to one thing. It’s not about the content of your thoughts. What you’re thinking really doesn’t matter. It’s about your opinion of your thoughts. Right now you’re opinion of the thoughts are that they’re unwanted and intrusive. Yes?
Me: What if you experience these thoughts in a different way? Stop thinking of them as interfering and disruptive? Just keep doing whatever you need or want to do even though there are horrific thoughts playing in your mind.
Client: I do that most of the time. I go on about my business but the thoughts are still there! I don’t want these thoughts!
Me: What if you weren’t resisting these thoughts? Would you be in such pain and agony?
Client: How can I not resist such frightening thoughts? These thoughts feel real to me. I’ve got to resist them. I’ve got to prove I’m not a danger to anyone.
Me: What if you welcome and invite the thoughts?
Client: If I invite the thoughts I’ll become my thought. I’ll do bad things.
Me: Well, let’s test that out. If you think the thought, “Tammy I’m going to kill you.” Let’s see if that happens.
Client: No, I don’t want to kill you. I don’t want to think that.
Me: So you if you think it, it will happen? Okay, don’t think about killing me. Don’t do it. Stop thinking about killing me.
Client: Oh man…I can’t help it. You put it in my mind. I’m thinking it now.
Me: Great let’s see if you kill me. Here, let’s give you a knife.
Me: So you’re holding a knife and thinking about killing me. Have you become your thoughts?
Client: No. I haven’t killed you.
Me: Thanks I appreciate that. Does your thought about killing me end up being dangerous or unpleasant?
Me: Is that something to be afraid of—an unpleasant feeling?
Client: No. I don’t need to be afraid of something unpleasant. I can handle discomfort.
Me: Instead of saying these thoughts are unwanted and intrusive say, “These thoughts are fine to have. They’re unpleasant but I can tolerate them. In fact, I invite them to stay in my mind.”
Client: That’s easier said than done.
Me: C’mon you can’t convince me trying to obtain certainty about anything is easy. No matter which way you go…it’s hard. You’re willing to work hard to get certainty. How about working just as hard to live with uncertainty?
Client: No, you’re right. I spend hours trying to get certainty with a compulsion. What do you mean by inviting these ugly thoughts?
Me: Hint…stop calling them ugly. Call them fascinating. It’s a PARADOXICAL approach. It contradicts logic. It’s absurd but that’s how you defy OCD. It’s using REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY on OCD.
Client: Will this get rid of the thoughts?
Me: OMG! Stop trying to get rid of the thoughts!!! The thoughts need to be experienced. Just change the way you experience them.
I used to hate math class. I would excessively hum so that I’d get kicked out of the classroom. That wasn’t working out too well when it was time to take a test. My brain hadn’t learned anything by being in the hallway. So I decided I better stop humming and start listening. I stopped resisting having to be there. I changed the way I experienced math class. I willingly attended the class. My brain got updated and my grades improved.
⇒Awesome Life Changing Tip: Don’t resist your thoughts. Don’t try to think about them less. Think about them more. “I am open and willing to experience these thoughts and feelings.”
Warning: If you have “Hit and Run” OCD the following two paragraphs may increase your anxiety. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
A person with “Hit and Run” OCD will do everything they can to get certainty that they haven’t hit anybody. They try not to go anywhere that involves driving. If they do drive, they’ll spend hours circling back looking for bodies, watching the news, checking their car or just waiting until no one is around before they move their car.
Here’s a script using a paradoxical approach: Even though there are pedestrians walking around I’m just going to drive away and not look back. I’m not going to go back and check to see if I hit someone. I’m not going to check the news. I might have hit someone. There’s probably body parts dangling form the grill of my bumper. But I’m not going to check. There might be a trail of blood leading from the scene of the accident right to my house. The police are going to follow the blood and put me in jail. My family will disown me. I’ll be shunned forever. I don’t know if I ran anybody over. But, I’m not going to go back and check. I want to live my life. I’ve got to move on.”
True, using “Reverse Psychology” or a “Paradoxical Approach” is counterintuitive. It doesn’t feel right. Your emotions will tell you this is wrong and to stop it. But, as wrong as it feels, it’s the next right thing to do.
What You Will Discover
It’s hard to be anxious when you want to be anxious. When you soften into the anxiety it softens too. The byproduct of learning to tolerate anxiety is less anxiety. It’s not the goal, it’s the bonus. Keep your focus on the tedious process, not the result.
Where You Might Get Stuck
It’s unpleasant to accept weird, scary thoughts. You won’t like it. But, how’s resisting thoughts working out? Either way you’ll be anxious. But, only one way will set you free.
You’ll get frustrated because even when you start to accept the thoughts, they’ll keep coming. It takes time for your brain to make the adjustment. But, because you have stepped out side of your comfort zone, you’ll want to quit letting the thoughts be there. You’ll have to fight a strong urge to give in to compulsions for the quick fix. Don’t quit the day before you were going to feel better!
It doesn’t feel right to think about the thoughts more. Your anxiety tells you to think about them less. It’s counterintuitive to bring on unpleasant thoughts. It’s not logical. But neither is OCD. You’ve got to fight irrational with irrational. Illogical with illogical. I know, I know, it’s backwards!
How to Make it Real and Take Action
- Click above on the words PARADOXICAL and REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY to follow the links. Try to gain a clear understanding of what it means to be paradoxical. (If anyone wants to leave an anonymous comment about an example please do!)
- Write a script that is applicable to your own fear. Similar to the one above regarding “Hit and Run” OCD. One of the most awesome books with pre-written scripts is: Freedom From Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Johnathan Grayson.
- Practice saying,“Good there’s my thought. How fascinating. I can’t wait for the next one.”
- Focus on the process of being paradoxical, not the result of being paradoxical.
- Keep on keepin’ on no matter how counterintuitive (wrong) it feels.
- Use your dry sense of humor when you’re being paradoxical.
- Be kind to yourself. Courage lives within your kindness.
You can change the way you experience your thoughts! You can’t control your thoughts but you can control how you react to them!