Yucky Thoughts and What to Do about Them

On long car rides when I was growing up, I would ride with my older brother in the back seat of our four-door sedan. My brother would invariably get bored and look for ways to bother me. One of his most effective ways was slowly putting his index finger really close to my eye over and over again without touching me. I found this extremely difficult to ignore. I would predictably get upset by this and yell to my parents, “Mom! Dad! Brad is bothering me!” And my brother, in his genius, would always have the same response: “I haven’t even touched her!” He had figured out a perfect way to drive me up the wall… and I had a hard time not letting it get to me. As an adult, I know that if I had just ignored him, he would have lost interest and gone back to his comic book, but by giving into his bullying, I gave him the power and value he wanted.

So why am I recounting this story from my childhood? I often think of this memory when it comes to what are known as intrusive thoughts. An intrusive thought is an unwanted, unpleasant thought or image that pops into your mind, usually when you least expect it. Intrusive thoughts can come in the form of sexual, violent, or harmful thoughts, or they can be neutral, repetitive, meaningless, or annoying. They can be thoughts about getting sick, offending God, harming someone or ourself, wondering whether our partner is right for us or we love them, or any number of other upsetting themes that, if interpreted incorrectly, can interfere with who we believe we are and how we think we’ll behave. We all have intrusive thoughts from time to time, and if we don’t know how to manage them, they can increase our anxiety and become more bothersome.

And yet intrusive thoughts are just like my brother’s finger close to my eye, begging for my attention. When I responded to him and gave him my attention, his behavior got worse and more annoying. Similarly, the more attention you give intrusive thoughts and the more you take them seriously—by trying to push them away or spend time worrying about them—the more power they’ll have in your life.

These thoughts might feel important, but in reality, they are just thoughts. If you go, “Oh, that’s an odd thought” and move on without concern, knowing we all get weird thoughts, you’ll be fine. It’s if you start to delve into the thought as though it means something about you, well, that’s when you’re likely to fight it, give it power, and find it popping into your head more and more. Once we have placed meaning on these thoughts and given them our attention, they have more power over us. Just like my brother!

When such intrusive thoughts pop up, you can notice that you had that thought and let it go. Don’t engage with it, try to get rid of it, or try to figure out what its presence means about you. You could say, “OK, fine, moving on now” and then re-engage in what you are doing. Remember: the less energy and focus you give an intrusive thought, the better. When you simply notice and accept these thoughts and move forward, you are telling the thought that it has no value in your life.

You have a choice. We have thoughts all day long about all kinds of things, and having a thought we like less than other thoughts doesn’t mean anything about us and also doesn’t mean we will act on the thought. When you have an intrusive thought, your response to that thought will determine whether you are deciding it is important or not.

Intrusive thoughts are not bothersome to some and annoying to others. And to some, they are enormously distressing and upsetting. If you are having intrusive thoughts that are increasing your anxiety, counseling can be extremely helpful. Counseling can help you view these thoughts as normal but not terribly important and help you find different strategies for responding to them differently.

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