Ever tried to cut your hair in front of the mirror? Your hand keeps going to the wrong side of your head. What happens to your hand, happens continuously to our thoughts.
When you don’t want to think about something, your thoughts get drawn to it. But when you do want to think about something your thoughts are all over the place. Generally this doesn’t cause big problems but in OCD sometimes it does. This is the case with obsessive intrusions. It sounds more complicated than it actually is.
To intrude means to come uninvited or unwanted and that describes exactly what happens. Something forces its way into consciousness that is unwanted and not owned by the subject. It can be thoughts, fantasies, images or impulses of aggressive, self-destructive, sexual, racist or blasphemous nature.
A few examples: plugging your fingers into the power socket or putting your hand into a circular saw (spinning!), grabbing people in the crotch, licking people, pushing people in front of the train, jumping over the railing, throwing a baby out of the window, having sex with children, with animals, shoving a glass into someone’s face, using foul language, pulling your trousers down in the public, thinking “I want my grandma to die”, “If only my dad would get cancer”, “Turkish bastard” , “God’s a dirty asshole” etc.
For anyone who hasn’t had enough: in Lee Baer’s book The imp of the mind there is a list of 94 examples.
People are often well able to differentiate between thoughts they aren’t very proud about but which are their own and these other alien thoughts.
A man who suffered from sexual intrusions expressed it as follows: “I certainly have wishes, feelings, desires and impulses that I’m not proud of, but they are my own, thishowever isn’t my own ‘filth’”.
In psychoanalytical theory intrusions were seen as suppressed wishes and impulses. This approach is counterproductive and incorrect.
Most people have, at times, intrusive thoughts however in compulsive patients they cause severe agitation and deep shame. “What on earth makes me think these thoughts?” It is not known whether this occurs because the thoughts are more powerful or because they cause a cramped response. It is however known, that rejecting or neutralizing these sorts of ideas actually works to reinforce them.
Let them pass through
It’d be best if these thoughts could freely pass through you, as it were, in one ear and out the other. When fear or dislike make this unhindered passing through consciousness difficult, they will stay to torment.
A good understanding of what an intrusion actually is, can help to make reactions to them less cramped. They are not hidden, secret wishes! You can see them like the long wave radio interference that happened in the past. You’d be listening to your own channel and suddenly a weird (in my youth a Russian) foreign channel came through. That’s how you should see it, external noise, not your own music. Like thought snippets. But why do we have them?
All sort of things happen inside us, all the time, of which we are only partly conscious or totally unconscious. Amongst them are thoughts that are the exact opposite of what you wish. When we are holding something fragile, a flash of danger can be activated: oh dear, what if I let it drop. Imagine if I jump over the railing. Imagine if i just cut somebody with a knife. This imagining actually acts like a sort of warning to be extra careful: “Look out! Don’t jump across the railing! Don’t push someone in front of the train!”
In a column in the Dutch ADF (Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive and Phobia) foundation’s magazine professor Frits Boer says: “You should reverse these kind of intrusions. What they bring, is exactly what you don’t want.”
Don’t push it away, exaggerate it
With this awareness you can try to deprive these thoughts of their shameful, distressing side. They are snippets, not hidden wishes, not your own music, interference, noise. Everybody has them sometimes and maybe you more often than others. Sometimes this helps enough to be able to pay them no further attention.
What certainly doesn’t help, is pushing them away. If paying no attention to them doesn’t work, you can try to go in search of them and even exaggerate them. That is to say, you work out the full pattern of the intrusion. Or you think about the most horrible things you can think of. For example, you imagine pushing a lot of people in front of the train.
It’s like ghosts. If you find the courage to turn around instead of running away and you take a good look, it’s no more than a sheet of air. Ghosts float above the ground. They are not rooted to the ground. They’re foggy mists, they leave behind no footprint, they’re nothing.
The advice above on how to deal with it, only applies when you know they are obsessive intrusions. Lee Baer gives other helpful tips in his book “The imp of the mind”. But he also mentions a couple of situations when you shouldn’t try it on your own. In any case it’s often better to seek help when suffering from more pronounced obsessive intrusions and certainly when they last a long time.
So you shouldn’t let your intrusions worry you and you should stop your compulsive behaviours. Easily said but difficult to do. Professional help is often needed to find out how to manage it. Even then it isn’t always simple, but with good help improvement is often achievable. Shame often keeps people from looking for help. Understandable, but please don’t wait too long. OCD doesn’t often get better on it’s own. The longer you try to solve the problem by rejecting the thoughts, the stronger they get.
Every good therapist will immediately recognize that they are obsessive intrusions and won’t be at all surprised. I often notice that it’s an enormous relief to hear that it’s a recognised phenomenon, that there are more people who suffer from it and that they are not their own wishes but interference. A list of Dutch specialised centres for treatment can be found on our website and also the patient organisation ADF can help you out.
Someone who dared to take the step to seek help and went so far as to openly admitting to the problem on the Dutch television programme Lifelong OCD is Michiel. Read his blog A knife at my throat? for a behind the scenes story.