Unwanted Thoughts: Managing Our Relationship To Intrusive Thoughts

broken down door

Before getting too far, I want to make a disclaimer that the phrase Intrusive Thoughts is often spoken about in the context of OCD. I don’t have the expertise to cover the topic from a clinical angle. If this is your situation and you’re looking for specific content of that sort, this may not be the best article for you.

Have you ever been standing in line at the grocery store when a strange thought appears. What if I just punched the person behind me? Or maybe you’ve been driving and thought I want to crash my car into this building for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

What Are These Thoughts?

If so, you’re not alone. These unwanted thoughts, or intrusive thoughts, are a fairly common experience. The vast majority have no problem dissolving these thoughts without action and go about our days. But the very existence of these thoughts can be alarming. Many of them are violent, perverse, or otherwise inappropriate and unacceptable. Where are they coming from and what do they mean?

Where they come is much debated and difficult to grasp, so we’re going to mostly dodge the origin of our thoughts for this post. What I will say is there are a wide range of thoughts that, if we really think about it, are extremely hard to track the origins of. Why did I suddenly remember to call my mom right now? It was absolutely unprompted by anything around me. The origin of our thoughts is very tricky to uncover, but rest assured we have plenty of far-less-threatening thoughts appear in our consciousness all the time.

One hypothesis is that these intrusive thoughts are our unconscious mind’s way of testing random, strange ideas against our consciousness. In almost every case, the machinery is there for us to realize these are entirely terrible ideas and stop us from acting on them. The terrifying consequences are what make them more salient than other, less charged ideas. This, however, isn’t confirmed and is just an idea itself.

What Should I Do About Intrusive Thoughts?

We can, however, speak quite a bit about what unwanted thoughts mean and how we can handle them. First, I want to make it clear that the majority of individuals have this experience, with the intrusive thoughts being particularly unpleasant or inappropriate. Of course, we know most people are functioning just fine, so it’s not necessarily a sign of a greater problem.

If these intrusive thoughts come with powerful impulses, are extremely frequent, or are somewhat related to past experience or trauma, there may be something to it. I imagine most of us will know if this is the case. If your quality of life is impacted by recurring intrusive thoughts, it might be time to get additional, specialized help.

If they’re rather infrequent and not bothersome, besides that they exist, then we can typically manage them ourselves (and usually already do). The first thing to remember is that we don’t have to identify with these thoughts. Our mind produced the thought, but that doesn’t mean our consciousness approved of it.

Your Mind Made Them, Not You

As discussed before many of our thoughts come from unknown, unprompted areas. What’s processed through consciousness is all we grasp. You didn’t create the thought, but you decide whether or not it’s a good idea to act on it. You don’t have to take ownership and identify with this strange thought your mind produced.

In that same vein, most problems with intrusive thoughts come when we focus on and empower them. We have the option to think oh, that was odd.  Or we can focus on Wow I just had a violent thought what is wrong with me? If you ask yourself questions like that, you’re identifying with the thought and claiming it as your own.

This can be especially upsetting when it directly contradicts your beliefs. I must not be a good person because I’m thinking like this. Before long, it leads into a very negative and self-abusive cycle. There’s no reason to do this! For a large number of us, these thoughts can’t be avoided. We simply must choose what to do with them.

In short, unwanted, intrusive thoughts are common and harmless. Our minds are capable of doing some strange things, and this is one side-effect. Unless these thoughts are hard to control and frequent, there’s nothing to be alarmed about. Simply recognize them for what they are and put them aside.

Exercise Questions:

  1. What is your experience with unwanted, intrusive thoughts?
  2. If you have had them, have they ever bothered you?
  3. Next time you have an intrusive thought remember your mind created it, not your consciousness. It’s not yours to take ownership of, only to manage.

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