Agreeing with intrusive thoughts
As OCD sufferers, we are subjected to intense, disturbing thoughts that can cause us a huge amount of grief. For sufferers of harm, sex, pedophile and other obsessional themes, the thoughts can be disgusting, revolting, and go against the core of who we are as individuals.
The key to recovery from OCD is, through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to learn to control, resist and stop compulsions. We can’t directly stop intrusive thoughts but we can control how we respond to the thoughts. We can learn, with lots of practice, to not respond to the thoughts through compulsions. This leads to a state where we are not bothered as much by the thoughts and, indeed, the thoughts can become less frequent.
In a nutshell, OCD recovery involves learning how to do nothing about the intrusive thoughts. This presents a problem, however, for many OCD sufferers.
When intrusive thoughts go against the core of who we are (for instance, thoughts about children and sex), sufferers will often perform compulsions in an attempt to negate or prove wrong the thoughts. A sufferer may analyze a thought to try and prove to herself she does not want to have sex with children. Another sufferer may try to counter thoughts about being gay with thoughts about being heterosexual.
A problem presents itself when these people begin their journey on the road to recovery from OCD. Like all other sufferers, these people must learn to not respond to the intrusive thoughts by resisting and stopping compulsions. But for these people, not performing the compulsions can be akin to agreeing with the intrusive thoughts.
Because the compulsions have been done in order to negate or counter the intrusive thoughts, these sufferers feel that not performing the compulsions is equivalent to accepting as fact the intrusive thoughts. Not going through a mental ritual designed to ‘prove’ that sex with children is not wanted means to the sufferer they are agreeing with the intrusive thought that sex with children is okay.
During my many hundreds of hours spent on Internet forums dedicated to OCD, I have seen this problem crop up many times. Sufferers become convinced that not performing compulsions is in effect agreeing with the thoughts — something they cannot bring themselves to do because the thoughts go against who they are as people.
And yet, the way forward is to resist and stop compulsions.
These types of sufferers need to take an extra step along their journey and come to an understanding that doing nothing does not mean they agree with anything. An analogy can help to explain this situation.
OCD has often been described as a school yard bully. The bully throws insults at a victim (the obsession). The victim responds by crying, begging or running away (the compulsion). A bully continues his assaults on victims so long as there is a response. They want to see a victim cry or run away. It empowers the bully. But if the victim stops responding to the bully, simply by not reacting to the bully’s assaults, the bully eventually gets tired of the game and wanders off in search of a new victim. This is in essence how OCD works and how recovery proceeds.
In the case of not responding to a bully, the victim is not ‘agreeing’ with the bully’s insults. The victim is not buying into the bully’s harsh words and derogatory statements. The victim is simply refusing to give the bully what he wants, a reaction. The same holds true when it comes to OCD. Not responding to intrusive thoughts does not mean ‘agreeing’ with the thoughts. It is simply allowing the thoughts to pop up and not reacting to them, not giving them the fuel to continue their assaults in the future.
It is not easy to ignore intrusive thoughts. It becomes automatic to respond to the thoughts through compulsions. But sufferers can change their behavior and thinking and learn, over time, to not respond to the thoughts.