Our thoughts are not the problem. I have to repeat that. Our thoughts are not the problem. You see, our thoughts are normal. Yes, I know you don't believe me. You don't have to. You can believe Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D. I was fortunate enough to attend her workshop at the IOCDF conference this weekend. Her talk was entitled "CBT for Violent/Sexual Thoughts, Scrupulosity, and Just Right OCD in Kids and Teens." Whether you struggle with intrusive thoughts, contamination thoughts, symmetry thoughts, or any combination of them, or other types of thoughts, the truth about our thoughts is still the same. We all have them. People with OCD, people without OCD.
Dr. Wagner cited two different studies that reported that roughly 80-90% of the general population has the same types of thoughts that torment those with OCD. Actually, Dr. Wagner even joked that the other 10% was probably just lying! I don't know about you, but I've heard this statistic before. More than once. However, I missed something truly important about this fact. If everyone has these thoughts, then we are not abnormal for having them. You might want to re-read that last sentence. Our problem is how we respond to them. When a person without OCD has these thoughts, he or she may not even notice or acknowledge them. Or, if he or she notices the thoughts, this person might just think, "Ok, that was a weird thought. Whatever." Then this person can go on with their day because they've given the thought no importance.
Those of us with OCD get into trouble because we notice the thoughts we are having. Not only do we notice them, but we pay attention to them, question them, try to figure them out, and search for their significance. Moreover, they terrify and horrify us. We make all kinds of assumptions (cognitive distortions) about these thoughts. We think, "What kind of horrible human being am I to think like this? What is wrong with me? I must be crazy. I need to do something to change these thoughts." Unfortunately, our attempts to change the thoughts (which can't be done, by the way), make things so much worse. We give terrible importance to these thoughts, and that just reinforces the thoughts and makes them come more often and more strongly.
CBT/ERP helps us to learn how to live with the thoughts so that they don't control us anymore and don't cause us as much pain. The ironic thing, is that after treatment, I get the thoughts less often now. However, we really need to understand that we will still get the thoughts and it is ok. It's alright, because these thoughts are just part of the human condition. We can't expect to never have these thoughts ever again, because that would indeed be abnormal, according to Dr. Wagner. Thoughts are just thoughts. They are only as important as we make them. So you see, we are normal. I guess we just have a hard time being normal!
Now, how does this work when I'm faced with a dirty toilet in a public restroom? The thoughts tell me that it's filthy and I will be a gross person if I touch it. I will admit that I still struggle, even though I'm starting to realize that dirty toilets don't make me a gross person. That is where ERP comes in. Slowly, but surely, ERP is helping me to move from fearing my thought, to simply acknowledging it, and living in spite of it.
So the next time you have a scary thought, of ANY type, you are experiencing what everyone does. The trick is to try to respond normally to it, which is pretty much to ignore it. Harder said than done, I know. With practice it is possible. You can do it. We can do it together.