The taboo behind instrusive thoughts: Why we all have them but will never admit it

Everyone will experience some type of intrusive thought, but why are they viewed with so much shame?

Emma Hunter
13th March 2023
Image Credit: Unsplash
Intrusive thoughts: it’s quite likely you’ve heard of them, and are pretty certain you’ve had at least one. You can be peacefully going through your day when all of a sudden you feel impelled to push your friend into speeding, oncoming traffic. Or can’t help but picture yourself diving off the bridge you’re walking over. Maybe you get a sudden urge to tell your partner they're disgustingly ugly.

Understandably, these unwanted, sometimes repetitive images, ideas, sounds or statements that enter your consciousness without warning are pretty disturbing, especially since they tend to concern violence, safety or risk, such as harming people or yourself, or getting harmed. They can also be sexual in nature, or involve germs or contamination. These gruesome compulsions are what we most associate with intrusive thoughts, but they can also be seemingly more benign (but no less off-putting): fears about leaving tasks unfinished, a critical voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough, or urges to act out or say the wrong thing in public. No matter what they’re about, they can be incredibly distressing and interfere with daily life, especially when you start dwelling on them.

It may seem bizarre for these involuntary thoughts to arise, but they actually stem from an inherent biological instinct to keep us safe by anticipating problems and planning ahead. They definitely are a natural human behaviour. Though 94% of people have had at least one in the past three months, it’s also true that they tend to co-occur with and are exacerbated by mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and OCD, with certain types of intrusive thought more common with some conditions than others. To reiterate, though, they are perfectly normal and experiencing an intrusive thought does not mean you have a mental illness.

They actually stem from an inherent biological instinct to keep us safe by anticipating problems and planning ahead.

Of course, people rarely, if ever, actually act on them. You’ll never know if someone’s having one unless they admit it – and likelihood is they won’t. There are many surface reasons for this: being ashamed and wanting to keep them secret, attempting to control or stop them, or an unwillingness to be associated with something that you believe goes against your nature. But at the core of the taboo is, I believe, a challenge to your identity. People fear that these thoughts reveal the ‘real’ you.

It may come as a relief, then, that they mean absolutely nothing. Zilch. There’s a reason they’re called intrusive: they’re intruding into your mind, not coming from you. Researchers actually think that they appear precisely because you don’t want it to happen, reverse psychology-style (thanks, brain), which proves that you’re not a manic murderer deep down. In fact, if you think about it, worrying about them making you a bad person makes you the opposite!

It may come as a relief, then, that they mean absolutely nothing... they’re intruding into your mind, not coming from you.

So maybe we can’t stop them, but we can reduce the guilt we feel about them, reducing the impact they have on our lives. Let’s start by accepting them, recognising their presence and letting them pass. They might rudely intrude but they never planned to stay, so with understanding and self-compassion, they’ll leave. Bye.

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