A key feature of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is having obsessions, but not everybody knows what that might mean. The stereotype about OCD is that the “obsession” part is with wanting things clean and/or organized. While some people may focus on an organization or may compulsively clean and/or organize as part of their OCD, that is by no means the only symptom. Obsessions are identified as having intrusive, unwanted, and repetitive thoughts, images, sensations, or emotions throughout the day. They can be related to any and all subject matter. While all obsessions are viewed as unwanted, for people suffering from OCD, some obsessions are harder to talk about, making them “taboo thoughts.”
Depending on who you are, where you come from, how you were raised, and various other factors, your definition of “taboo” may vary. For the purpose of education, try to consider a thought that you would feel uncomfortable telling someone else you have had. You might worry that they will judge you, cast you out, or assume the worst-case scenario (this can occur in people whose taboo thoughts are violent, either in regard to themselves or others) and demand intervention. This can make the experience of taboo thoughts feel like you have no one to turn to.
The Shame and Silence Surrounding Taboo Thoughts
The presence of taboo thoughts creates a deep sense of shame and isolation in those affected by OCD. The fear of being judged or misunderstood by others often leads to a reluctance to discuss these thoughts, even with close friends or family. As a result,
individuals with OCD may suffer in silence, battling their intrusive thoughts alone and allowing the shame to fester. They may not be aware that intrusive thoughts are common in people who have OCD and that there is help available for overcoming their taboo thoughts. This often involves therapy for OCD; as an OCD therapist in Los Angeles, I see many patients seeking support and guidance in navigating their taboo thoughts.
3 Ways to Overcome Taboo Thoughts in OCD
1) Remember, thoughts are just thoughts:
This is easier said than done, but it is one of the most important coping skills we teach our clients here in our office in Woodland Hills. When you think about everything that passes through your mind in a day, you can quickly identify a pattern that not all thoughts have any sort of conscious weight or connection to what you are up to. You may have seen something on your commute; your mind may remember something it has processed from a film you watched or a conversation you recently had. If we tried to track where every thought came from and why it occurred, we would never be able to complete the task.
A key to managing OCD is not labeling thoughts as good vs. bad, appropriate vs. inappropriate, but more so seeing them as part of many thoughts you are experiencing in a given day. This is often very hard for our clients with OCD because they often tell us, “That sounds irresponsible,” to view a disturbing thought like touching a child (Pedophilia OCD) as just another thought. However, when you relegate such a thought to “just another thought,” you neutralize its power. For example, if you think about a squirrel you saw on your way to work, you experience the thought and then move on. However, if you stopped everything you were doing and fixated on the squirrel, worrying what it meant that you had thought about it, berating yourself for the thought that had risen to the surface of your mind, you would be spending much more time and energy on the thought. In this way, you are giving the thought more life. The same goes for intrusive thoughts where the stakes seem much higher. A thought that is noted and released is powerless. The truth is that your thoughts are not your actions or your behaviors. If they do not reflect who you are as a person, there is no sense in berating yourself about them.
You may want to begin to take notice of the most mundane thoughts you have during the day. How often do you think about food, inanimate objects, idle gossip you heard, about anything and everything that doesn’t really impact your day-to-day life? When you take the time to consider that, how does it make you feel about the taboo thoughts you experience? What makes them more important or significant than your other thoughts? Sure, there are thoughts we have that are definitely more interesting than some others. But that doesn’t mean they impact who we are, what we stand for, our values, or our trustworthiness.
Determine how you will speak to yourself about thoughts you cannot easily release. “This is a thought that has arisen, but it is not who I am,” or, “That thought does not reflect my values.” You might want to address that these thoughts are a consistent part of your life with OCD. “Sometimes I have thoughts like this, but they are just thoughts,” or, “A thought is not a behavior or choice I am making.” Or you may wish to address how you feel about coping with these thoughts, such as reminding yourself, “These thoughts are part of OCD. It’s understandable that they make me feel unhappy or uncomfortable sometimes. I am doing my best.”
2) Practice Mindfulness and Acceptance:
To see thoughts as thoughts, we heavily lean on the mindfulness practice of having an observer mindset. Meditation relies heavily on observing thoughts without giving them power, but that may sound tricky or confusing at first.
Simply observing can make you feel stagnant in your practice like your observations aren’t serving a purpose or helping you to feel any better. You may wonder, “Okay, so I’ve observed this… now what?” When we actually take on the position of being an observer, we can create a distance between ourselves and our thoughts that allows us to unpack what we are observing.
Awareness of our thoughts and feelings means we are paying enough attention to simplify and label what is happening. To stay connected to the present moment in order to experience it authentically, you may choose to be mindful of your senses. What do you see, smell, taste? What can you touch? What do you hear? These are all external cues and clues about your place in the world around you. You may also choose to go inside and determine how you feel in your body. Are you holding tension anywhere? Is your heart beating fast, or are you breathing more heavily?
Are you able to label your thoughts and feelings? If you were studying yourself from a distance, how would you categorize your experiences? Think of this observational practice as a research project; you are compiling data. It is neither good nor bad; the information is neutral. When you are able to see how various events impact your thoughts and feelings, you are able to determine where you need the practice of exposure to these stimuli. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a therapeutic method of real-life or imagined exposures to various triggers and figuring out how to handle them. As an OCD therapist in Woodland Hills, I guide people through ERP as part of their treatment. When you have acquired information about your thoughts, you can establish how you will handle them at any given time and how you will cope when you need more support than you have at the current moment. You may want to create an affirmation, such as, “I can’t always have an OCD specialist near me, but I can trust myself to utilize my tools.”
Acceptance is another essential aspect of managing taboo thoughts. By acknowledging that these thoughts are a symptom of OCD and not a reflection of one’s true self or intentions, individuals can free themselves from unnecessary guilt and shame. Remember, we are not accepting that these thoughts will come true or that we would be okay with them coming true. We simply accept that these thoughts exist; they did cross our minds, so to speak, and now we can move on with engaging in the task at hand and being present in our daily lives.
Decide what acceptance can look like, and do your best to divorce yourself from the idea that acceptance is equal to “giving up.” A lot of the time, acceptance feels like defeat. In actuality, it is honesty. It is also a starting point from which you can work towards your goals and ideals. Denial won’t actually do anything about your symptoms; it only delays your work. You may strive to accept your intrusive thoughts, to accept your OCD as a whole, and/or to accept mishaps and disappointments on a day-by-day basis. All of these efforts have value, and all will be easier on some days and harder on others. Acceptance that taboo thoughts are a part of your life will allow you to be free of worrying about when the next one will arise or feeling crestfallen when you’ve been struggling with one. Instead, you can seek solutions and practices that alleviate symptoms or make them easier to live with.
3) Make Value-Based decisions:
This tool builds on top of your mindfulness and acceptance practice. Once you accept that you have a chatty, overactive mind that constantly has all sorts of thoughts and images, you are left with the task of deciding how you wish to show up for your life. Do you want to isolate and ruminate about these thoughts, or do you want to go out there and live your life? Choosing how you spend your time, how you balance your needs with your wants, where you make space in your schedule for self-care, which invitations you accept, and so on, will help you set yourself up for your strongest mental health foundation.
Everyone has different priorities, but your number one priority should always be your health and wellness. No matter how important other things are, they cannot take first place. You may feel that they should and worry that you are being “too self-absorbed” if you prioritize your own needs, but that isn’t true. The healthier and more emotionally regulated you are, the more you have to give to the people and things that are most valuable to you. In this way, you can link your choice to provide yourself with care with what you most treasure.
Understanding what your values are and where your priorities lie is like a guidebook to moving forward despite your intrusive thoughts. It is also a way to combat them; when you choose actions and behaviors opposite to the thoughts that distress you the most, you are proving to yourself that your thoughts are just thoughts. They do not define you.
When you take time to consider what your values are and how you rank them, keep in mind that they can change over time. You aren’t locked in forever with what you decide. What is important is that you are building a routine that you can feel confident in. Feeling emotionally regulated may or may reduce intrusive taboo thoughts, but it will provide you with a pathway to re-regulation if and when a thought causes distress. Having a strong pattern of value-supporting behaviors can also be reassuring when trying to remind yourself that your thoughts are just thoughts. When you look at how you spend your time and see that it accurately reflects who you are and your highest priorities, you can dismiss your unwanted thoughts instead of feeling defined by them. Having a handle on your OCD, in general, is a good way to support yourself regardless of which obsessions and compulsions manifest.
Taboo thoughts are a very sensitive subject. The idea of talking about them with someone might make you feel incredibly anxious. You might think, “I could never share these thoughts with anyone.” But hopefully, in time, you come to determine
that you can. These unwanted and intrusive thoughts are as much your choice as it was your choice to have OCD. They are a symptom of OCD, not a reflection of how good of a person you are or what you think truly matters. If you have other symptoms of OCD that manifest as behaviors you don’t enjoy, you probably have an understanding that you are not choosing to partake. It can be harder, however, to be kind to ourselves about the voice in our head, as we connect that so much to our identity. If you want to seek help with OCD and specifically help with intrusive thoughts, there is no reason not to. You deserve support with your mental health and OCD.
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, our OCD specialists understand the complexity of OCD and the shame that can follow. We utilize ERP, CBT, and ACT tools to make sure you feel empowered to have the right skills to manage OCD and get back to living your life.
Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.
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