Bad Thoughts Sometimes Come from Out of Nowhere

You’re standing at the sink peeling a carrot. You have a paring knife in your hand. You’ve peeled carrots dozens of times with the same knife. Why this time do you have the thought you might stab your husband in the back? Why can you not think about anything else?

A new baby is a joy and a wonder and you could not be a prouder father. So why do you refuse to change the baby’s diaper? You did it for the two older girls. Is it because you obsess about caressing your son’s privates—even though you’ve never done anything like that before?

What this man and this woman have in common is an aspect of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) called obsessive thinking, intrusive thoughts, or more commonly just “bad thoughts.”

In his classic book, The Imp of the Mind, Lee Baer identifies bad thoughts as a silent epidemic and states he has spoken to people worldwide who suffer from bad thoughts. So why is this epidemic silent? Because the shame of bad thoughts is so deep, people who suffer from it often can’t tell anyone at all—they can’t even seek the help of a professional because they fear criminal prosecution or involuntary commitment. Or they simply can’t bear the shame.

Bad Thoughts Are Widespread

Like any other epidemic, bad thoughts are widespread; they have no respect for boundaries, borders, languages, or cultures. But people with bad thoughts have one thing in common: their deep shame and embarrassment cause them to suffer in silence and isolation, sometimes completely disabled by their condition.

Even if a person with bad thoughts is surrounded by loving, supportive people, he will often withdraw, slowly becoming more and more isolated out of fear they might hurt the ones they love, or harm a stranger without meaning to.

Intrusive thinking is very painful but, there is good news: The very fact that someone is worried about a thought or action is the best indicator they will never do it.

Everyone has fleeting bad thoughts, while others are caught in the obsessive bad thought pattern of OCD. It’s important to note that both of these are very different from disturbed preoccupations that lead to dangerous thinking and actions.

There Is Effective Treatment Available

How do you tell the difference? Conscience and concern are hallmarks of OCD sufferers. In other words, if you have bad thoughts that cause you distress, and have never acted on them, that is an excellent predictor that you never will. But knowing that is only the first step in relieving the torment.

Fortunately, there is very effective treatment available. Exposure and response prevention, or ERP, means facing your fears head-on. This is best done with the help of a mental health professional who is specifically trained in ERP. Additionally, it can help if you acknowledge the intrusive thought has occurred, remind yourself that it sometimes happens, and then try to redirect your thoughts instead of dwelling on them or feeling shame. 

Remember, everyone occasionally has sexual, violent, and or blasphemous thoughts pass through their mind. In fact, the more inappropriate a thought is in a particular setting—church, a funeral, other solemn occasions—the more likely your mind is to pop up a “bad thought.” This is no cause for major concern… unless the idea comes to dominate your thinking and cause you distress. That is when you should reach out for help from a therapist who will help diminish these thoughts and lower your shame.