Just Don’t Think About It

As a young boy growing up, I found myself more aware of strange thoughts that seemed to originate out of nowhere. At times, they were embarrassing, at times completely inappropriate, and at times, they were just plain odd.  Although certain thoughts seemed traceable to a specific TV show or movie, or a comment that I heard on the playground or somewhere else, some simply seemed to appear out of thin air.  I wondered if I was the only one who had these thoughts.  I wondered if others could sense them in me.  And although I rarely if ever acted upon them, there were times whether I wondered if I could resist their curious pull.

Today, I am fortunate to be in a more comfortable place, one where I realize that all human beings experience bizarre or deviant thoughts, most of which they never act upon. But as noted in the book, “The Imp of the Mind” written by one of the world’s foremost OCD experts, Dr. Lee Baer, thousands upon millions of people struggle with obsessive, intrusive thoughts—whether of a bizarre, sexual, violent, or blasphemous nature—that never seem to go away.  For anyone who has ever suffered in this manner, it can be a debilitating, isolating world where the mind becomes one’s worst enemy.

Yet regardless of the degree of intrusive thoughts, Baer offers a few summary pieces of advice that we would all benefit from embracing. One is simply the idea that I have already stated.  We all experience thoughts that are uncomfortable by their nature.  This is not a justification of evil or deviancy; it is simply a reality of being human.  This reality does not make you or me a bad person (although some might say a flawed one) as there is a big difference between unintended impulses or notions versus intentional, deviant desires (acted upon or not).  It is the latter, not the former, which should concern us.

Second, when it comes to an action plan, Baer and others are clear. Attempting to suppress your thoughts will only make them come back stronger.  It reminds me of my Psychology 101 professor at Ball State, who gave us a number, and then told us to work hard to intentionally forget it.  For months to follow, I couldn’t get the number out of my mind.  Furthermore, the more we avoid situations that trigger intrusive thoughts, the stronger they will come.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t surround ourselves with goodness although sometimes exposing ourselves to the feared “bad” things repeatedly is the best antidote.  But it does mean that if the raindrops instantly remind us of a horrible thought or circumstance, it may be the rain that we repeatedly have to confront until the droplets become simply raindrops—and not piercing swords—once again.

In the end, the goal for all of us is not to necessarily control our weird, inappropriate thoughts, but instead learn how to recognize them and then let them pass through. With all apologies to Descartes, we must then understand that these automatic thoughts do not define who we are even if they give us a glimpse of who we fear we might be.

Sometimes people do commit heinous, offensive acts with clear intent or on an impulse. This is not what I am talking about here.  What I am talking about is that although many of us grew up hearing the phrase (or variant of) “just don’t think about it,” we all came to know how hard that is.  Instead (and I can’t believe I am invoking a Disney theme here), we might all take the advice of Queen Elsa and “let it go.”  Acknowledge the deviant, strange thoughts, recognize them for what they are, and then seek to let them pass through all the while focusing on what really matters for kids and adults alike—our willful intent of what we decide to do.  When this happens, whether we regard these thoughts as mindless neurological musings or evil, seductive urges, the thoughts no longer lead us to a dark place of any kind.

At the end of the book, Baer mentions a quality of life survey that is utilized frequently to assess how people feel about their current state. Ten items of rating scale format are used, all of which correlate strongly with a person’s quality of life.  These items involve relationships, physical health, interests/hobbies, and futuristic endeavors among other things.  But one item correlates with quality of life more than the rest.  It is the degree to which a person rates that he or she has “peace of mind.”  We are all sinful, yet yearning people of various desires, circumstances, and positions.  Still, no matter who we are and where we reside, it seems we all desire a peaceful place—in the confines of our own mind.

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