Once, while I was attending a funeral, I glanced around the room and noticed a policeman seated in the crowd. What would happen if I grabbed his gun and shot myself in the head? The thought stopped me in my tracks. What the hell was that? I shook it off and paid attention to the rest of the service, but that thought came back to haunt me.
Maybe you were enjoying dinner with your tribe of friends or sitting in church when a wildly inappropriate thought invaded your mind. Most people would think, Whoa, that was weird, and continue with their conversation or listening to the sermon.
They would put little stock in the thought because it was so fleeting. But for those of us who battle mental illness, we are hyperaware of the craziness going on in our brain, so we fixate on those thoughts. We want to know how and why we could think such things.
The thought of shooting myself in the head with the policeman’s gun was tame compared to some thoughts that have plagued me for the last ten years. Sometimes I have thoughts so unthinkable and repulsive that I consider suicide. If those thoughts have any connection to who I am at my innermost core, then suicide feels preferable to being a monster.
I know what you are thinking. She’s holding out on us. Tell us. The thoughts can’t be that bad.
No, I won’t. And yes, they can. You live what you believe about yourself. If I give voice to those thoughts, it gives them unwarranted power. Once I speak the words aloud, they change not only how you see me but also how I see myself.
After I gave birth to my daughter, the frequency of the troublesome thoughts increased. Maybe they intensified because of the postpartum psychosis I experienced or because my only focus was my baby and the war raging in my head.
Reluctantly, I told my psychiatrist about the thoughts. He gave a name to what I was experiencing: intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive Thoughts 101
According to the Mayo Clinic, “an intrusive thought is an unwelcome involuntary thought, image or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate. These thoughts may surround the fear of committing an act one considers to be harmful, violent, sexually inappropriate or sacrilegious.”
The intrusive thoughts took my self-loathing to a whole new level—even beyond the damage done by two decades of navigating the indignities of bipolar disorder.
I have a theory that a portion of the population who die by suicide—whether mentally ill or not—do so because of intrusive thoughts. The burden of these thoughts becomes too much to handle, especially if there is no clarity about their validity.
I also believe the mentally ill often settle for mediocre lives because they believe the lies the intrusive thoughts tell them. The thoughts make them feel tainted, and they don’t think they are worthy of love and a big life.
Intrusive thoughts don’t devalue you. They don’t make you unworthy of contributing to society or giving and receiving love. Your place in the world is important. There are things to be done that can only be accomplished by you. There are people who need the love only you can provide.
Here are three truths you should know about intrusive thoughts:
1. Intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of who you are as a person.
Reread the definition of intrusive thoughts carefully. These thoughts are UNWELCOME and INVOLUNTARY. You did nothing to cause the bizarre thoughts that took your brain hostage. You are not responsible for their content.
Unwelcome means “a guest or new arrival not gladly received.”
Involuntary is defined as “done without will or conscious control.”
The uneasiness and disgust you feel about the thoughts further demonstrate the separation between who you are and what your thoughts are telling you.
2. You don’t have to meditate on intrusive thoughts or assign them special meaning.
You do not have to entertain every thought that drops into your mind. It is important not to give those errant thoughts unnecessary life. Before I knew better, I ruminated on my intrusive thoughts until it drove me to distraction. I gave power to thoughts that were powerless.
When an unwanted thought crosses your mind, stop for a moment, and acknowledge it. Then ask yourself: “Does this thought make me happy? Does this thought align with my moral compass and the things I hold dear?”
If your answer to those questions is “no,” then move on to the next thought and continue with your day.
3. Sometimes a thought is just a thought.
This sounds so simplistic, but when my psychiatrist shared this with me, it changed my life. It helped me internalize the truth that I am not my thoughts. Every single thought that comes into my mind is not significant. Some thoughts are inspirational and give life. Some are ephemeral and nonsensical. Some are bizarre and repugnant. The trick is to only give life to the thoughts that are worthy of your time.
When intrusive thoughts are recurrent, it makes them even more horrifying. They try to create a connection that is not real. When those thoughts come back to visit me, I don’t entertain them. I have already worked out the thoughts are unwelcome, so I say, “Not today, Lord,” and turn my focus to something else.
What God Says
When my psychiatrist told me that sometimes a thought is just a thought, a scripture verse that aligns with that principal came to mind.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV).
God gives great advice about handling uninvited and unwanted thoughts. When intrusive thoughts crop up, you have a choice. You can believe what that thought says and die inside a little every time you think it, or you can become vigilant and police those thoughts.
Separate the truth from the lies. Allow no room for any thought that doesn’t bring life and build you up. You are not your thoughts. Internalize that truth and move forward.
Have you been plagued by intrusive thoughts? What strategies do you use to alleviate the troublesome thoughts?