- Obsessive thoughts often entail taboo topics that people don’t normally worry about—i.e., violence, sexual criminality, blasphemy, etc.
- Those who have unwanted obsessive thoughts are still good people.
- Exposure and response therapy has been a standard treatment strategy for obsessive thoughts for several decades.
…The assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution…. We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. (Poe, 1845/2014)
Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) inimitable imagery above describes how one can feel when haunted by uncommanded, troublesome thoughts. It can certainly feel like standing on the edge of a cliff, deciding if the intrusive thoughts one has should determine one’s actions or even individual value. In this post, we’ll consider how obsessive thoughts about taboo topics can occur for anyone and what one can do about them.
Some questions to consider when reading this post include:
- How can people who have obsessive thoughts that are unwanted convince themselves that they are good people?
- Do thoughts determine actions and moral values, or is it the opposite?
An epidemic of obsessive bad thoughts
Everyone has bad thoughts at some point in time. Sometimes, and for some people, these ideations are more intense and/or more frequent. What sets obsessive thoughts apart are their intensity, frequency, and extension beyond real-world problems (Baer, 2001). They often entail taboo topics that people don’t normally worry about—i.e., violence, sexual criminality, blasphemy, doubt, symmetry, orientation, bias, or perfectionism—to name a few. Their emotional tags can be so intense that we can question our own identity, whether we are bad for having them in the first place.
Obsessive thoughts can drive us to realms we ordinarily don’t visit, precisely because they are figments in our subconscious imaginations. In daily life, for example, I regularly maintain a modicum of control through cleaning rituals, knowledge management processes, an exercise regimen, and scheduled contemplative prayer. These help me impose a sense of predictability within my personal span of control, so I can mitigate my innate fear of uncertainty. And yet, my intrusive thoughts have wandered into hypothetical nightmares often related to violence and sex. While the literature on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and related conditions clearly describes the clinical landscape of such obsessive thinking (Baer, 2001; Culkin & Culkin, 2021), it does not prevent me from questioning the goodness of my nature. Am I a good person? Will I ever do what these thoughts portray?
In his “Imp of the Perverse,” Poe (1845/2014) examines the suggestive power of unwanted thoughts. He demonstrates how quality literature can delve into the experiences of those of us who endure darkness from intrusive, bad thoughts. The story describes how a person can perseverate on seemingly unwanted ideation to the extent that, ultimately, she feels compelled to act upon it. In the story, however, the main character has actually done something wrong and then, as a result of conscience-driven cognitive cycling, confesses his crimes to the police.
In this context, the critical difference between literature and obsessive thoughts is that people with such OCD exhibit no history of acting out the thoughts (Baer, 2001; Culkin & Culkin, 2021). Put another way, a psychopathic criminal would normally not think twice about the crimes he has committed, but a person with OCD worries about a myriad of taboos (e.g., murder, hit and run, opening a plane door in flight, driving over a cliff, stabbing a loved one, pushing a stranger off a cliff, etc.) she will never commit.
What to do?
The first thing to realize is that, because we all have obsessive bad thoughts at various times, having them does not mean we are bad or that we’ll act upon them. In fact, OCD literature has established that past behavior (i.e., resistance to urges) is a very reliable indicator that we won’t act upon them (Baer, 2001; Culkin & Culkin, 2021). Recognition can be the first step needed to seek professional help.
Having such intrusive thoughts means you’re human and does not necessarily indicate OCD. Usually, the frequency, intensity, and duration of such thoughts—coupled with other symptoms—help clinicians diagnose OCD. Exposure and response therapy has been a standard treatment strategy for obsessive thoughts for several decades (Abramowitz, 2021; Baer, 2001).
As a result, you and your loved ones can follow these general guidelines to cope with intrusive, bad thoughts:
- Recognize you have bad thoughts; they are just thoughts and not evidence of your value.
- Seek professional help if you have trouble living daily life because of your thoughts.
- Accept the treatment prescribed and the grace provided by your loved ones and friends.
- Learn as much as you can about obsessive thoughts and OCD to better understand the “imp of the perverse” that allegedly haunts you.
Obsessive thoughts about taboo topics can occur for anyone. It is what we choose to do about them that will determine how much they will affect us. Intrusive thoughts don’t have to define us.
Do intrusive thoughts confront you? What are you doing about them?
Abramowitz, J. (2021). The Family Guide to Getting Over OCD. Guilford.
Baer, L. (2001). The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. Plume.
Culkin, D., & Culkin, M. (2021). OCD and Marriage: Pathways to Reshaping Your Lives Together. Specialty Press, Inc. See https://www.ocdandmarriage.com.
Poe, E. A. (1845/2014). The Imp of the Perverse. In The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (original story in Grantham’s Magazine). Duke Classics.