View original article published in Psych Central–
“I’m such a sinner. I’m supposed to have pure thoughts. I’m so wicked!” Destiny’s incessant thoughts compelled her to pray, sing hymns, confess, and repent to no avail. Her religious leaders kept telling her that she was not a sinner. They reassured her by telling her that she was a good person. She didn’t know her reassurance seeking was actually a compulsion that kept strengthening her OCD.
Her anguish and her need to control her thoughts were affecting her overall functioning. Every time she experienced “impure” thoughts she felt unworthy of happiness or anything good in her life. Her anxiety would swell through her body as a wave that left her feeling guilt and shame, even though she had not sinned. Her OCD mind would tell her otherwise and she believed her thoughts. They were true, weren’t they?
When individuals experience intense emotions caused by their thoughts, they become their reality, and that is a fact! However, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) teaches that it is not about whether something is true or false. It is about whether an internal experience such as a thought is helpful in the present moment. ACT therapists teach that individuals can learn how to respond to their private events (thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, etc.) with flexibility.
Individuals with scrupulosity OCD try to do what it takes to get rid of their “impure” thoughts. Then unpleasant feelings ensue, and soon enough, they are reinforcing the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder cycle. They inadvertently program their mind to repeat these thoughts. On the other hand, people who don’t have OCD may also experience similar thoughts, but instead of trying to figure out why they are having such thoughts and obsessing about them, they acknowledge them and may say something like, “that’s a weird thought,” and then are able to move on. OCD sufferers get stuck. They believe they should not have such thoughts at all. They dig in deeper and end up in the proverbial rabbit hole.
If you are being challenged by scrupulosity OCD, you are probably a very faithful and religious person, and you believe in an all-knowing Supreme Being. Is it possible that if He knows your “horrendous” thoughts, He also knows you have OCD? If so, He will most likely give you a free pass. Does that make you feel better? Perhaps not because that was a reassuring comment. Such statements are never enough for OCD.
Control and Choices
When individuals experience scrupulosity OCD, the need to control one’s thoughts is foremost in their daily lives. Controlling the initial thought is impossible, but the OCD mind leads you to believe you can. You can learn to look at your thoughts with flexibility. You can commit to practice skills that will enable you to get unstuck from the darkness you experience when you try to resolve and figure out unpleasant thoughts.
You can choose to become adjustable with your unpleasant thoughts. You can decide whether to reinforce the OCD brain pathways or to do something different. You can notice your amazing mind (the thought-making machine) blurt out thoughts all day with a different mindset.
When you are in the middle of an OCD moment, your amazing mind will try to solve the problem for you. It will find numerous possibilities and reasons for your “impure thoughts.” But remember the end result appears to be the same every time — it is never enough. The doubt will continue again and again.
Learning to observe one’s thoughts takes time and patience. It’s worth learning how to notice them without engaging in a conversation with your amazing problem-solving machine. You can start taking small steps by trying the following exercises every morning:
- When you wake up, notice what you are thinking or feeling by labeling the experience. For example: “I am noticing that I am having the thought that…(describe the thought)” or “I am noticing that I’m having the feeling of…(describe the feeling).” Continue noticing for at least three minutes before getting up.
- When you are brushing your teeth, narrate your actions. Be attentive to the thoughts that come up. Tooth brushing can be a mindless activity, but you can start practicing being an observer of your thoughts.
- Practice mindfulness at least for the first 3-5 minutes of your daily shower. Use your 4 senses. What is the sensation of the water on your head and body? Notice the temperature of the water, the smell of the soap. Observe the drops of the water on your arms and the sound of the water as you move around, etc.
- As you drive to work, every time you stop at a red light, briefly scan your body. Notice the way you are breathing. Then take a slow deep breath. Do this at every red light!
Just like you notice your thoughts in your daily routines, you can also practice noticing the intrusive thoughts when they show up throughout the day. This is not easy and it takes practice. As you become an observer of your thoughts every day, you will make great discoveries. One of them being that you actually do have a choice: to grab the OCD thoughts or just observe them.
Your psychotherapist will provide additional guidance. Scrupulosity OCD doesn’t have to torment your life. You are wiser than OCD!