Julia loved her children more than anything else, but the intrusive thoughts about possibly harming them were relentless. She felt a great deal of shame. She didn’t dare share her thoughts with anyone for fear of being judged, or worst yet, losing her children.
She had heard horrifying stories about mothers who lost their children because of abuse. “Will I be one of those moms? Am I going to harm my children?” The more she tried to get rid of those tormenting images and thoughts, the longer they seemed to stay.
If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, your OCD may be targeting what and who matters most to you in your life. That’s what the OCD mind does, and it is very painful.
When those thoughts show up, you probably take them as “true” information that may become facts. You get caught up with the meaning you give to those thoughts. But you’ve heard it before, thoughts are thoughts and they won’t harm you unless you believe them and avoid what and who matters most to you. The ruminating behavior (private compulsion) inadvertently continues to strengthen the occurrence of those thoughts.
We human beings yearn for coherence. Things need to be consistent so we can feel good about life. However, when intrusive thoughts or images coming out of your mind don’t match the person you are and want to become, you most likely blame yourself.
You may start feeling shame. “Something must be wrong with me. I should be able to stop these thoughts! If I can’t control them, this probably means I really want them.” Your mind tries to make sense out of this incongruity.
It becomes a vicious cycle. You get triggered by external or internal events, the intrusive thoughts emerge, and you are not able to get rid of them. Shame ensues, you beat yourself up and start ruminating to find some relief, then you get triggered again, and so on.
Learning how to change your relationship with your internal events (i.e., thoughts, judgments, memories, feelings, sensations, and urges) is possible, and you can focus on the process. Maybe you’d like to start with the following practice.
Are you your thoughts?
Go ahead and think, “I am a banana.” Is thinking something about oneself makes it so? No, of course not. Now, think of someone and say, “They are bananas.” Is thinking something about others make it so? No. Next say, “They think I am a banana!” Are your thoughts about what others think of you make it true? Of course not.
When you think, “I am going to eat a banana,” does it mean that you are going to act on the thought? That is up to you. If you like bananas and are hungry, you can choose to eat the banana. It is your choice. When your mind comes up with a thought such as “Am I going to harm my child?” Does it make it so?
They are both still thoughts and having a thought does not mean anything unless you choose to believe the thought and choose to act on it.
Instead of getting stuck and caught up in the meaning of your thoughts, remember that though some thoughts are unpleasant, you are not those thoughts. They are as harmless as having a thought of you or a loved one being a banana.
Would you be willing to acknowledge your thoughts as such? “I’m noticing I’m having the thought about eating a banana.” “I’m noticing the thought of harming my child.” Observe the thoughts and hold them lightly.
When shame shows up, acknowledge it as well. “Shame is here. Hello shame. I don’t like you and will let you be there in this moment.” Hold this feeling lightly and gently shift your attention back to what you were doing. After all, what you do is what matters most!
Shame, like other internal events, are natural experiences that come and go. You don’t have to be consumed with them. They surely will come back, so respond accordingly and remember to be kind and patient with yourself.
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” –Carl Jung