Mindset | Blog

Letting Go of the Urge to “Control” Your OCD Thoughts


When James was a teenager, he enjoyed a “worldly” path before finding his faith. One day, after he’d found his faith, however, a friend made a comment that brought up certain memories from his youth. Sexual pictures popped into his mind. He tried to replace them with wholesome images, but he couldn’t get rid of them and consequently felt immoral and unworthy of God’s love.

His amazing human mind along with the OCD, would provide any possible solution so he could find coherence. The thoughts didn’t match the person he was and wanted to become. He constantly questioned his intentions wondering, “If I repented why do I keep having those images? Did God really forgive me? Maybe He didn’t because I forgot a detail about my sins?”

Do James’ struggles sound familiar? Are you yearning for coherence? And if things don’t make sense in your mind, do you blame yourself? Do you believe that by going back in time, you’ll be able to find the missing piece to your peace of mind?

Anything is Related to Anything

In the external world, you can replace or toss away what is not useful. When your favorite pair of shoes wears out, you simply buy a new pair and toss out the old ones. You can’t toss out your thoughts, feelings, and other internal events like you would an old pair of shoes, though your mind might tell you that you can. Have you noticed if that advice is working out for you?

Think about a distressing word or thought you wish you could delete from your memory. Write it down, then write a “replacement” by using a neutral or positive word or thought.

Unwanted thought/word/image:        

Replacement thought/word/image:   

The next time this unpleasant word shows up, quickly replace it with your chosen neutral or positive word. Do it often and notice what happens when you keep adding a “replacement.” Then write down what you’ve learned.

Research1 shows that when we try to replace a word with another word, we actually create a new relationship between the two words or the objects those words describe. If we replace the second with a third, fourth, fifth, and so on, we have multiplied the relationship instead of deleting it!

We simply cannot delete our thoughts, feelings, or other internal experiences from our minds. We are continually creating relationships between things. That’s just the way our minds operate because we have language, the ability to communicate, remember, and relate anything to everything.

Are Your Compulsions Providing a False Sense of Control?

Whatever you do to find relief from the doubt, anxiety, shame, guilt, and other emotions in that moment, will provide temporary relief and provide some sense of control. However, have you noticed that this “sense” of control is not lasting?

The avoidant and compulsive behaviors actually are leading you to become stuck in the OCD trap. You know it, but the urge is irresistible when you feel overwhelmed by the unpleasant emotions in that moment. You often might feel like you don’t have a choice.

Though we cannot control our internal experiences (e.g., thoughts, memories, and feelings), we all can choose how to respond to them.

You can start letting go of the urge to control OCD’s intrusive thoughts by learning how your amazing human mind works.

Practice: Noticing the Links

Whether you have a pleasant or unpleasant thought, that thought will lead to another thought and another. Your amazing language machine—the mind—allows you to problem-solve and link “anything to anything at the speed of thought.”2  

Sit in a quiet place for three minutes, and proceed according to these instructions:

  • For this practice, you’ll notice the links your mind makes. As you do it, maintain a sense of curiosity for two to three minutes.
  • Notice when your mind starts producing thoughts. Watch out; they come fast! At one point, you may get stuck with a difficult thought, evaluation, or memory, and you may even forget you’re in the middle of this exercise. That’s okay. Once you are no longer stuck, continue noticing.
  • As you become aware of the links between your thoughts, continue to observe them as an unbiased onlooker. The mind may want you to ruminate about what comes up. As soon as you become aware that you are ruminating, gently go back to noticing.
  • Ready? Go!

It is fascinating how quickly the mind works and to realize how one random thought can lead to another and eventually to a memory or thought that gets you stuck. What did you learn about your mind and yourself by doing this short practice? Be sure to write down your insights.

Sometimes you may want to stay with a thought or memory that’s pleasant. If you have time to enjoy that memory, by all means, enjoy it!

The relationship we have with painful internal experiences and the belief that we are not supposed to have them is the real challenge.

Have fun with this exercise as you learn how your mind functions.


  1. Steven C. Hayes, Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2005).
  • Kirk Strosahl, “Focused ACT Workshop,” Utah State University, April 20, 2019.

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

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A guide to help you find relief and happiness in spite of religious or moral OCD (scrupulosity OCD). Learn more about Annabella Hagen's book.
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