Obsessive thoughts can come in several varieties. Among the most popular themes for these thoughts are blasphemy, violence, and sex. One thing all obsessions have in common is that they consist of a thought (e.g., “I want to pick up that knife and stab myself”) followed by intense anxiety at having had that thought. Another thing obsessions have in common is that it is difficult to completely disprove the fear they describe. For example, if someone has an obsessive thought about harming themselves, how can they definitively prove that it’s not true? If someone has an obsessive thought like “I hate God,” how can they then convince themselves that they don’t? If someone has an obsessive thought about wanting to sexually molest their dog, how can they prove to themselves that they will never do it? For people with OCD, the uncertainty that accompanies these situations can be very distressing.
This is the paradox of obsessive thinking: we become anxious about the possibility of something that we cannot prove or disprove, and the search for such proof only leads to more anxiety. One example of this process can be seen in obsessive thoughts about being gay. This is not an uncommon type of obsessive thought to have, typically for heterosexual people suffering from OCD. (Someone who identifies as homosexual, on the other hand, might be vulnerable to obsessive thoughts about being straight.) For the person with this type of obsession, finding immediate proof that one is not gay can be difficult. After all, how do people “know” whether they are straight or gay?
Take, for example, the case of Robert (not his real name), a straight man in his later 30s. Robert had struggled with OCD since his late teens, and had dealt with symptoms as diverse as excessive handwashing, having to get up and sit down “just right,” and obsessions about harming others. For Robert, the obsessions about being gay started suddenly. When in an airport terminal with some time to kill, he wandered into a bookstore, and was looking at the various magazines. One of the magazines, Mens’ Vogue, featured a picture of an attractive male actor on the cover. Rob noticed that he had a hard time taking his eyes off the picture, and thought, “I like the way he looks.” This was followed by the thought, “Does this mean I’m gay?” and Rob immediately became very anxious. He had never even wondered before whether he was gay or straight. He had been in several heterosexual relationships, and never been involved with another man. In Rob’s very alarmed state of mind, he wracked his brain to reassure himself that he was straight. He looked at the magazines with attractive women on the cover to gauge his reaction. He looked for an attractive woman in the terminal, and finding one, looked at her to see if she “did it” for him. After a while, he was able to reassure himself that he was not, in fact, gay. However, Rob was not able to prevent this thought from coming back, and was troubled by this fear that he might be gay for years following the incident in the airport.
How can we effectively deal with these types of troubling thoughts? Check back for Part 2 of this article to find out.