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OCD and Thinking about Thoughts

by stuart miles
by stuart miles

I’ve written before about the fact that there really are no “OCD thoughts.” As I explain in this post: “…when you get right down to it, there’s OCD, and there are thoughts, but there are no OCD thoughts.” Certainly disturbing thoughts might be more vivid, intense, and frequent in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the content of these obsessions  is typically no different from those who do not have OCD. You name it, most of us have thought it! It’s our reaction to these thoughts that differs.

I wrote the post mentioned above because I felt it was important for those without OCD to understand that people who do have the disorder do not have thoughts that are any “wilder and crazier” than the rest of us. There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding obsessive-compulsive disorder that I felt it was critical to set the record straight regarding “OCD thoughts.”

What I didn’t think about at the time was how crucial it is for those who actually have OCD to understand that their thoughts should not, and cannot, be divided into “regular thoughts” and “OCD thoughts.” Thoughts are thoughts. Period.

Why is this distinction, or I should say lack of distinction, so important? What’s the big deal about calling disturbing thoughts “OCD thoughts?”

Jon Hershfield does a fantastic job addressing this question. In this post, which I highly recommend reading, he asks, “ can we view our most challenging or disturbing thoughts as our own without getting caught up in false beliefs about who we are as people? Here I think we can benefit from distinguishing between content and process.”

Jon goes on to explain the difference between content and process. In one example he compares the content of thoughts to the ingredients in soup – content is simply what the soup (or thoughts) is made of. Process is more akin to our reaction to the soup. We might love the taste, or think it’s way too spicy or even inedible. In those with OCD, it is the process (how they react to their thoughts) that deserves attention and ultimately needs to be addressed and modified, not the content (what the thoughts are comprised of).

Jon goes on to give a great argument as to why content is not important in dealing with OCD:

If your first response to any thought is to disown it (i.e. “that’s not my thought”), then you are starting off by framing your thought as a threat and this is what kicks off the obsessive-compulsive loop. There is nothing to disown. It’s just what you happened to notice going on in the mind. If you want thoughts to stop being intrusive, you have to stop treating them like they are intruders. If you want them to come and go with ease, you have to allow them free passage.

I love it!

If you want thoughts to stop being intrusive, you have to stop treating them like they are intruders.

To all those struggling with OCD, I highly recommend taking Jon Hershfield’s advice. Focus on the process – the part where you are now likely dealing with things such as guilt, avoidance, and compulsions. Change your reaction. How you might ask? You guessed it – by embracing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.

OCD and Thinking about Thoughts

Janet Singer

I am a mom whose son was completely debilitated by severe OCD in 2008. Thankfully he made a remarkable recovery and is now living life to the fullest. I've since become an advocate for OCD awareness with the goal of spreading the word that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. I am the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery (Rowman & Littlefield, January 2015) and have my own blog about OCD at There truly is hope for all those who suffer from this insidious disorder!

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APA Reference
Singer, J. (2017). OCD and Thinking about Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jan 2017
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