A person lying next to their sleeping lover might have a sudden mental image of how easy it would be to kill them in their sleep. That thought would likely horrify and upset them. They may lie awake all night, appalled that such a thought would ever cross their minds.
Is there something seriously wrong with them for thinking such a thing?
Are these thoughts the early warning signs of them becoming crazed serial killers?
Do they really have a subconscious desire to murder their partner?
Well, no. Random – and often violent or otherwise disturbing – imaginings such as these are known as “intrusive thoughts,” and everyone has them.
They tend to freak us out when they show up, as they usually come out of nowhere and seem to originate in the darkest recesses of our psyches. Really, they are just random thoughts in the grand scheme of our ever-active brains.
Our imaginations never stop working, but most of the time we don’t really pay attention to the thoughts that ooze through our brainmeat over the course of the day, because they don’t really affect us on an emotional level.
Here’s an example: you’re sitting at your desk at work, trying to concentrate on something that’s due at the end of the day, and all of a sudden (out of NOWHERE), you wonder what lasagna would taste like if it were made with slices of leftover pizza instead of regular noodles. You might pause for a moment to contemplate that, think “huh, that might actually be pretty good,” and then continue on working without giving that thought any more attention.
If, however, you were sidelined by a thought in which you wondered what your dog might taste like, you’d likely find that your train of thought is completely derailed, and you’d spend the next couple of hours wondering WTF SERIOUSLY?! You love your dog and OMG how could you possibly even think about such a thing?
You might load up all the photos of your dog on your phone and get all weepy that such a horrible thought ever crossed your mind and what a terrible person you must be and you’ll never eat meat again and you’ll hug Mr. Woofles to pieces when you get home and and and…
Both of those are examples of intrusive thoughts, but the lasagna pizza travesty (or genius?) is easily dismissed because it isn’t a taboo subject with a strong emotional backlash. That thought could flow out of your mind as easily as it flowed in because your psyche just recognized it as the temporary intruder that it was, and didn’t dwell upon it.
On the other hand, the severe knee-jerk reaction to the mere thought of harming a being that you love, let alone eating him, hit sore spots all through your little grey cells. Eating dog meat is a huge taboo in most cultures, and most of us are taught from day one that dogs are friends and we do not eat our friends. Our pets are family members to us, and we have really strong emotional bonds with them, so when a random thought strikes a chord with both heartstrings and the taboo drum… there’s a mental cacophony that can’t be ignored.
Dwelling Makes Intrusive Thoughts More Intense
When an intrusive thought like puppy pie comes along, we tend to fixate on it, which just gives it power. Instead of just shaking it off and letting it go, we dwell, and chew on it, trying to understand where it came from and why. Do you really harbor some subconscious desire to eat your dog? Is this thought an early warning sign of a severe mental illness? Etc.
Thoughts like this spiral outwards and make us anxious because we don’t want to have them, but feel we have no control over them. Physically, we may exhibit symptoms like heart palpitations because the negative emotions cause a fight/flight response within us.
We may develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because every time we look at a picture of the dog, that thought about possibly eating him comes to mind, which triggers the anxiety and makes us obsessive about driving the thought away.
We constantly monitor thoughts like these, but the very act of checking in to see if they’re still around can make them pop up, much in the same way that ripping a plaster bandage off a wound to check to see if it’s healing will cause it to open up again.
These Thoughts Are Perfectly Normal, and So Are You
If anything like this has ever happened to you, take a deep breath, and calm down. Pretty much everyone you’ve ever known has had thoughts like these, but we rarely admit them to other people. After all, if they disturb us, they’ll undoubtedly disturb others, and we deal with enough social anxiety and imposter syndrome without adding any more fuel to that fire, thank you very much.
These thoughts originate in the wild world of our unconscious minds, which is where all of our creativity originates. It’s where artists and writers get their inspiration for paintings and stories, and where our dreams are born.
If you were to wake one morning after dealing with a dream in which you found yourself chowing down on your pupper, chances are you’d think “holy shit, that was a bad dream” and shake it off as you drink your morning coffee. You might cuddle your dog a bit longer than usual, but you wouldn’t be seriously disturbed because, well, it was just a dream, right?
Since these thoughts originate in the subconscious, it could be possible that they’re inspired by something that’s subconsciously upsetting or disturbing you. You might have skimmed over a story about people eating dogs in another country and it disturbed you in that moment, but you shoved it aside because you found it upsetting.
By repressing it, it may have lodged itself in your subconscious until triggered by something else, which popped it into the foreground and jolted you from that project you were supposed to be working on.
The key to dealing with these intrusive thoughts lies entirely with how we react to them. If they shock you in the moment, it’s okay to spend a brief amount of time thinking “wow, that’s some messed up shit right there,” and then let the thought GO.
Recognize them for what they are, and try not to have any kind of conscious aversion to them; the very act of detesting it is what will make it stick around in your mind. Don’t even try to envision it flying away from you in a Vulcan meditation type of way; just focus on something else, and don’t keep turning your thoughts back to the interloper to see whether it’s gone yet.
If you do suffer from OCD, an anxiety disorder, PTSD, or depression, it might be a bit more difficult for you to let these thoughts go, and that’s totally okay. Just try to keep calm, and try some different mechanisms to help you get past them. Should intrusive thoughts really upset you and interfere with your daily life, talk to your therapist or other healthcare provider. They can work with you to find a technique that works best for you, to help you learn how to let go of these types of thoughts when they arise.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.