Am I a bad person for having intrusive thoughts?

man holding head with dribble thought bubble Moodsmith logo on clock
Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

If you feel that you are a bad person for having intrusive thoughts, I will help clear that up for you.

Feeling like you are a bad person, or getting stuck in your head trying to rationalise if you are bad or not, is something I hear many people who have intrusive thoughts about.

I am going to talk to you about this in relation to

Intrusive Thoughts about causing harm and thinking you are a bad person

These type of thoughts can include harm in relation

  • to yourself
  • to other people
  • children
  • people you love and care about

Further Reading:

Intrusive Thoughts about religion and thinking you are a bad person

This can include

  • blasphemous thoughts
  • wanting to shout out inappropriate things during service
  • feeling the urge to do something that you consider to be inappropriate

Intrusive Thoughts about your sexual identity or inappropriate sexual thoughts and thinking you are a bad person

This can include

  • thinking that your sexual preference has changed
  • having inappropriate sexual thoughts
  • any type of thought really that goes against what you know of yourself as a person

When you have difficult thoughts, it can be challenging to distinguish between what is real and what is not.  You have to judge yourself on how you live your life, not on the intrusive thoughts that are in your head.

In my opinion, life is about being good enough.  I personally don’t aim to be perfect, as it is unattainable.  I think perfection is realising that you are good enough.  I think it would be helpful for me to explain this before coming back to intrusive thoughts.

Good enough means

That we try to do our best on most days, I purposefully said most days, as some days, speaking personally, I might not be feeling well, I might not have slept well, or got bad news.  Even on these days, I am doing my best, but it might be a different sort of ‘best’ from other days when I am feeling better.

A phrase from Marsha Linehan popped into my mind when I was writing that and it is,

All of us do the best we can with what we have available at any given time.

If you are reading this, don’t skip over this bit as it is essential.  It is very easy to look back on any given day and judge yourself harshly but to judge yourself correctly; you have to look at what was available to you on that day; let me explain.

You sent me a message last month asking me to help you move house, and I either said no or didn’t reply.  I could look back on that now I think I was selfish or not a good friend, but to judge myself correctly, I would have to think about what was happening last month – I would have to look for vulnerability factors.

Vulnerability factors are

  • not feeling well, emotionally or physically
  • tiredness
  • illness
  • anger, anxiety
  • or a difficult time with intrusive thoughts
  • feeling low
  • not eating correctly or looking after yourself
  • fighting with your partner
  • getting bad news, or having a difficult time

and the list goes on.

If I had been feeling any of those things the day you asked me to help you move house, my normal resources would be low, my ability to cope would be lower than normal, and I probably would not have had enough resources to help you out.

If I judged myself based on that, I am in a better position to judge myself.  Say we had been friends for 20 years, being a little bit more compassionate with myself, I would be able to see all the times when I was available to you and start to think I was a good enough friend.

I think this is a much fairer, more correct way to judge yourself, rather than looking at isolated negative incidents without putting them in context first.  On that day, when I said no if I apply.

All of us do the best we can with what we have available, at any given time.

What I would have had available to me would have been limited resources, sort of like trying to run your car with no gas.  On that day, I did my best with my limited resources and said no.  That does not make me a bad person.

Am I really a bad person for having intrusive thoughts?

When I explained to you what I meant by striving to be good enough, it was to get you to think about making your judgements fairly and realistically, and I am going to take that a bit further now.

In addition to judging yourself in a fair and good enough way, you have to judge yourself on the day to day reality of your life, not on your thoughts.

I will give you a list of my day to day reality, and you should do the same.  This list is not to include thoughts.  This is what I did yesterday.

  • Got up and made breakfast
  • Tidied the house
  • Did some work, wrote a post for my website
  • Did some gardening
  • Made lunch for my partner (he is coming up to some exams)
  • Played in the garden with my great-nephew, chatting with my nephew and his wife and went for a walk.
  • Cooked dinner, cleared up
  • Watered plants

It’s not an exciting list, but lots of it could be similar to yours – the day to day mundane stuff we do.  There is nothing on that list that would say I was a bad person.  I could have been thinking anything in my head while carrying out those chores, but the reality of how I conducted myself during the day was okay.

You could well be thinking now, but my thoughts were bad, Elaine, and I would tell you, no, they are not.  You are judging them as bad.  That is a critical point.  Much of your suffering arises from judging the thoughts and making the leap that they must mean something about you as a person.

How you conduct your life means something about you as a person.  The things that I could see if I followed you around for a day or two.  If I saw you carrying out a list similar to mine, that is what your real life is like, and that is what I would be judging you on.

Even if you told me that you had intrusive thoughts in your head, rather than judge you on the thoughts, I would show you compassion.

This is what I see with people who have intrusive thoughts; if this is the first time you came to my website, I’m a psychologist – hello!

People who have intrusive thoughts about causing harm.

I have worked with many mothers who fear they could harm their children, and I often say they are up for the ‘mom of the year’ award as the reality (that is what I can see – not the thoughts) is that they are very caring mothers.  They are usually supermoms because they are trying so hard to care for their children.

If this is you and you are thinking about the types of thoughts you have in your head, try to be compassionate with yourself and make a list like the one I did above and see what you do on a day to day basis for your kids.  It will be no different from anyone else.  You will not be a bad mother/father/person when you look at how you conduct your life.

The thoughts are something that is happening to you, not a judgement on you as a person – unless you judge it.

If you have religious intrusive thoughts.

It’s the same as above; look at how you actually conduct your life.  You might have found that you stopped attending services.  This is not because you are a bad person; it is more than likely because you are scared to go, in case of what you might do.  Many people with intrusive thoughts avoid people, places, or things that they think may cause intrusive thoughts or think they might do something bad.

This in itself says that you are not a bad person as you are avoiding things to protect others (although if you want to get better, I should say avoidance doesn’t help in the long run)

People who have thoughts about their sexual identity

This does not mean you love your partner less; if you are in a relationship, it means you are struggling with intrusive thoughts.

The phrase that I want you to take from this post is “all of us do the best we can with what we have available, at any given time.”  Before you judge yourself, look at what resources were available and look at the facts; how you actually conduct yourself on a day to day basis, not on the thoughts that are in your head.

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