There is a myth about the mind which is compelling, repeated often, but also inaccurate. It is the view that there is an ‘I’ or ‘self’ at the centre of our mental life that is the coordinator and controller par excellence.
If this view of the mind is correct, what does it mean if we start having ‘intrusive thoughts’ that do not reflect our character? Well we are compelled to view that if we are in control, then having such thoughts is a bad thing. It shows we are a bad person. We are therefore motivated to try and assert control, and either distract ourselves from the thoughts or find other ways of suppressing or neutralising them.
Many men have a daily struggle with these kinds of thoughts, and in the extreme can result in a worse quality of life than someone with schizophrenia.
So what’s going on here?
Let’s start with intrusive thoughts. The first thing to say is that we all get intrusive thoughts. What happens is that strange, bizarre and often offensive thoughts just pop into our heads at random. In one study, 56% of ‘normal’ men had intrusive thoughts about running the car off the road when driving, and 52% of men think about swerving the car into traffic. Furthermore, 59% of men get intrusive thoughts about insulting strangers, and 69% of men imagine the home is unlocked with an intruder inside.
So if intrusive thoughts are perfectly normal, why do some men get so distressed by them?
Well this brings us back to the view of the mind that, ‘I’ am in control (or should be in control) of what I think. If we believe this, and start thinking sexual thoughts against our sexual preference, for example, we are naturally going to become very distressed.
But, in reality, are we in control of our mental life in the way we would like to think?
A good way of testing this is to sit quietly and resolve not to think about anything. If you have ever tried to do that you will have realised that it’s simply impossible to stop the minds relentless chatter. What we discover is, rather than an esoteric ‘I’ who is thinking our thoughts, it is rather like our thoughts think us! Rather than be in control of our thoughts, we simply cannot be in control of our thoughts. In large measure our sense of ‘I’ or ‘self’ is compelling, but illusory.
If we can truly accept this, there is a radical and empowering conclusion to be drawn. If we are not in control of our intrusive thoughts, then we are not morally responsible for them. Having ‘bad’ thoughts is not only perfectly normal; it doesn’t make us a bad person either. And if that is true, there is absolutely no reason at all for trying to control them.
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt) for men in Manchester
- Counselling for men in Manchester
- Psychotherapy for men in Manchester
- Telephone and Skype counselling for men wherever you live
- Supervision and consultative support for therapists in Manchester
- Mediation for employment disputes in Manchester and the UK