Intrusive Thought: "What if I Harm a Child?" (POCD)

When the same thought, image, dream, or motif shows up across cultures and crosses all of our lines of classification (age, gender, geography, race, religion), we call it an archetype. For example, the dreams where you show up at school without your pants on or have forgotten to study for a test are archetypal dreams. The character of the wicked witch or the evil stepmother are archetypal symbols. And the thought, “What if I’m a pedophile?” is one of many archetypal thoughts – alongside “What if I don’t love my partner?” and “What if I have a terminal illness?” – that clients and course members have shared with me over the past two decades. It’s also one of the most highly misunderstood intrusive thoughts and the one that often causes the most anguish. As the Louisville OCD clinic writes:

Although all the many ways that obsessive-compulsive fears manifest themselves can cause debilitating anguish, perhaps there is none that causes more distress than OCD with pedophile obsessions, sometimes called POCD. This form of OCD involves the fear of harming or molesting a child.

There are higher levels of suicidal thoughts and depression in people with POCD. A person with contamination fears generally has those fears because they do not want to die. Whereas someone with POCD might be so worried they will harm an innocent child that they would rather take their own life.

I’ve always been fascinated by the archetype of intrusive thoughts. How can it be that thousands of people in all parts of the world, men and women, gay and straight, young and old, are dragged into the underworld of psyche by the same five or six thoughts? Is it a random coincidence? Not possible. We’re all linked in invisible ways and it’s this collective unconscious that Carl Jung wrote about that allows us to tap into the timeless reservoir of images that swim in the shared waters of the human experience. Tapping into this shared experience is the first step to calming the violent waters of the mind that invariably appear when an intrusive thought pierces consciousness. How we can not feel alarmed by thoughts like, “What if I have a terminal illness?” or “What if I don’t love my partner?” Yet knowing how normal and universal these thoughts are can turn the volume of the alarm bells down a few notches. Instead of viewing them as an indication that there’s something terribly wrong with you, you can begin to see them as part of the human experience. 

The next step is to understand that, like dream images, intrusive thoughts are metaphors. We’re so conditioned to take everything in life at face value that it can take some time to metabolize this deeper truth. As Jungian analyst Marion Woodman says, “We’re living in a civilization that doesn’t understand metaphor.” When we understand that archetypal thoughts are metaphors and our task is to dissect the thoughts and mine for their truths, we’re able to create some space between us and the thought. Taking the thought literally is the kiss of death when it comes to doing inner work, what dreamworker Jeremy Taylor calls “mistaken literalism”. 

With these two calming premises at the helm, we can now approach the specific thought: What if I’m a pedophile? 

A terrifying intrusive thought needs a splash of truth water to soothe the cognitive distortions, so I can tell you right off the bat that if you’re one of the highly moral and highly sensitive people who find their way to my site, you’re not a pedophile. You might obsess about it, worry about it, ruminate about it, and torture yourself about it; you might test yourself (in your mind; not in reality) and feel convinced that you’ve “failed” the tests. But the essential piece of cognitive truth to know here is that there is a Grand Canyon between thoughts and actions. The difference between someone who is afraid that they’re a pedophile and a true pedophile is the difference between having a thought and acting on that thought. The kind, gentle, thoughtful, introspective, moral, conscientious people who find their way to my work are not pedophiles and never will be. They’re simply not capable of committing such a harmful and grievous action. As the Louisville OCD clinic writes on the subject of POCD:

It is important to note that those with POCD do not want to harm children. Ironically, the person you could probably trust most with a child is someone with this obsession, as causing some sort of harm is the very last thing they would ever want to do.

Once we calm ourselves by tapping into the universality of these thoughts and splash on the truth water to cool some of the angry fires that try to convince you that you’re someone that you’re not, we then ask the crucial question for intrusive thoughts, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling or what need is it pointing to?” In other words, we begin the process of deconstructing the thought.

Every intrusive thought contains a core metaphor, and one for this thought is: How am I hurting myself?  How did I arrive at this core metaphor? I start with: “What if I’m pedophile?” which really means, “What if I hurt a child?” If we turn this projectionaround and understand that it’s pointing to something inside that needs our attention, we can easily see that embedded inside that thought is, “What if I hurt my inner child?” Working with intrusive thoughts in this way is like peeling the layers of an artichoke: we go deeper and deeper until we arrive at the heart.

When we shift from, “What if I’m a pedophile?” to “What if I hurt my inner child?” we have something to work with. Now, instead of being caught in the impossibly sticky web of an intrusive thought of which there is no answer and no escape, we can begin to explore how you may be currently hurting yourself. I recommend making a wheel (a tool that I teach in my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course in the section on intrusive thoughts) with the intrusive thought that you’re working with in the center and the spokes embedded in the thought extending out like rays of the sun.

I’m going to share a composite wheel below based on several clients who have struggled with the pedophile spike. Keep in mind that this is just one example of what it looks like to make a wheel and deconstruct a thought. Some of the spokes may resonate for you and others won’t. The important piece is to become intensely curious about what metaphors, needs, and unhealed pain your intrusive thoughts are pointing to. When curiosity replaces anxiety, the waterwheel of healing is set into motion.

  1. Spoke One: “You have no reason to be sad.” One of the most common ways that people harm their inner child is by invalidating their experience, especially when it comes to feeling their difficult feelings. They may have learned early in life that their feelings and needs didn’t matter and so developed a neural wiring system that blocked or numbed the feelings. Now, as adults, when the painful feelings arise the immediate and often unconscious response is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” If you can imagine how an actual child feels when her pain is met with , “Get over it” or “There’s no time for this” or “Stop being such a baby,” you can easily imagine what it feels like on the inner level to be met with similar responses.
  2. Spoke Two: “If I’m having this thought, it must mean I’m a terrible person. The thought itself is evidence of my essential badness.” The very act of believing that this thought could be true – believing you could be a pedophile – is an act of self-harm. It would be like a child that you love dearly coming to you and saying, “Am I a terrible person because sometimes I wish my brother wasn’t here?” and you responding, “Yes, it does mean you’re a terrible person.” Children have thoughts all the time that don’t correlate to their essential nature, and they need the loving adults around them to validate how normal it is to have those thoughts and explain that it doesn’t mean anything about their goodness. The same is true on the inner level. Part of healing from this thought includes saying to yourself, “Just because you think this doesn’t mean it’s true, and having this thought doesn’t say anything about your character.”
  3. Spoke Three: “You don’t get to play.” Children need to play. It’s as essential to their emotional and spiritual well-being as clean water and healthy food are to their physical well-being. When this thought appears in my clients, it’s often an indicator that they’re not allowing themselves times to play in their adult lives and often points back to a lack of play as children. One of my clients who struggled with this thought shared that as a child she wasn’t allowed to have playdates, had to keep her room meticulously clean and in order, and received the message that life was about all work and no play. Now, as an adult, the Taskmaster reigns supreme in her psyche and makes her feel guilty when she watches television or relaxes in any way. When we don’t let ourselves play, it’s an act of harm to our inner child, and the appearance of, “What if I’m a pedophile?” often points to the need to address how powerful a role the Taskmaster is playing at the table of psyche.
  4. Spoke Four: A Mother-Wound. The appearance of this thought often indicates a mother-wound, by which I mean being raised by a mother who had a hard time attuning to your needs instead of her own. A mother-wound can show up as a mother who is overly controlling and did things like picked out your clothes or controlled your extracurricular activities or can show up as neglectful and absent. The controlling mother is the mother who insisted that you play the piano even if it wasn’t your passion. It’s the mother who cared more about the way you looked than the way you felt. This is the mother who inserted her needs above yours, often in a manipulative or subtle way. The neglectful mother is the one who was so wrapped up in her own pain, narcissism, and drama that she dropped you multiple times at the doorstep of childhood and didn’t attend to your needs unless it was convenient for her. When there was a rupture of attunement growing up, we often have a hard time attuning to ourselves as adults, and lack of attunement is another way that we harm our inner child.

Remember that your ego is going to try to pick apart the above list and say things like, “Well, if I don’t have a mother-wound it must mean that this doesn’t apply to me and therefore the thought is true.” The ego operates in black-and-white thinking and doesn’t understand that just because every word doesn’t apply to you that doesn’t mean that you should throw out the entire message. In fact, working with the ego defenses is part of the healing process, for when you learn to say “yes” to this and “no” to that without invalidating the whole teaching you’re operating from your loving inner parent, which is exactly the part that needs strengthening when intrusive thoughts are at the helm.

Ultimately this thought, like all intrusive thoughts, is a brilliant escape-hatch defense mechanism designed to protect you from the messiness of your emotional world. Intrusive thoughts are so compelling and all-consuming that they monopolize your attention and magnetize your energy. In other words, if you remain compelled by the thought, you’ve successfully consolidated all of your other unanswerable questions and pain-strands into this one focal point. This is why when you’re consumed by intrusive thoughts, while tortured mentally, you often disconnect from your emotional life and have the experience of emotional flatness. Dr. Gail Saltz explains it well in The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius:

“While anxiety may be described by a layperson as an excess of emotion, in truth the experience of anxiety can act as a block on every emotion other than anxiety. Journalist David Adam, who explored his experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder in his memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, says, ‘I always said that OCD kind of took away emotions, in a way. Anything that happened to me that would normally cause an emotion, like, to make me sad or anxious or angry – didn’t seem to hit me as it did other people, because I was already preoccupied. Equally, maybe I didn’t take as much pleasure from some stuff as other people would… I think there is a degree to which when you are that concerned about something which is so important to you, everything else seems trivial.'” (p. 94)

Feeling flat and wondering if that’s normal, the anxious mind may then latch on to its next intrusive thought, “What if I’m a sociopath?” or “What if I have cancer?” And you can see how the mind leap-frogs from one story to the next, each one single-mindedly compelling until it loses air, begins to the deflate, and the next one sidles in to assume its place at the helm of your psyche. It’s a mentally excruciating process, yet one that can be broken down when we address the root source of the mind’s attempt to manage and have control over our messy, uncertain, painful, joyful lives. One thought at a time, one story at a time, we begin to excavate our psyche and mine for the gems that live inside our pain.

Mark Nepo speaks to this inward process of exploration using metaphor as the guiding principle with his classic vulnerability and honesty in The Book of Awakening:

“In my thirties, I was unwilling to look deep within at the source of my low self-esteem, but found myself digging in the garden with an unexpected urgency, eager to uncover some root I couldn’t name. I have also found myself over the years picking at myself, at cuticles and blemishes, picking at little wounds until they bleed, and I have slowly realized that this is my soul’s need to look beneath the surface diverted by my refusal to do so.

“My own struggle to open my heart has been a long one. I have been married twice, have survived cancer and a cold mother, have tried to hold onto friends like food for twenty-five years, and all that has fallen away. I use solitude now like a lamp to illumine corners I’ve never seen. And though I am scared at times that, after all this way, I will come up empty, I still believe that going inside and bringing whatever I find out makes all the difference.” p. 326

May we take his lead and meet ourselves at the level of soul, where the language of metaphor lines the walls of the labyrinth of Self, instead of at the level of thought, which only leads to the spin cycle of anxiety, trapped in our minds, desperate to find a way out.

91 comments to Intrusive Thought: “What if I Harm a Child?” (POCD)

  • growinglove

    Hi Sheryl,

    I purchased Break Free yesterday and am looking forward to working through the course. I found this article quite engaging, and I’m sure Break Free will explain more of what was covered in the article. I have a very critical father and felt like where you wrote about the “mother-wound”, actually applies to me as a “father-wound”, is it OK to interpret it this way? I’m the fourth youngest of 5 girls and have grown up with a very critical/emotionally abusive (sometimes physical – in the past). Can emotional abuse be seen as a form of defence also…? I do suffer from anxiety but find myself very openly attacking my partner for his “faults”, this initially began as just criticism but I end up being very harsh. 99% of our relationship has just become arguments from my part. And he is nothing but nice to me. The “faults” make him seem unattractive to me or that we are not meant to be together. example: he compliments me a lot, and I dislike it. Is everything projection? Since watching the opening video of Break Free I felt my heart soften a little but i still feel like I’m not myself. A lot of the time I feel empty. And display controlling behaviours much like my Dad has with me and my siblings and my mother.

  • Rebecca

    growinglove, I just worked through the Break Free course and think it will be very helpful for you. A wound from either parent (or any pivotal figure in your life) can sink deep and cause a lot of damage, especially if left untreated. Given what you have been through, your reaction to your partner makes a lot of sense. I have a mother-wound and a father-wound and find myself focusing on my partner’s faults and snapping. I have realized this is my way of trying to avoid more pain, since that is what I experienced from those closest to me. The risk of loving someone is larger for us, in a way, because we see what happens when it goes wrong. Simultaneously, I see you still have a strong desire to do the inner work and move toward your partner. That’s incredible. I would venture to say a lot of the arguments and faults may well be projections, especially if there are no red flags (addiction, abuse, etc.). I definitely encourage you to go through the Break Free course and see if that helps clarify for you what’s going on and what’s needed. As far as the controlling behaviors, that makes sense! Sometimes that’s how we try to protect ourselves. We had little control growing up, so we struggle to feel safe now. Same with the emptiness. It may be a safety-mechanism that protected you as you were growing up. If you are in a safe space now, this is an excellent time to dive in and do the inner work you couldn’t have done as a child. Last, if your father was very critical of you, do you still feel that way? Did you believe him? Could it be that you are snapping at your partner because you feel you don’t deserve him? I’m not sure if any of the above helped, and the choice is ultimately yours, but I’m excited for you and the steps you’re taking! I’m on a similar journey, and doing the inner work has been amazing (not easy, but definitely worth it). Best wishes! <3

    • Me

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you for responding to my post. Despite the emotional flatlining/numbness I could recognise that your post did speak to me, even with this grey funk inside of my head. Some areas within my inner world in regards to father-wound and past hurt seem so hard to access and internalise or validate… but I am hoping Break Free helps me with that. It sucks to not be able to feel “much”, including no love for my partner or attraction etc. I hope I can someday come back on this site & offer some reflective words on my own healing. Much love to you for your kind words. <3

  • Abigail

    I agree very much with the larger point of this post. However, some of the statements here are simply not true. The post claims that if a person is obsessed with being a pedophile, it means with certainty that they are not a pedophile. In fact, research shows that pedophiles DO obsess and worry about being pedophiles. It concerns me that your post may discourage those who are pedophiles from seeking the treatment they need, out of the mistaken belief that if they worry about it, it means they are not actually a pedophile.

    • There’s a critical difference between obsessing about being a pedophile and obsessing about the possibility of being a pedophile, which manifests as a “what if” question. What I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that the people who find their way to my site have a zero percent chance of actually being pedophiles as these are the most conscientious, sensitive, moral and ethical people I’ve ever known. There’s simply no chance that any of them would act out this intrusive thought.

      And that is not what the research shows. It actually shows that people who suffer from this obsession are the LEAST likely to harm a child. As I quoted in the article from the Louisville OCD site http://www.louisvilleocdclinic.com/pocd.php:

      “There are higher levels of suicidal thoughts and depression in people with POCD. A person with contamination fears generally has those fears because they do not want to die. Whereas someone with POCD might be so worried they will harm an innocent child that they would rather take their own life.

      “People with pedophile-themed OCD are the least likely to harm a child.

      “It is important to note that those with POCD do not want to harm children. Ironically, the person you could probably trust most with a child is someone with this obsession, as causing some sort of harm is the very last thing they would ever want to do. However, POCD obsessions, despite being quite prevalent, are not very well known to the general public. Even common forms of OCD such as contamination can be misunderstood. For example, people may think a person with OCD washes a lot to keep clean, without understanding that people wash because of a fear of something catastrophic happening they don’t.”

    • B

      Thank you Sheryl! This is such a lifeline!

  • B

    This would have saved me two years ago. Thankfully, this intrusive thought no longer gives me heart-stopping fear and I almost never think about it anymore. Hopefully this gives a beacon of hope to others 🙂

    • Thank you, B. Do you remember how you broke through it and was it replaced by another intrusive thought or have you been able to heal from the root?

    • B

      It was mostly the realisation that there are other people that have had these thoughts on the forum, and they made me realise that it mean anything and all those crazy thoughts I had – they validated all of them and reminded me that it was my brain playing tricks on me. Eventually, after repeated exposure (I worked a restaurant and we had a lot of families come in), I realised that I would never do such a thing. But I couldn’t really get underneath it – it was just the repeated exposure and normalisation that made the fear fade away. Currently, it’s health anxiety and death anxiety that seem to sway me the most!

    • B

      Also, what didn’t help was when I went to a psychologist and told her about the previous obsessive thoughts I’d had (POCD) and she said she’d never heard of that and that was it. It made me feel very alone and invalidated – speaks to the lack of general knowledge around this issue.

      • Yes, there’s SO MUCH misdiagnosis and misunderstanding around this obsession, which is why I felt compelled to post this even though I know we’re treading in sensitive territory. The article I quoted above speaks to the incredible lack of information around POCD even in the therapeutic community. This blew me away:

        “Frequently misidentified and misdiagnosed.

        A recent study assessed clinicians’ ability to correctly identify common symptom presentations of OCD. All participants were members of the American Psychological Association (APA), randomly selected to participate in each state. One of five OCD symptom vignettes was assigned to each participant, who was asked to give a diagnostic impression. 42.9% misidentified sexual obsessions about children, with over a third classifying the problem as pedophilia. In contrast, only 15.8% misidentified contamination obsessions as being indicative of OCD, and 28.8% misidentified religious obsessions as part of the disorder. Of the respondents, 81.8% were doctoral-level psychologists, 81.3% were licensed, and over half reported a CBT orientation. This high degree of misidentification calls into questions the likelihood that people with POCD will obtain a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.” – http://www.louisvilleocdclinic.com/pocd.php

      • agnes

        This was my experience too, B. I even had one therapist say, “if you can’t stop thinking about it, it must be a part of you thinks it’s okay”. I now email therapists in advance and ask “what’s your experience with he varying types of OCD? E.g. ROCD – relationship anxiety?” (if you’re not brave enough to put POCD in that initial email). I’ve had emails back saying “I’ve never heard of this type of OCD”. It makes me angry that some therapist seem to qualify and then stop researching and learning and developing through their own self-reflection. It’s helped me to just be around kids too. I’m a different person in these real-life scenarios than I am in my head, when my mind plays out the scenario of me hurting a child.

  • Lightuplotus

    Sheryl,
    I want to thank you for writing this article. It has been extremely therapeutic and healing. I am one of the people who have struggled with this intrusive thought. At times it has been debilitating and unbearable, to the point of not wanting to live if it could be true. Just being able to read your perspective has given me so much peace. One positive confirmation is that this is tied to the inner child. About a year ago, I came to that realization and in extreme stress I’ve started to hold myself as a child. I can visualize myself and I tell her it’s ok, I’m here and I love her so much. Again, I just wanted to thank you, this was life changing and I want you to know how much it means. Have a beautiful day and peaceful life.

    • I’m so glad to hear this, Lightuplotus. It’s a riskier topic to discuss as there’s still a lack of understanding around intrusive thoughts, and this one carries a particular taboo, but given what I hear in my counseling office every day I knew I had to write it and hopefully begin to break the taboo. I love that you’re holding your inner child and telling her that it’s okay. That’s the healing work at the core.

  • Kalika

    This would have made my life 5000% percent better if I’d read it in my early 20s when I struggled intensely with this intrusive thought. Thank you so much for writing it and I hope it gives relief to many with POCD (fear-of-being-a-Pedophile OCD). Blessings!

  • Anon

    I used to worry so very much about this, being gay, becoming schizophrenic and having a communicable disease (an STD that is also easily spread non-sexually) when I was in my late teens-early 20s. I am in my late 30s and know a lot more about OCD, sexuality and STDs so none of these ever came to fruition. I haven’t molested any kids, nor do I feel any temptation to do so. I have no diseases. I am not schizophrenic (only have anxiety and depression) The only thing that still sticks with me is although I am not gay (I know this because I feel genuine attraction to men–this I have obsessed enough over to know), I worry about where I am on the Kinsey scale and what it means for my relationship.

    • The gay spike is tricky because of sexual fluidity, but ultimately the work is the same, meaning getting to the root and understanding the metaphors embedded in the thoughts (which have nothing to do with the original thought).

  • Jenna

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’m wondering about your thoughts around intrusive thoughts about hiv or hep c?

    I’d be interested to hear.

  • Angela

    Thanks so much for taking your time, Sheryl. How interesting and powerful is our pysche. The last couple of days i have felt high symptoms of anxiety, my eyes felt heavy, i was nervous driving at night. I felt stuck then i addressed my inner feelings by texting my close friend Grace, and let out and named what i was feeling, stuck, scared, no control of what to do, but the answer for me was to sit with it and let it pass. Grace, my beautiful friend she also has a controlling and needy mother, so we feel the same constant desires and need to feel healthy love. Is our brain like a computer we start to absorb everything from a toddler??At least we can delete information from the computer, but its not an easy task to delete trauma in a click of a button. For alot people pain is hard to erase its just humanity, I welcome it by crying and sharing my
    Feelings its not welcomed or undetstood by my mother, but it is welcomed by my husband and close friends.

    • It’s such a gift to have people in your life who can hold and witness your pain. Quite often that person is NOT our mother or father (in fact, I would say that’s the exception) but it’s the people we meet along the way who become our heart family.

  • Anna

    Another great article. I’ve had two of my most awful and taboo intrusive thoughts return lately (‘hello darkness, my old friend’). But this time, two years later, I just called them out, like ‘here’s my brain trying to fixate on something big to be anxious about, since I’ve been so stressed lately’ and… it WORKED! They didn’t return and my mind picked out more regular intrusive thoughts instead (about death, my health, my relationship).

    This website has been so, so useful. Thank you!

  • Angela

    Thanks, Sheryl, to always break the things down in ways that are clear and easy to understand. In my case, after a breakup I would obsess over and over about the men I used to date, even though when I was with them, I knew they were not the right person for me. What striked me at some point was realising that I would go into this obsession mode when there was something else in my life that was difficult (e.g. stress at the workplace, physical or mental fatigue, etc.). This made me realised that it was not about that man or that relationship but that I would rather go into this mechanism to cope with any overwhelming thing that was going on in my life. I think that this is also what you also say when you talk about obsessive thoughts.

  • Yvonne

    I feel like I’ve been doing abit better, I still get some unwanted thoughts about my partner here and there but I can go days/week or two without any and knowing that I love him and he is the person I want to be with.. I’m in the process of looking for a new job and now I’m getting a thought like “what if there’s attractive guys working there and I start liking someone else” of course I don’t want this to happen but this thought is stuck in my head.

  • LightAtTheEnd

    It’s amazing how relevant this information is…irrespective of the thought almost. Thanks for deconstructing so clearly. It’s NOT easy for me to get the process right because I’m highly addicted to the thoughts!
    When the intrusive thoughts are so strong and persistent…the step I trip up on is coming to terms, and truly believing that …’what if I’m a peodophil (boils down to) = what if I hurt my inner child’
    That this is all a projection.

    • Yes, the work is the same irrespective of the thought. It’s hard to see it as projection but that’s exactly the work- especially for you! Remember what we discussed: name the thought as an intrusive thought even if you don’t believe it and approach it as a one month experiment. You have to suspend your attachment/addiction to taking the thought at face value in order to do the deeper work.

  • Daniel M.

    Interestingly, I hesitated to open this e-mail, cause my mind was trying to convince me that since this topic seems somehow important, then I’m definitely capable of being a pedophile. Quite a blocker.
    I think that in my case, these kinds of thoughts mostly come from emotional neglect from my mother and being molested by my paternal grandmother.
    It’s very hard for me to be around boys aged 8-10, probably because that’s the time my grandmother commited those shameful deeds on me, while I was being very vulnerable and had no other adult there to protect me.
    The most prevelant thing that has driven my life for a long time has been shame. At this point I realize that it became a toxic kind of shame. I’m ashamed to be alive, to move, to have a thought, to be spontaneous, etc. Anything comes down to feeling ashamed of myself.
    Thank you for this post. I will come back to it in a while to re-read, as the anxiety I experience doesn’t allow me to actually understand a lot of the messages.

    • Yes, read it when you’re ready and can take in the information. Shame can be incredibly toxic, and it’s good that you’ve identified that. I think, when you’re ready, that you’ll find the article reassuring and it may allow you to see that, at least one aspect of your inner work, is to learn how to protect your own inner self when you’re feeling vulnerable by replacing the shame messages with the truth. This isn’t easy work, Daniel, and I’m glad you pushed past your initial hesitation and opened the email.

  • K

    Sheryl, you often refer to the “wounded inner child” and the ego. Are you referring to the same thing while using these terminologies? Is there any distinction between them, if at all?

    • I see them as two different things. The ego is the part of us that tries to keep us safe and is single-mindedly focused on trying to have control and avoid loss while our inner child (I don’t use the term wounded child) is our emotional center that needs our loving and compassionate attention.

      • K

        Thanks for this. This has been a big source of confusion in my journey, because I’m not able to identify which voice is which. I hope you write more on this distinction, that can help us identify which voice to honor and which voice to ignore.

  • agnes

    Thank you x 1945285141047`-42842`00000 for writing this. It’s vitally important that those who have worked closely with sufferers share the truth about this particular intrusive thought. There’s so much risk in speaking about it.

    I still struggle with it from time to time and it popped up again one day last week. I tried to gently (not obsessively) scan for a trigger – “I wonder why this thought has popped up now?” – and I can only think that it re-appeared after my partner came home from a family trip to inform me that they were having yet more problems, arguments and had made yet more critical comments about us and our relationship. This has always had a huge impact on my self esteem. What I’m not quite sure I understand, however, is that I was aware of the dent to my confidence and also of the POCD thought. If this thought was the cover-up, would I not be aware of the feeling?

    I’m glad that you also briefly covered ‘numbness’ here as feeling nothing when the POCD thought plays out in your head can feel like the final nail in the coffin – “If I feel nothing about this thought I am DEFINITELY a pedophile”. Myself and my friend have often talked about feeling numbness at ‘inappropriate’ times (e.g. when our loved ones are upset and needing our empathy) which then leads to the thought “I’m a sociopath”.

    You know how brilliant I think you are, Sheryl. I do need to make more time for inner work but I fear making that an obsession too. Perhaps a healthy limitation on time spent reading and practicing may be the key. Thanks again X

    • agnes

      Oh my god…

      “How am I hurting myself?”

      I’m letting my partner’s family create the belief in me that I’m a bad person and no good for my partner. I’m letting them taint our relationship with their manipulations and lies about me.

      • YES! So if we take this metaphor further we see that often the need is to learn how to protect ourselves, to look at any ways that we’re allowing others to walk over us.

        I fully support limiting the amount of time you spend doing inner work. 15-30 minutes morning and evening is what I generally recommend, but you’ll determine what works best for you.

  • E

    Sheryl, you are a true blessing to those of us who struggle with anxiety, intrusive thoughts and OCD. While I was engaged, it was the “What if I don’t love him?” thought all the time. This site helped immensely. Then it turned to, “What if I’m a lesbian?” after we were married. Again, this site helped me gain the confidence to get help. And after I became a mother, it turned to “What if I molest him?” I did ERP and it’s helped so much, but reading this shined a light in as well. By far, the pedophile thoughts have been the hardest to cope with because I would rather die than hurt a child. However, by continuing to care for my children and challenge those thoughts, I have had great payoff and have been feeling better.

    I have a significant mother wound, and was emotionally abused as a child. I’ve always been quick to dismiss that, but I see how signicant that truly is overall.

    Thank you Sheryl, from the bottom of my heart!

    • “What if I harm a child?” often arrives during the first months of motherhood, which makes so much sense when you understand it in the context of being a highly sensitive person who is overwhelmed by the earthquake of motherhood. ERP can be highly effective, and I’m so glad it has helped you.

  • ThereThere

    Thank you Sheryl! Even though this particular intrusive thought does not apply to me, I’m very aware that that might change any time. Thank you for the example of how to approach such a disturbing thought!
    For me, my experience with intrusive thoughts started with the “What if I don’t really love him and never have?” a few years ago. Now that I’ve made peace with that thought and found the underlying pain, this story doens’t really pop up anymore.
    For the past year, it has been replaced with “What if I’m seriously ill?”. Exploring this thought, I feel it might have a lot to do with some big and scary changes I’m making in my life. I’ve moved cities, started on building a house, started a new job and am planning a change in career. Something inside of me doesn’t want me to change and grow, it prefers the safety of staying in one place and being unnoticed. Time for some curiousity and loving attention there!

    • I love that you’re approaching this latest thought with inquiry and curiosity, and it sounds like you know it’s connected to your transitions. The more you allow yourself to grieve the changes, the quieter the thoughts will become. “What if I’m seriously ill?” is often also an invitation to grow a stronger spiritual relationship.

      • ThereThere

        Thank you for replying! I do feel it’s connected to my transitions. I’m so scared that everything I learn and discover is going to be taken away from me like other important things were taken from me (my health, my job, my ability to feel, my identity, my mum…). Or more accurately, I’m scared to “fail” again like I’ve “failed” before. It’s safer to stop at this point and physically not being able to go on seems like a good excuse to my ego. It’s a vicious cycle: I get anxiety over change/transition -> I feel weird things in my body -> intrusive thoughts say it MUST be cancer or at least very serious -> I get more symptoms -> my ego says “told you so!” -> intrusive thoughts get stronger etc etc… Having worked as a physician doesn’t help either, I’ve seen too much 😉
        To be honest, your comment on a stronger spiritual relationship did spike my anxiety at first. Does Sheryl mean my relationship is bad?? I wonder if it could also mean growing a stronger spiritual relationship with myself? That does make sense, as I’m discovering my highly sensitive and spiritual side and haven’t quite accepted that yet.

        • I absolutely meant developing a stronger spiritual relationship with yourself (this has nothing to do with your partner). As far as the vicious cycle: if you can meet the grief and fear of the unknown that’s embedded in the first stage of your transition – “I get anxiety over change/transition” – you will intercept the anxiety loop and instead drop into what truly needs attention, which are the core feelings that arise around transitions (and in life). In other words, assigning inaccurate meaning to the “weird things in my body” is a way to distract and protect from the messiness of being human, which means finding the courage to feel the highly uncomfortable feelings.

  • Emma

    Sheryl, I’ve had this spike in the past and lately too. I manage it by trying not to give the content of these thoughts importance while addressing the anxiety through inner-bonding (comforting/connecting with my inner child).

    Side note: Do you think you could write a post about NEW relationships. I’ve dealt with relationship anxiety in the thick of a 5-year relationship with my ex. It ended when he left me for someone else. He has since regretted his mistake and has been trying to win me back for a year. I’ve now met an amazing, loving man but I struggle with “feeling” or “connecting” the way I did with other love interests. It would be so helpful if you could cover the topic of new relationships and conceptions of love. This man is nothing short of an angel but I don’t know if that “connection” is there for me. I really wish it were. It causes me a great deal of pain thinking it simply may not…

    Also, very interested in a one-on-one coaching session with you.

    Emma x

    • Emma: I address this topic in depth in my Break Free course and also in this blog. If you read through my blog in its entirety your questions will be answered.

  • PaintedFlowers

    Hi Sheryl,

    I really like this post. I have had intrusive thoughts like these and found this article quite comforting. Lately, I have been struggling (again) with thoughts of “what if my relationship is wrong?” and “what if I did the wrong thing marrying my husband?” I don’t believe I really did do the wrong thing. He’s very loving and kind and thoughtful and sweet. We are different in some ways, and I am learning that as we continue through our marriage. I tell myself that it’s okay to be different and have different work ethics and motivation, but sometimes the thoughts overwhelm me and tell me that those differences make it wrong. Those thoughts have a tendency to, for a time, overshadow all of my husband’s other great qualities. When I think of separation, that’s when I get the most anxious. I realize that may be a good thing because I obviously care for and love my husband deeply. Anytime I am in a good head-space I feel good and loving and don’t fear separation. How do I turn those questions around to find out what needs healing inside of me? It doesn’t seem very clear or obvious, and I realize that is the nature of this work. I want to be able to make a wheel to deconstruct this thought because of how helpful it was in the article above, but sometimes I have a hard time deciphering what needs attention inside myself.

    • It’s hard to say what would comprise the spokes of your wheel without knowing your story but some of the spokes will be: understanding the truth about real love (which includes learning to tolerate and appreciate differences); the fear of loss; pain from old losses. These are some of the standard spokes. You’ll discover many others as you sit with yourself and approach the exercise with the mindset of curiosity.

  • onedayatatime

    If this is okay, for anyone reading I thought I would share the name of an OCD therapist who has a blog and writes articles on all these tricky and difficult OCD “themes” as well (Pocd, Rocd, Hocd, Harm ocd, contamination). He writes from an OCD lense but given how difficult this theme can be for obvious reasons, I thought I would share so maybe it can help others and reinforce the message that this is just a “thought”/anxiety. He also touches on ways to also cope with the thoughts/anxiety, I like how he also addresses mindfulness and tolerating uncertainty which I have found helpful combined with Sheryl’s work. Thanks for sharing on such a difficult topic Sheryl because the act alone gives people permission to move forward and heal!

    Name is: Jon Hershfield.

    • Of course! I love when people share resources on my site. I’ll look forward to reading his work.

    • kalika

      Jon Hershfield is my #1 favorite OCD blogger. He himself speaks openly about his own OCD challenges and writes with humor and respect. Recently he’s begun to treat OCD with mindfulness and written a book on this. Very highly recommended!

  • Abigal

    Hello again, Sheryl,

    I applaud the important work you are doing here in bringing light to people suffering from the commonly misunderstood diagnosis of POCD. It’s clear from so many of the comments what a relief it is for people suffering from this to find your post.

    I am aware that people with POCD worry and obsess tremendously. My earlier point was simply to point out that many pedophiles also suffer from anxiety around their impulses; and I’m sure you also know that the suicide rate among this group is quite high.

    I hesitate to post this as I am aware of how these facts may be triggering; but I would think that providing clearer guidelines on the many differences between POCD and pedophilia might be helpful in general and reassuring to those with POCD.

    • I appreciate your point, Abigail, and I agree that it’s important to offer clear guidelines on the differences between POCD and pedophilia. Here’s how I understand it in a nutshell:

      * Those suffering from POCD fall into the anxious-sensitive-creative profile (prone to anxiety, often from a young age, highly analytical, introspective, perfectionist) that I often discuss in my work, which means that they cycle through the standard set of archetypal thoughts that I discuss throughout my site. This means that, “What if I harm a child?” morphs into “What if I don’t love my partner?” which morphs into “What if I’m terminally ill?” etc (in no particular order). A true pedophile does not show these same characteristics.
      * The crucial difference, however, is that those suffering from POCD know, deep down, that they would never harm a child (and they never do). The mainstream modality for healing from PCOD is CBT, which includes normalization then exposure. As several readers have shared, when they’re exposed to kids they know in their cells that they would NEVER, EVER harm a child. This isn’t the case for a pedophile.

      • agnes

        I’m trying really hard not to allow myself to be hurt and angered by these comments, but there are plenty of resources which suggest that a person experiencing this IS a pedophile and I NEED this website to offer something different. Thank you for your response here, Sheryl. I appreciate how much detail you’ve put into both the article and the responses. I’m trying to ignore the “but it doesn’t make you hugely anxious anymore”, “but what if it surfaces when you have your OWN children?”, “but you’ve never suffered with the other spikes such as health anxiety”, “but you don’t know deep down that it isn’t true when you’re in the thick of it” but certainty that I’m safe only ever arises when I turn my attention elsewhere and don’t give it the time of day. Addressing it with ‘truths’ has never helped. There is always a loophole and my mind has even managed to convince me that I ‘like’ it in the past. It’s the stickiest intrusive thought I have for sure.

        • Knowing you as I do, Agnes, you’re suffering from classic POCD and are in ZERO danger of ever acting on these thoughts. You know this, too. I understand feeling spiked by some of the comments but we have to allow for other viewpoints as that’s what anyone suffering from this thought is going to meet not only in the mainstream but in most therapy offices. Much of this is a process of educating not only ourselves but the world about how much people suffer from intrusive thoughts.

          • agnes

            I understand that, which is what makes what you’ve written here so valuable. I just see this site as a safe space and comments like that feel very unsafe and somewhat accusatory (though I am probably projecting somewhat).

            I’ve often wondered throughout my experience with POCD, what if people who do offend are almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the only information you have is that thinking about something like this makes you a pedophile…maybe you hide in shame, maybe it begins to grow and rage inside of you, maybe you feel destined to be bad, maybe you become depressed and utterly give up on life. I really don’t know. There is, of course, always the choice-point. I just think it can only do more good than harm to educate from this point of view. It’s setting people on the path of hope and recovery rather than condemnation.

          • I hear you loud and clear, agnes. I grappled with whether or not allow those comments as I know how important it is that this site remain a safe space, but I do think that Abigal is coming from a genuine place and brings up some important points. If I thought she was just out to accuse I wouldn’t have approved the comments.

  • Kat

    Hi Sheryl,

    I love reading everything you post on anxiety. As someone who has struggled with anxiety almost all my life, I would come across these types of debilitating thoughts and had a hard time shaking it off. This specific thought scared me the most, especially since I work with children. I had to remind myself I have never acted on anything and never could imagine myself hurting a child. I struggled with this intrusive thought a year and a half ago and am happy that it no longer in my constant thoughts and finally free from letting it control me and no longer fear it.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with this thought, Kat. As I’ve shared and as you’ve experienced, people who suffer from POCD never do act on the thoughts and would never harm a child.

    • agnes

      I understand that, which is what makes what you’ve written here so valuable. I just see this site as a safe space and comments like that feel very unsafe and somewhat accusatory (though I am probably projecting somewhat).

      I’ve often wondered throughout my experience with POCD, what if people who do offend are almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the only information you have is that thinking about something like this makes you a pedophile…maybe you hide in shame, maybe it begins to grow and rage inside of you, maybe you feel destined to be bad, maybe you become depressed and utterly give up on life. I really don’t know. There is, of course, always the choice-point. I just think it can only do more good than harm to educate from this point of view. It’s setting people on the path of hope and recovery rather than condemnation.

  • Aino

    Hi Sheryl,
    I’m relatively new to your work (started reading your blog last December and purchased Break Free -course in May) and this is my first comment ever. ? First I want to thank you for all your work, I feel like your blog is one of the few places where I actually feel at home. I’ve been struggling with anxiety and intrusive thoughts my whole life (first intrusive thought when I was five, hocd when I was 13, relationship anxiety with every single crush I’ve ever had, you get the picture…) and been to therapy for over ten years now. My healing process seems to be really slow and most of the time I feel stuck (although I have a very good and loving therapist), which at times makes me feel really frustrated and depressed. These days my anxiety is mainly about my relationship (I have been married to a very sweet, kind, loving man for three years now) and my health and also my family members’ health. Reading this post made me remember that I actually had a short phase with this particular intrusive thought as well when I was maybe 14 years old. Out of curiosity I started to make a wheel about this thought (I find it so much easier to make a wheel of an old intrusive thought than current ones, perhaps because my ego doesn’t get in the way all the time) and I was wondering whether or not I’m going to right direction with this… For me, answering the question ”What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” is somehow very difficult, because all I get is ”it’s protecting you from the grief that you have actually made I mistake marrying your husband” or ”it’s protecting you from the sadness that life is unsafe and uncertain and therefore you might have cancer and eventually you’re going to die” (I know by reading your work that uncertainty and fear of loss and death play a big role in intrusive thoughts, but I feel like I’m somehow stuck with these feelings since I have been feeling them constantly my whole life). Something about today’s blog post (I don’t even know what it was) made me ask a slightly different question which was ”What is the story that this particular thought is telling you?” And with this question I felt I was able to move forward making my wheel (my spokes were ”I’m a bad person”, ”I am uncapable of living a normal, happy life”, ”I am uncapable of falling in love in a healthy way, getting married or having a family”, ”There is a terrible, shameful secret inside of me” and so on…). Reading these spokes made me see that the story is actually extremely unkind (and in a way reminds me of the fears my mother had regarding me when I was a child), which really isn’t anything new to me, but putting them in this visual format is something I haven’t done before. My question to you is, do you think this kind of approach (What is the story that the intrusive thought is telling you?) is helpful when working with intrusive thoughts? I was wondering, if this could be a way to help bring those false beliefs regarding myself to the surface (by naming and visualizing them like this), examine their roots and maybe finally start seeing them for what they are: false beliefs, not reality (easier said than done, though ?). I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

  • Curious

    Hi Sheryl,
    This is a fantastic post – thank you! When this thought first intruded, I could barely breathe. But after a year of relationship anxiety, this thought was the turning point towards healing. I couldn’t get any lower in my psyche than this. It felt like this thought lay in the most hidden and darkest recess of my mind. I don’t find anything else as scary about myself as this thought. So when I faced it, I could begin to step into the light again. When this thought pops up now, I think “what do I need”? “How am I not looking after myself?” “What nourishment am I denying myself”? Well, in all honesty, I ask these questions after first getting entangled in the thought! The one question I have of you, that gets me entangled is, “Is there a grain of truth to this fear about myself?” I remember reading a post of yours about the gay spike, and how in a sense its true – you could be gay because sexuality is a fluid thing. But you orientate one way – strait or gay. Does the same logic apply to this spike? Is there a grain of truth in the anxiety?

    • That’s a great question. No, there’s not a literal grain of truth in this thought, but there’s likely a grain of truth in terms of accepting the darker aspects of ourselves. Somebody wrote to me offline and spoke to this point and I’m hoping she’ll post her comment here. It’s quite brilliant.

    • Clara

      Hello Curious! I’m the person to write to Sheryl off line, and she asked if I would post my comment. This is what I wrote…

      One thing I find myself thinking in terms of why this particular intrusive thought seems to be a common one: I wonder if it’s connected to a deep fear about our inherent badness, brokenness and corruption. Pedophiles are the monsters of the modern age. They are equated with true evil, and any attempt to understand, treat, humanize them is met with rage and disgust. They are the archetypal image of human evil and wrongness in our culture at the moment, and so to me there is a certain logic to sensitive, anxious, perfectionistic, self-critical, self-doubting people fearing that this very worst version of humanity might just apply to them, might just be lurking in their subconscious. I imagine many of your clients, particularly those who present with OCD and OCPD features are Ones on the Enneagram, which (according to that model) would mean that their greatest fear is of their own inherent badness and corruption.

      • I believe you’ve hit an archetypal nail straight on the head, Clara. Thank you for sharing this here.

        • agnes

          Clara, that’s brilliant. Thank you for posting. I’ve been struggling with this thought a lot today (it’s feeling very true) and for a moment reading your comment, the ‘truth’ dissolved for a moment.

      • Curious

        Hey Clara and Sheryl,
        Your posts have really helped bring clarity to what is really going with these thoughts. They have helped remove the last bit of doubt. It is a hard thing to accept that within all of us is darkness – a potential to do harmful things. Thank you to you both and everyone for speaking so openly about something so taboo. This move to the light helps remove the shame that keeps us trapped and dwelling in dark places. Its great to be able to say that I am not inherently bad and evil, and though I am not perfect and stumble, I choose to act with love 🙂

        • Clara

          Thank you Agnes and Curious for your thoughts. While I personally have not suffered from this particular intrusive thought, I have been crippled by intrusive thoughts concerning my own brokenness and evil in the past. For me I was feeling worried, and in my darker moments utterly convinced, that I was deep down a sociopath or had Narcissistic PD (both the epitome of human wrongness in my undergrad psychology student mind). These surfaced with their strongest ferocity during my first pregnancy, and sent me down a terrible path of anxiety, depression and despair, as I thought I was constitutionally incapable of raising a child without harming them. With the sensitive and skillful care of Sheryl and other therapists I came to work through these thoughts, see them for what they were (i.e. the logical conclusion of my perfectionistic, self-critical, self doubting cognitive habits leading me to believe my worst fears, and with absolutely no basis in reality). I came to see that we have the freedom to chose which story about ourselves we believe, and that is only through believing a given story and then acting as though it is true, that any story about ourselves ever becomes “real”. I also came to see that, if we accept that our purpose here on earth is to live worthy lives of honour and love, then the story about ourselves that is most “true” is the story that would best facilitate that kind of life. All the rest of the thoughts and fears are simply distractions from this central life purpose. As a wise and soulful friend of mine says: “we are put on this earth to befriend ourselves”.

          • agnes

            Clara, can you recommend anything you read that might be of help? I, too feel like I am incapable of raising a child without harming them. I have felt since I was very young that I am bad and that something is ‘coming to me’ in my future, like my fate of harming a child. I am so so so exhausted by this work right now. My head is blurry with all the things I have to remember to do. I can’t touch into any bodily wisdom that I am good. When I try to uncover what’s beneath the thoughts I just come up with lots of ideas about what could be going on for me. Never a definitive answer that quietens the thoughts. I’m so tired. I had a moment today where it felt, deeply, like I had accepted my fate as a bad person. It felt more like bodily wisdom than anything else. I’ve never experienced that truly deep sense of knowing I’m good, just that I’m bad. I hate that there are all these criteria to meet or not meet in order to determine whether I am a monster or not. No matter how anyone defines it, there are always characteristics that resonate with me, e.g. people with POCD *KNOW* that they are safe when in the company of a child. Anyway, as soon as I learn what traits make a bad person my brain starts doing just that. If someone were to say that pedophiles get pleasure from these thoughts, or they know deep down it’s true, or it feels to align with their wants/needs WHATEVER it is my brain will start doing that. My imagination is so vivid I could think up anything. Really really struggling with this today and not knowing where to start. I can remember bits of the work, like taking intrusive thoughts as a sign to turn inward etc., but I’m not getting ANY relief. It feels like, I believe in this work wholeheartedly in theory, but it’s just not working out for me. 🙁

          • Clara

            Hello Agnes, I really feel for you. I can hear how desperate and overwhelmed you are, and I remember when I felt the same way many years ago. The first thing I would say is: hang in there, you will not always feel this way, and things will get better. You do not need to resolve this crisis by accepting that you are a bad person. That is not true (I can say that with great confidence even though I don’t know you).Thoughts like that come from your Super Ego (the internal critic and judge) and are entirely unfounded in reality. The second suggestion I would make is see if you can loosen your grip on trying to work out what is “true” about yourself. When we’re stuck on the rabbit hole of anxiety and self doubt, can always find evidence confirming our worst fears about our “true nature”. We don’t realize that we’re ignoring all the evidence for the fact of our essentially good and loving true nature. Rather than desperately trying to work out what is “true” (because right now, you’re in a space where only the worst possible story will feel “true”), try focusing on whether a thought / story / belief is HELPFUL. By “helpful” I mean, does it help you to live a life of meaning, purpose, honour and self-love. In the end, ideas about ourselves only become “real” if we believe them and act as though they’re true. When we act with self-compassion and love, we create ourselves as a compassionate and loving person. We do always retain the power to choose which “version of ourselves” we will live from and act from. And with time, through action, we develop our Loving Adult, and it becomes natural and who we truly are. In terms of reading, I read so much, it’s hard for me to remember.. but two books that really spoke to me were “Broken Open” and “How good do we have to be?”. Sheryl’s blog and e-courses were also invaluable. Sending you warmth, love and understanding in your struggle, and such clear hope and faith that you will find your way through the labyrinth and emerge with new strength, wisdom and self-trust.

  • Angela

    My beliefs on this paedophile intrusive thoughts is us highly sensitives beautiful normal people have had childhood trauma and this is exactly why these normal intrusive show up. Our parents or whoever it was in our lives took our innocence and made us believe we are bad people, we are not bad people, their distorted unhealthy parenting is the cause, you may correct me if im wrong Sheryl, but i know in my heart im right.

  • alison

    This was such a good read for me. I don’t always suffer obsessive thoughts, they come and go, but this is one that has troubled me in the past. I just have always wondered, “Why would I even THINK about doing something so terrible, why would it cross my mind? Maybe the same thing happened to me when I was a child…etc, etc.” The part about skin-picking spiked me a bit, because I have read that can be something trauma sufferers do unconsciously. My mother suffered severe sexual abuse as a child and has always been a scalp-picker and grew up with OCD. My sisters and I do the same (though I wouldn’t consider the OCD to be major or debilitating), and I’ve always wondered if I/we have repressed trauma or just energetically picked up on our mother’s. It’s something that I don’t try anymore to go digging for, that if there’s something I need to know it will surface in its own time, but it still pops into my mind now and then.

  • Angela

    This is where it all stems down to, they have no idea how much pain they caused and still causing, we are better and wise enough to know we are incredibly beautiful, despite these thoughts, there laughable to me thanks to you Sheryl. Unfortunately they need the therapy not us. And possibly they will admit to their wrong doings on their death bed. Its sad but true. The difference between humanity and the animal kingdom is animals dont speak so they dont get the verbal abuse. Its such a cruel world isnt it. We are all used for experiments and then we die.

  • Angela

    Alison, you got it, children observe their parents and you picked upher sufferings.
    Im so sorry about your mum, it makes me sick how this happens.
    Tell your mum to watch psalm isadoras videos. Unfortunately she passed away this year, but her son has carried on her sexual healing business. I hope this will help her. It helped me because i was physically abused by my dad.

  • Joanne

    Sheryl, I want to thank you so much for this article. I am a member of your forums and originally had much relationship anxiety, but this shifted into two other obsessive thoughts – the one mentioned above and the fear of hurting myself. Last year I struggled so much with both of these constant thoughts. I was completely floored by them, esp the child orientated one, I couldn’t do anything, even walk past the kids clothes section in case it made me ‘feel’ something.

    I wish you’d written this years ago! It would have helped so much. I honestly believe my OCD is driven by my fear of having kids – it scares me and I think my mind tries to trick me into thinking I will make a horrid mother – when the reality is that I’m a good person, a great auntie and a brilliant cat momma!

    Thankfully my therapist had not only heard of my condition, but also treated another young mother who had the exact same issues as me, so much so she couldn’t even change her baby’s nappy.

    I would still get the odd intrusive thought, but it is not as debilitating as it was. I am able to see through it and put it out of my mind without ruminating. I am still scared that deep down within me, there is a monster lurking, but I’m hoping that if I just keep moving forward with my life and family plans, I can eventually overcome this.

    Thank you again, signing up to your forums was the best decision I ever made and the best gift I could have given to myself. Understanding our complex minds is always a good thing!

    • Joanne

      PS – I don’t really ever have my relationship anxiety anymore – I love my husband dearly and I never worry about that now. So it just shows that my brain shifts from one issue to the next!

    • I’m so glad to hear this, Joanne. Yes, it seems that one of the metaphors inside this particular intrusive thought is, “What if deep down I’m a monster?” which points to our archetypal fear of being “bad.” I’m so glad to hear that you’ve found a wonderful therapist and have been able to move through many of the intrusive thoughts, and yes, the themes just keep changing, inviting us to do deeper and deeper layers of inner healing work.

  • Anna

    This is quite a different topic but I wanted to see if more people do this and if they have tips. Today I suddenly realised that when I’m anxious,I pick my nails, scratch my scalp, and pick at split ends. Do any of you do this too? How do you deal with it? I think I should probably turn inward and breathe into the anxiety or something when it happens. I kust never realised how compulsive it is.

    • growinglove

      Hi Anna,

      I tend to pick my spots compulsively (sorry for the detail) and pick my skin. It definitely increases the more stressed I am. It does not necessarily bother me until I dwell on it being a ‘bad’ thing – then it’s like I hone into it and see it as something I shouldn’t be doing. Sorry I can’t be of much help 🙁

  • agnes

    I’m reading Jon Hershfield’s blog today and wanted to share this from “POCD Part ii: Treating Pedophile OCD” –

    The Trap of Convincing Yourself

    Uh huh, freedom from OCD sounds great, but how do I know if I’m a pedophile or not? “Pedophiles are like this and I’m like that.” Looking for something like that to prove I’m not a child molester. I mean, what’s the difference between me and someone who’s a pedophile and is just afraid to act on it? Or maybe doesn’t want to act on it because they know it’s wrong or harmful? I need to know that I’m, not sexually attracted to children, that I’m not even capable of it.

    This is an OCD trap. I could write about the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia and the basic premise that some people for some reason are either sexually wired toward children or somehow develop urges that result in preying on children. You could read it and find the thing you think makes you different or the same, but your obsession will persist regardless. It is the problem with certainty and capability. First, attempts to attain certainty suggests that certainty is somehow accessible with harder and deeper thinking. If this were true, you would not find yourself seeking out more information about POCD. You would have thought long and hard about it, figured it out, and moved on. Certainty is an illusion. I’ve managed to go my whole life without molesting anyone, but it doesn’t prove a thing other than saying that the attention I need to give to thoughts about potentially molesting children is probably very low. Certainty is perfect knowledge that something is 100% true. Rather than certainty, what we would be better off seeking is confidence, an internalized belief that something is true. This comes not from trying to prove things, but from accepting uncertainty and living in such a manner that “proof” seems superfluous.

    The other problem with the never-ending quest to prove incapability is the implication that being capable of something means we will do something or means we are the kind of person who could do something. It’s a trap because if you have at least one arm, you are capable of punching someone. If you are physically larger and stronger than a child, then you are capable of abusing that child. Capable just means physically able, so being aware of capability is irrelevant when trying to determine likelihood of action. What’s more important than the potentiality is reality. If in the present moment you are having unwanted thoughts about children, then you are whoever you are and are having those thoughts. This doesn’t say anything about you other than what is happening. You could be thinking of anything, but happen to be aware of this obsession.

    He is absolutely right. I read one thing that makes me feel like I am different to a pedophile and another that feels like I’m exactly the same. I just came home to my sister this evening and felt this overwhelming urge to touch her inappropriately. I DIDN’T, to be clear. I hopped on the computer and pulled up Jon’s blog instead. This was after I’d been sat in the office at work daydreaming about mine and my partner’s future children earlier today. Yesterday I even had patches of *almost* certainty that I’m not a pedophile. I don’t know if I’ve been dealing with this so long now that I don’t notice my brain doing the what ifs and the calculations to try and determine whether I am safe or not, but this truly feels very very real. Not just some alien thought that pops up now and again. It’s been there most of my life. It doesn’t make me break down in tears or shake with anxiety. I am used to it, but I just hope to god that I am not one of those. I guess in a sense, I am suppressing it and getting by through simply just not acting on it, hoping it goes away again. It would be no good telling myself “aha, see, it does bother you, you are doing the what ifs and the questioning. You’re not a pedophile” because my brain won’t let me collect the evidence in favour of me NOT being.

    Anyway, if you are a POCD sufferer I would highly recommend reading parts 1, 2 & 3 on Jon’s website.

    • This is brilliant, agnes. I especially like what he says about confidence versus certainty. This is also where growing the muscle of self-trust comes in: you may not have 100% certainty (although the research does actually show that those who suffer from this intrusive thought NEVER act on it), but when you know yourself and trust yourself enough you’ll develop the confidence that that’s not an action you would ever take.

      What I also hear in your post is that the thought may have been triggered this time by dreaming about having your own kids, so from my work around transitions it would benefit you to address the fear from the core, which is means attending to the fears, grief and groundlessness that may arise when you think about the next transition. As you know from doing this work, when you arrive back at the root feeling and let yourself sit with it, the thoughts dissipate.

      Thank you so much for sharing the article here. We need more people like Jon Hershfield speaking with wisdom on this difficult subject.

  • agnes

    Thanks for the feedback, Sheryl. I thought it was so perfectly, succinctly described. I’m really surprised that you feel it may be attached to my daydream about a future family. This is the most difficult part of the work for me, feeling the feelings, as it genuinely feels as though there’s nothing underneath. Whenever I ask any variation of ‘what’s this thought protecting me from feeling?’ I’m just met with the frustration and stuckness of nothing arising. When I think back to the daydream, I recall thinking “Who will they look like? Would my partner hate me if they just looked like my children, not his? How would my Mum and Dad cope if the child preferred my partner’s parents to them? How will I cope with having no time for hobbies? Will I ever get the chance to train as a therapist? What if I don’t make it to having kids with him?”

    I think because I don’t suffer from many physical anxiety symptoms, I don’t notice this happening in my mind. It’s like being able to hear someone talking just out of ear-shot. I thought this was a nice daydream, but it was clearly accompanied by worry.

    Is this unusual? The thing about the lack of physical sensations? I mentioned this on the TY course, but anxiety, when I was a kid, was always a churning tummy, arm and leg tingly-ness and dread in the pit of my stomach. It’s not like that now, unless something imminent is about to happen…like a job interview, public-speaking or if I think my partner is going to break up with me.

    • You can see how all of your thoughts around having kids were rooted in self-doubt and unworthiness, which, when you believe those thoughts, is a form of self-harm. And you can see that the thoughts are your running commentary, which means that they’re running across the screen of your psyche automatically and you’re not aware of them. Yet they’re causing pain. And instead of feeling the pain directly and addressing those initial thoughts – as well as the natural grief that will arise when you embark on that – or any – transition – your mind, which doesn’t know that you can handle pain and grief (our culture doesn’t know how to mourn) rescues you and instead goes to your stand-by intrusive thought. Now, instead of feeling your pain and doing your inner work, you’re hooked into the thought again. And of course that thought doesn’t cause anxiety anymore; your brain has habituated to it after all these years.

  • agnes

    Ah, so, there’s a difference between a running commentary and intrusive thoughts? The running commentary is the almost inaudible stream of thoughts…I guess my comparison, I think of the intrusive ones as almost stabbing through the fabric of the mind – they create a full-stop; they’re attention-grabbing, as you say. I think I can make a better go of feeling my feelings now that I feel a bit more aware of the ‘flare’ I’m looking for. It’s really comforting to know that the lack of physical symptoms isn’t something sinister. I guess it makes total sense that, after 15 years, even intrusive thoughts lose their ultimate power, yet still have a negative impact (i.e. causing me to believe that I am a monster).