Alternatively, picture yourself as a young child who is intensely afraid of playing with your new puppy…not because you’re afraid of dogs but because you are afraid that if you touch it, you might lose control and snap its neck.
In either scenario, the most horrifying part is that you’re afraid that you might secretly want to act on these unwanted thoughts.
After all, why would the thought keep coming if it didn’t mean something?
Violent Obsessions, Harm Obsessions, & Bad Thoughts
This is the daily reality for many adults, teens, and children who experience harm obsessions, also known as violent obsessions, a type of OCD symptom that involves unwanted, repetitive violent thoughts, impulses, or images. Harm obsessions are typically shocking, distressing, and disturbing, and they may occur thousands of times every day. They often involve themes of violence, death, murder, self-harm, and suicide. Obsessions involving death are also sometimes referred to as “morbid obsessions.”
Much like sexual obsessions, violent obsessions can be a debilitating symptom of OCD because they can “pop in” at any time and in any place. They are sometimes associated with the presence of triggers like particular people (e.g., loved ones) or vulnerable populations (e.g., fear of children or the elderly), but they may also occur with strangers. In other cases, they may seemingly emerge out of the blue with little provocation or warning. They can even occur when you’re alone or in the absence of an easily identifiable external trigger.
Because of this, many people with violent obsessions begin avoiding people they care about. They may also become fearful of being alone or being bored and may go to great lengths to keep themselves busy, because their unwanted thoughts may frequently occur during periods of downtime or relaxation. Consequently, many individuals with harm obsessions feel that they can never really relax. They become masters at distraction and often dread bedtime when they are alone with their thoughts.
Who gets violent obsessions?
Unfortunately, most people in the general population are unfamiliar with harm obsessions. Popular TV shows like Glee that feature characters with OCD (e.g., guidance counselor Emma) do not often depict individuals with violent obsessions. Even medical professionals like doctors, nurses, or mental health workers may not initially recognize the fear of killing/harming others as a symptom of OCD.
Because of the violent, gruesome nature of their OCD symptoms, many people who have the fear of harming/killing others mistakenly conclude that they must have dark, twisted personalities. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you attended my OCD support group and tried to pick out the people with harm obsessions on the basis of their personalities or physical appearance, you would nearly always guess incorrectly. Many individuals with harm obsessions are friendly, kind-hearted, and warm. Furthermore, even very young, happy children can develop morbid obsessions.
Interestingly, people with violent obsessions tend to be some of the nicest, most conscientious individuals who visit my Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, psychological practice. Why might this be?
OCD tends to hit you where it can hit hardest.
People with harm obsessions tend to be hypersensitive to bad thoughts and are often hyper-moral. Compared to individuals without OCD, they are more attuned to the content of their thoughts and are more likely to “police” their thoughts. As such, they often engage in mental rituals that involve examining their thoughts for potentially dangerous content. We all experience unwanted thoughts at times, but people with harm obsessions are more likely to fear that their unwanted thoughts are meaningful.
For people with harm obsessions, unwanted thoughts feel so distressing because they are often distinctly opposite of the types of thoughts that the individual wants to have. Thus, when bad thoughts do POP, these individuals are shocked and horrified and often go to great lengths to avoid or neutralize. Because avoidance and neutralization perpetuate OCD, without treatment, symptoms tend to escalate and become more out-of-control over time.
After having a bad thought, it is common for individuals with harm obsessions to jump to the following erroneous conclusions:
Fears about Violent Obsessions
- These symptoms mean I’m going crazy.
- Seeing violent images in my head must mean I’m developing schizophrenia.
- If anyone found out I’m thinking these things, I would be institutionalized.
- These thoughts mean that at my core, I am a truly horrible person.
- Experiencing these impulses means that I’m turning into a serial killer or pedophile.
- Only a monster would think about murdering their kids.
- If my spouse knew I was thinking these things, s/he would freak out and never look at me the same way again.
- Having these thoughts means I’m a bad person.
- I should be able to control my thoughts.
- What if the only way for me to have any peace is to act on my thoughts?
- The more often I have these thoughts, the more likely it is that I’ll act on them.
- I should only be thinking good things.
- My thoughts reflect my true desires.
- I’ve heard that some people with OCD have scary, unwanted thoughts…but what if this isn’t OCD?
These maladaptive beliefs cause many individuals with violent obsessions to be very secretive about their thoughts. They often live in fear, desperation, isolation, and depression for many years before understanding that they suffer from OCD, a treatable anxiety disorder. Having harm obsessions can feel like being locked away in your own private hell.
Fortunately, the internet has made it easier for internet-savvy OCD sufferers to discover that thousands of other people also share these disturbing symptoms. If you decide to attend an OCD support group, there’s also a comfort that comes in knowing that many other people have strikingly similar symptoms. Furthermore, these individuals tend to look more like kind-hearted individuals with OCD than budding serial killers.
In my next post, I identify some specific examples of aggressive obsessions.
Questions? Comments? Struggling with the fear of harming others? Sound off below.