i’m sure at some point you’ve seen a video of someone acting out in a unpredictable way- most likely acting on an impulse that most ignore. you go to the comments and every single one says something along the lines of “letting my intrusive thoughts win.” you get a laugh; it’s just a harmless joke, right? what you see as a harmless joke is what people with ocd- like me- see as a kick to the face. if our intrusive thoughts were something harmless like that, i’m sure we’d be laughing too. when we try to explain to people the difference between impulsive vs. intrusive, they get hostile: offended even. then you have those who claim to be an english professor who blindly explain what intrusive “actually” means while idiotically ignoring the idea of a clinical term. people don’t take the differentiation seriously enough, and as someone who has had such crippling struggles with ocd and intrusive thoughts, i’m sick of it.
let’s talk about what “intrusive thoughts” actually are
intrusive thoughts can be defined as unwanted, distressing and repetitive thoughts that often go against your morals. these can include acting out towards people you love in violent or morally unacceptable ways. intrusive thoughts are not exclusive to people with ocd- but they are a common (and arguably the most debilitating) sign of the illness. they can make you question your own morals and convince yourself you actually want to act out on your thoughts. this is not the case. intrusive thoughts are the manifestation of your worst fears and the things that disturb you the most/go against your morals. someone who has intrusive thoughts about hurting themselves or hurting someone they love does not want to act out on those thoughts. actually, it means that they are incredibly disturbed by those thoughts and would most likely do anything to ensure they don’t happen- like acting out compulsions, another common sign of ocd. people who experience intrusive thoughts are not their thoughts, and their thoughts do not represent their urges or morals at all.
now that we know what intrusive thoughts are, what are impulsive thoughts?
impulsive thoughts are exactly what they sound like. they are thoughts of acting out on an impulse. an impulse is defined as a strong urge or desire to act on something. that is one of the main differences between impulsive vs. intrusive- an impulsive thought is something you have an urge/desire to act out on, an intrusive thought is a thought that is uncomfortable and more often than not disgusts you: it is something you would never want to act out on. impulsive thoughts could be something like wanting to cut your own hair at 2am even though you know you’d botch it, or the urge to grab and eat food you see in the fridge that isn’t yours. the difference is drastic, so why do people insist on using intrusive when they really mean impulsive? maybe it’s unwillingness to change, or maybe it’s pure disregard for mental health.
how is using “intrusive” when you mean “impulsive” harmful to others?
i first started getting intrusive thoughts when i was 14, and i was too scared to tell anyone about it. i thought everyone would think i was a horrible person and call me crazy- the one word no one with ocd wants to be called. if you use “intrusive” when you mean “impulsive,” it gives people the wrong idea about what intrusive thoughts actually are- so when people with genuine intrusive thoughts explain what they experience, others react in a negative and disgusted manner because they have this false idea that intrusive thoughts are harmless impulses that wouldn’t harm anyone in any serious way to act out on. this makes people with ocd feel crazy and misunderstood, and being understood is the most important thing when it comes to dealing with ocd. another thing is how people say they “let their intrusive thoughts win.” if someone with genuine intrusive thoughts “let them win,” they would be imprisoned or dead. telling someone with intrusive thoughts to “let them win” is disgusting and disrespectful, and it only showcases how uneducated you are.
now that we understand the difference and how using intrusive when we mean impulsive is harmful, where do we go from here?
as someone with ocd, when i see the misuse of the term “intrusive thoughts,” i educated immediately. you should too. if you see someone using the term intrusive incorrectly, you need to correct them and explain the severity of their mistake. if you ignore it and allow them to use the incorrect term, you are harming MILLIONS of people with ocd and worsening the mindset around genuine intrusive thoughts. it is not hard to switch “intrusive” to “impulsive.” if you are not willing to make that change, then you are the exact problem i have described in this blog. don’t be complacent. speak up when you see misinformation regarding ocd. don’t just let it happen- for all of our sakes.
a final note to everyone who has ocd and/or experiences intrusive thoughts
you are not your thoughts. that’s right, you. are. not. your. thoughts. there is nothing wrong with you and you are not alone. if you are someone i know reading this, just know that the only reason i wrote about this is because i experience it too. you are not alone. please come to me if you need help dealing with this crippling disease. i’ve struggled so that i can help others, and i will not hesitate to share this wisdom with you. it’s going to be okay. you’re going to be okay. everything is going to be okay<3.
a final note to everyone else
the best thing you can do to help is educating yourself on ocd and the difference between intrusive and impulsive. you can even start right here on the msa literary blog! my beautiful friend and former roommate emma stapp has many articles about ocd and i 100% recommend reading each one she has posted: they are beautifully written and so important.
here are additional resources about ocd and intrusive thoughts to learn from:
i sincerely hope this blog helped you & inspired you to educate yourself on ocd. let’s come together and end the misconceptions about ocd and intrusive thoughts!<3
also please check out emma stapp’s article “ocd is not an adjective…”