Types of Obsessions
To put it very simply, an obsession is a thought. Obsessions are unwanted, repeating thoughts, ideas, images, or impulses that invade a person’s mind. A person experiencing obsessions usually does not want to experience these thoughts. These obsessions often are disturbing, disruptive, and painful for the person experiencing them. Further, obsessions are generally accompanied by extremely uncomfortable feelings or sensations. For example, a person with obsessions may complain about excessive worry, feeling gross or disgusting, and having an unusual amount of fear and anxiety. Finally, obsessions have the tendency to get worse with time, if not dealt with properly. This means that the person experiencing these thoughts will notice that the thoughts start to occur more frequently throughout the day and at an increasingly powerful level. [i] [ii]
Given that, here is my list of the different types of obsessive thoughts people may experience.
Unwanted Violent Thoughts
People with harmful or violent obsessions often worry that they will end up hurting themselves or someone else through a variety of different methods. Some examples of these violent thoughts might include images of harming or even killing yourself, other people, or animals.
People with these thoughts generally have no past history of violent behavior, or wildly acting impulsively upon thoughts. However, when a random thought involving harming someone enters the sufferer’s mind, it triggers a state of fear, doubt, and worry. People with these types of obsessions have a tendency to believe that by simply having a violent thought, it will lead to them acting on that thought. These thoughts are usually extremely painful for the people that experience them because these thoughts are usually the opposite of their true feelings towards their loved ones. People often really love and care about the person with whom these thoughts apply to, which is why they find these unwanted thoughts so disturbing.
These thoughts may lead to that person avoiding contact with their loved ones, friends, and family in order to “protect them,” as they often feel there is something wrong with them for having these horribly violent thoughts. It is important to recognize that these thoughts are Ego-dystonic versus Ego-syntonic.
As Dr. Richard B. Joelson explains, “Ego-syntonic refers to instincts or ideas that are acceptable to the self; that are compatible with one’s values and ways of thinking. They are consistent with one’s fundamental personality and beliefs. Ego-dystonic refers to thoughts, impulses, and behaviors that are felt to be repugnant, distressing, unacceptable or inconsistent with one’s self-concept.”[iii]
Obsessions, especially those that are violent or sexual in content, are usually recognized as Ego-dystonic by the person experiencing them.
Unwanted Sexual Thoughts
Obsessions that are sexual in content are actually more common than most people realize. However, due to the fact that our society has a very negative stigma attached to certain sexual acts; it is believed that many people who experience these types of obsessions do not reach out for help due to embarrassment or fear of judgment. It is also important to know that unwanted sexual obsessions impact both men and women.
People with these unwanted sexual thoughts generally find their thoughts inappropriate and have absolutely no desire to act on them. The obsessive thoughts are Ego-dystonic not Ego-syntonic. Sexual obsessions are very different from sexual fantasies, as the sufferer generally finds the sexual obsessions to be gross and uncomfortable, rather than being pleasurable. As a result, these types of obsessive thoughts cause the sufferer to experience pain, disgust, and guilt, among other uncomfortable feelings.
These unwanted sexual obsessions will often include images of sexual activity including but not limited to: kissing, touching, sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, and even rape towards strangers, acquaintances, parents, children, family members, friends, coworkers, animals and religious figures. Additionally, it is not uncommon for the sexual obsessions to involve homosexual content which is often paired with a fear or doubt of one’s sexual orientation.
Although a majority of people have some weird or uncomfortable sexual thoughts from time to time, people with these obsessions attach an unusual importance to these thoughts. This can lead people with sexual obsessions to doubt their true identity and worry that they might act in ways that they in fact believe to be gross and disgusting or inappropriate. People with sexual obsessions will continuously report that the obsessions do not cause them sexual arousal or pleasure but often cause them great pain, discomfort, and anxiety.
Further, the doubt that accompanies sexual obsessions leads to the sufferer to experiencing a great deal of shame and self-criticism. Unfortunately, it is common for people with sexual obsessions to hide these troubling thoughts from others out of fear of judgment. And, not seeking help generally leads to these thoughts becoming more intense and frequent.
Obsessions Regarding Accidentally Saying Horrible Words or Phrases
These types of obsessions are relatively self-explanatory. People who suffer from these obsessions have an unordinary high concern that they may say or blurt out socially inappropriate language or phrases. An example might be a person fearing that they might accidentally say or blurt out curse words, racist words, or personal insults in the workplace or social gatherings.
These types of obsessions often lead to a fear of speaking when others are present due to a fear that the horrible language may accidently “slip out.” A person suffering from these types of obsessions may also fear that they will forget their words during a presentation, or write something incorrectly in an e-mail. Further, the person may also worry that they accidently said something inappropriate without even noticing. This will lead the sufferer to replay conversations in their head compulsively to make sure they didn’t say something inappropriate.
Obsessive Thoughts or Doubts regarding one’s Religion (also referred to as Scrupulosity)
These types of obsessions are identified when thoughts regarding one’s religion or spirituality become unwanted and disruptive in an individual’s life. Some examples of religious obsessions may include worries such as a fear of getting possessed by a demon, a fear of upsetting God, a fear of God sending you to Hell, as well as worry and concern with the afterlife.
With religious obsessions, the sufferer may also experience a sense of extreme morality. The sufferer may focus on very specific details of a situation and begin questioning whether or not it is a sin. The sufferer may also report doubting or questioning whether a situation was moral or ethical. For example, a married man may worry that because he hugged another female, he may have committed adultery in the eyes of God.
Another sub-category under religious obsessions is a preoccupation with existential concerns. For example, a person with these types of obsessions may continuously worry about the purpose of their life, if God exist, or why they are on this Earth.
Doubts and Fears regarding Contamination
This type of obsession is the most commonly recognized by the mass-media and reportedly impacts a large percentage of people that deal with obsessions. A person who suffers from these types of obsessions often becomes consumed with fear and worry about the contamination threat of an object or situation. More specifically, the contamination worry is usually rooted in a fear of contracting some sort of disease or illness.
Here are some examples of items a person with these obsessions may worry about:
Bodily material such as urine and blood
Germs and Dirt
Household chemicals like bleach or other cleaning materials
Pollutants (i.e. Smog)
Environmental Pollutants like radiation, toxic waste, and mold
Generally speaking, a fear of contracting an illness or disease is at the root of most contamination obsessions. However, sometimes there are certain substances that just bother people with these obsessions, but they may not be able to explain why. A few examples might be chewing gum or greasy car engines. These types of obsessions often lead the sufferer to avoid objects, places, and social situations. It is common for people that suffer from these obsessions to dramatically limit their lives and engage in time-consuming patterns of washing and cleaning themselves and objects in their environment.
Unwanted Thoughts Regarding being the Cause a Horrible Event
People that experience these types of obsessions often have a fear of causing harm or fear of being responsible for a horrible event. The sufferer may report experiencing unwanted thoughts, images and fears regarding the possibility of harming themselves or someone else by accident. Some of the common obsessions people may experience in this category are things like accidently burning down a house, accidently leaving something unlocked, or accidently hurting others. Common obsessions are a fear of accidently running over someone while driving, and forgetting to turn off the stove or dryer before leaving the house and consequently starting a fire.
These different obsessive thoughts often generate a large sense of doubt and uncertainty in the sufferer. As the obsessions manifest, the sufferer may begin to experience a false sense of responsibly over a particular situation and repeatedly perform specific compulsions to ensure the feared event never happens. For example, the person who fears they may accidently run over someone may feel inclined to drive their entire route over again just to make sure they didn’t hit someone.
People with these types of obsessions may also report a struggle to accurately recall their actions. For example, a person may report that they can’t remember if they actually turned off a stove or locked the door. These types of obsessions often lead people to engage in compulsive checking. For example, a person may have to check and re-check if they locked their front door. The person may even drive home from work multiple times during the day just to check the lock on the front door.
Concerns with Symmetry or Perfectionism
People with these types of obsessions develop a specific pre-occupation with the exactness and order of objects as well as performing certain tasks. The sufferer may report that they feel tasks have to be done in a perfect way and in exact order. For example, the magazines on a table may have to be aligned alphabetically, or the pillows on the couch have to be placed in an exact order. The sufferer may also worry excessively about their personal appearance. For example they may feel their hair has to be absolutely perfect before leaving the house.
Some people with these types of obsessions may report feeling very uncomfortable in a situation when objects are disorganized. Some people may also feel uncomfortable when something does not appear perfect. The perceived unorganized situation may cause the person to compulsively order and arrange the objects to their liking. While the sufferer’s behavior may seem random or odd, there is always some reason for the action, even though it may not seem logical to others.
Fears and Doubts of losing something valuable
People with these obsessions may worry about accidently throwing away something of value. The sufferer may experience great difficulty letting go of or getting rid of material objects. This fear and doubt may lead to the person holding onto objects that appear useless to third parties. In turn, this collecting of objects may lead to excessive clutter in their house. This behavior often is referred to as hoarding. [iv], [v]
While there are other types of obsessions that have not been mentioned, these umbrella categories cover the majority of obsessions from which people suffer. For more information regarding different types of obsessions, please refer to the “Online Resources” section on www.ocdvictory.com. Another excellent resource regarding different types of obsessive thoughts is www.ocdtypes.com.
An Unconventional Definition
Now that we have covered obsessions from a clinical perspective and defined different types of obsessions people face, I would like to offer you a more unconventional definition of obsessions. You are free to decide which definition best defines your experience and draw from it. Personally, I believe the following definition and description of obsessions to be one of the best definitions I have ever come across. I stumbled upon this definition generated by well-known author Steve Pressfield, while reading his book The War of Art. It is a wonderful book and a highly recommended read.
In his book, Mr. Pressfield spends the first third defining what he calls “Resistance”. While I read his definition, I couldn’t help but recognize the striking similarity between his definition of Resistance and my personal experience with Obsessions. I might even go as far to argue that obsessive thoughts are a form of Resistance, but for now that argument will be sidelined and reserved for a future time.
For the purpose of this course and defining obsessions, I have paraphrased some quotes from Mr. Pressfield’s work and merely replaced the word “Resistance” with “Obsessions.” I believe his definition really captures the essence of obsessions. And while it is a tad lengthy, I believe it to be more accurate than anything I have ever encountered during my research, so please bear with me. It reads as follows:
“Any act that delays immediate gratification in favor of long-term prosperity will elicit [obsessions]. [Obsessions] do not come from outside factors, but instead are generated and perpetuated from within. [Obsessions] are the enemy within. They are insidious.” [vi]
Further, “[Obsessions] will tell you anything to keep you from doing your meaningful work. They will perjure, fabricate, falsify, seduce, bully, and cajole you to get their way. [Obsessions] are unpredictable. They will assume any form it takes to deceive you. [Obsessions] will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. [Obsessions] have no conscience. They will pledge anything to get a deal, then, double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take [obsessions] at their word, you deserve everything you get. [Obsessions] are always lying and always full of shit.”[vi]
“[Obsessions] are like the alien or the terminator, or the shark in Jaws, they cannot be reasoned with. [Obsessions] know nothing but power, it is an engine of destruction programmed with one mission to prevent us from advancing and living out the true purpose of our lives.” [vi]
[Obsessions] are impersonal they don’t know or care who you are. [Obsessions] are universal, everyone experiences some form of [obsessions]. [Obsessions] never sleep, they are persistent. [Obsessions] are fueled by fear; they have no strength of their own. Every ounce of power that obsessions have comes from us. We feed it with power by how much we fear it. Master that fear and we conquer [obsessions].”[vi]
As someone who dealt with obsessions for several years, this definition really hit home. I feel that it much more accurately explains the intensity and tempo at which obsessions operate. I can personally attest that when I was caught in that obsessive cycle, it really felt like my mind was going in a thousand different directions every second of every day.
[i] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
[ii] Hyman, B. M., & Pedrick, C. (2005). The OCD Workbook: your guide to breaking free from obsessive-compulsive disorder (2nd ed.). (pp, 7-11) Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
[iii] Joelson, R. Syntonic & Dystonic. Retrieved August 13, 2014, from http://www.richardbjoelsondsw.com/main/index.php/newsletter-articles/158-syntonic-a-dystonic.htm
[iv] Hyman, B. M., & Pedrick, C. (2005). The OCD Workbook: your guide to breaking free from obsessive-compulsive disorder (2nd ed.). (pp. 7-11, 16-26) Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
[v] About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (2011). OCD Types. Retrieved July 6, 2014, from http://www.ocdtypes.com
[vi] Pressfield, S. (2012). The war of art: break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. (pp. 6-11) New York: Black Irish Entertainment