I’m So OCD: Thought-Action Fusion

I was watching the marvelous show The Blacklist a few nights ago. In that particular episode, a criminal the Feds are hunting is known as the Genie. The Genie grants cruel and dark revenge fantasies to those with legitimate cause and fat wallets to pay up. It got my mom and I talking about our own “revenge fantasies,” for as the show says, everyone has one.

I realized quickly that my revenge fantasy wasn’t quite up to par with the normal standard. I’ve had two in my life, and one was when I was in third grade and I imagined cutting a lock of hair off of a girl who teased me. The second, much more recent one, involves someone being immobilized, and I’m talking at them for uninterrupted hours, at a somewhat hastened pace.

What kind of Quaker revenge fantasy is that? It’s the revenge fantasy of someone who doesn’t allow themselves to think angry, cruel, or inappropriate thoughts on a normal basis, and who punishes themselves when they do.

Thought-Action fusion, in short, is when someone with OCD (usually, though this can be a symptom of anxiety) is under the impression that having a thought is akin to doing the thought, or that having a thought is akin to embracing the morality of the action in the thought.

For example, I don’t allow myself to have darker revenge fantasies because if mine was, say, shoving someone off a cliff, or shaving someone’s head, both of which are well within the range of normality and are frequent dream features, then I’d be only as good as someone who actually does those things. Unless I check myself, the thoughts I’m having feel to me as if they are indicative of my morality.

There are two branches of Thought-Action Fusion: Likelihood TAF and Moral TAF. In the former, having a thought that something will happen increases the likelihood that it will happen. In the latter, having a thought about something happening is morally equivalent to engaging in the behavior or action. I’m not very high on the first scale, but I experience much of the second.

For a very long time, I didn’t allow myself to properly feel anger. I’d been conditioned, and conditioned myself through OCD, to shift blame onto myself. As a result, all anger that I could feel was funneled into hating myself. I’d carve terrible words onto my thighs and internally punish myself with unkind thoughts, hating words.

At a certain point, and this point is somewhat recent, the floodgates opened. I’ve been experiencing anger over things that have happened to me. A way that I’ve been able to do this compassionately for myself is through a method I learned while inpatient.

We engaged in “chair work,” which is when sitting in one chair, out of a set, is the persona that one must adopt as they talk. For example, three chairs could be child, adolescent, and young adult Olivia. In this method of therapy, a point is made of separating one’s child self from one’s adult self, especially in cases of childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse. When this is done, the patient can look objectively at their younger, hurt selves and say “that child didn’t deserve to be hurt like that.”

The key to that process is creating distance between actions and our thoughts about them. Once I understood that there are multiple selves within me- my OCD self, my hurt child self, my angry self, my anorexic self, my traumatized self, etc- and that all are valid and allowed, part of being human, I was able to have sympathy for each part of myself, to allow each part to exist. That includes my angry self.

There is no need to judge my anger. Anger is normal and human. For the longest time, my response to that sentence would be “sure, but I have to be better than that.” To some extent, I still think that. This process isn’t linear and I have good and bad days with my OCD.

Just because I have angry thoughts, experience anger that is outward directed, it does not mean that I’m a bad or harmful person. A person is the sum of what they put out into the world, and I firmly believe that. I know that there are several barriers in me that protect against doing almost anything with mal intent, and if mal intent does squeak through, there’s likely a very valid reason, for I cancel out my anger long before it reaches the surface, usually. Not anymore.

Hopelessness and helplessness are the key elements to suicidality. Sometimes, having OCD makes me feel both of those things. I feel trapped in the inevitability of my obsessions. I try to zone out of my head, reading a book or doing schoolwork, or playing the Sims. My head’s loops can be too painful to bear, for when they happen, I can’t stand myself for having had them. I want to yell at someone? I’m a bad person. I wish ill upon anyone? VERY bad person. Intolerably.

It’s a farce. Everyone experiences a full range of emotions. Those who have issues with TAF have trouble separating their thoughts from their reality. I’m here to say that every thought that we have, no matter how weird or harsh or unjustified, is valid. We can’t help our thoughts. We can, however, compassionately address our reaction to those thoughts, including resulting behavior. That is the making of a good person: someone who is human like the rest of us, but makes humanistic and good choices as often as possible.

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3 thoughts on “I’m So OCD: Thought-Action Fusion

  1. I found that very interesting. I’ve never heard the term ‘Thought-Action Fusion’ before though I have had my therapist point out to me, while bemoaning some awful thought, that I hadn’t actually acted on the thought. I’m fortunate that I’m not bothered by TAF that much (maybe because I have BPD instead of OCD?). Anyway, you did a great job of explaining it. Thank you for educating me today.

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