Please note: this post is an exploration of a common question from our community members. It is not intended to diagnose or give treatment advice.
Amy is just hanging out on a Saturday afternoon, trying to entertain her toddler. She’s full of love for this three-year-old. But today, like every other day she can remember, brings a horrible moment. She suddenly thinks about how she could just kill her child if she wanted to.
Amy is launched into a spiral of extreme doubt and anxiety: “Would I ever do that? How could I think such a thing? Do I care about my child at all? What kind of person am I?” As she tries to prove to herself that she wouldn’t hurt her toddler, Amy’s distress only increases. No attempt to answer these questions feels good enough, and Amy starts to feel panic coming on as she fails to fully convince herself that she’ll never lose control and become a murderer.
It may come as a surprise, but it’s very common for people to have disturbing and even graphic thoughts about hurting or killing a loved one, friend, coworker, acquaintance, or stranger. Parents like Amy can experience these thoughts even though they’d do anything to protect their children. Most people, most of the time, brush them off as strange, unexpected, or unpleasant, without seeing them as especially meaningful or feeling like they need to make them go away.
Sometimes, though, the thoughts feel catastrophic and uncontrollable. They seem to signal an urgent need to make sure something bad won’t happen now or in the future. Some people even question whether they’ve already harmed someone and don’t know about it or simply can’t remember. Those who think and feel this way, and end up relying on repetitive behaviors for temporary relief, might be displaying symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
The primary symptoms of OCD are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted or intrusive thoughts, images, or urges. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors performed to provide temporary relief from the anxiety those obsessions generate. These symptoms disrupt daily life and cause significant distress.
We can look at statistics about how rare acts of violence are or read reassuring articles all day long (seeking reassurance and doing research are common compulsions), but they’ll never be good enough to convince us for more than a few moments that there is no risk of us doing harm. In fact, with OCD, these behaviors may cause further distress.
Because we can’t see the future, we’ll never know with certainty what we may or may not do. This sounds a bit cruel, but when it comes to OCD, getting reassurance that we’ll never harm someone isn’t going to help our anxiety decrease in the long run. But we can move in a healthier direction by learning about OCD, practicing ERP, and doing the things we value even despite scary thoughts and unpleasant feelings.
This post is about Harm OCD. Harm-related obsessions are common but rarely discussed openly. Though intending to harm oneself or someone else is different from experiencing harm obsessions, both can be very confusing and scary.
You don’t need to figure this out alone. We strongly suggest you seek help from a licensed professional. If you believe you have genuine intent to harm yourself or someone else, please seek immediate help by calling 911 or heading to an emergency room.