NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Overcoming Your Guilt and Shame About "Thought Crimes"

Committing an act and having a thought about it are two very different things.  But for some people even having the thought is enough to make them feel guilty and ashamed--as if they're "bad."  They might know, logically, that thoughts can't harm anyone but, on an emotional level, they still feel bad (see my article: Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame).

Overcoming Your Guilt and Shame About "Thought Crimes"

What is a "Thought Crime"?
Before we go any further, let's define what we mean by a thought crime.

A thought crime is considered an unacceptable or controversial thought that goes against conventional thinking.

The term thought crime (also known as "thoughtcrime") is derived from the novel, 1984, by George Orwell.  In the novel, a thought crime was a thought that went against the orthodoxy of the government and it was illegal.

As the term is used today by people who consider thoughts to be potentially toxic, a thought crime is anything that they believe goes against their own morals or the conventional morals of the community or society they live in.

As a result, different people will have different definitions of what constitutes unacceptable thoughts. For some people, the idea that there are unacceptable thoughts originates in their past or present religion.  For other people, the idea of unacceptable thoughts is derived from their family of origin.

For some people it's part of their obsessional style of thinking where they get caught up in a cycle of unacceptable thoughts, guilt and shame, and more unacceptable thoughts and so on.

A longstanding unresolved childhood traumatic history can also contribute to feeling guilty and ashamed about unacceptable thoughts (see my article: Are You Living Your Life Feeling Trapped By Childhood Trauma?).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Overcoming Your Guilt and Shame About "Thought Crimes":
The following fictional vignette provides a typical example of how someone suffers with his unacceptable thoughts and how trauma therapy can help:

John was in his early 20s when he contacted a psychotherapist for a consultation.  He told her that he had chronic problems with falling and staying asleep.  He said that, over time, his primary care doctor prescribed different types of medication, but he continued to suffer with insomnia.

During the consultation, he revealed that his past and current medical doctors all ruled out any physiological problems and concluded that the problem was psychological.  However, John indicated that he didn't know of any particular incident that might have caused his insomnia.

When they talked about his family history, John revealed that he was an only child raised by a single mother, who was very strict.  She forced John to go with her to church from the time he was a young child until he moved out and went to college.

He said that his mother was fervent believer in the church's teachings and she imposed strict prohibitions based on those teachings, including the prohibition against premarital sex.  This included not only sexual intercourse but kissing, petting, masturbation and even having sexual thoughts.

John told his therapist that, as a child, he tried to follow his mother's rules, in part, because he was aware that his mother was very unhappy and he didn't want to add to her unhappiness.  He also wanted to avoid punished by her for breaking her rules.

But he admitted to his therapist that there were times when he was alone in his room that he would masturbate, and afterwards he would feel very ashamed and guilty about it.

He indicated that one night when he was 14 and he was alone in his room, he felt sexually aroused under his bed sheets while he fantasized about a girl in his classroom that he liked.  Just as he was achieved an erection, his mother walked in on him and saw it.

Even before his mother began yelling at him, John said, he felt extremely ashamed and guilty.  As his mother yelled and threatened him with eternal damnation, a part of him dissociated so that he no longer felt present in the room.

To add to his humiliation, by the next day, his mother forced him to see their pastor to confess his "sin" and to get help.  For the next six months, John was forced to have weekly sessions with his pastor and he was given relevant homework assignments to read the Bible.

He said that getting caught by his mother and having to see the pastor about his sexual thoughts was a chapter in his life that he never forgot.

From then on, whenever he had any sexual thoughts, he would try to force himself to shift his thoughts to something else.  But there were times when it was too challenging to shift his thoughts and he would pray for hours long into the night to let go of these thoughts.  By the next day, he was exhausted from his lack of sleep.

At those times, he described the guilt and shame as being almost unbearable, and there were times when he contemplated suicide.  But he never made any suicide attempts because he feared that his mother would be devastated and the suicide attempt would be an even bigger sin in his religion than having sexual thoughts.

He said he was further humiliated in his high school when other boys were talking about their sexual exploits and he remained silent.  They laughed at him, teased him, and called him "cherry boy" when he admitted that he had never been sexual.

By the time he went college, he was relieved to leave his mother's home.  Since he was born out of wedlock, John felt angry with his mother for her hypocrisy.  Following his birth, she became very religious.  Although he never confronted his mother about this, he saw her religiosity as being part of her own guilt and shame about engaging in premarital sex.

Throughout his first three years of college, John remained socially isolated and celibate.  By his fourth year, he felt so depressed and anxious that he sought help in the student counseling unit.  He found the counseling to be somewhat helpful in terms of allowing him to recognize his sexual arousal was normal.  This helped to soften his guilt and shame somewhat.

A few months after he started counseling at his college, John felt comfortable enough to masturbate when he was alone, and he had his first sexual encounter with a girl on a date.  Although he no longer felt as guilty and ashamed as he did before, he still felt some discomfort that he was a "bad person."  To make matters worse, he ejaculated prematurely, which made the experience unsatisfying for him and his date and deeply embarrassing for him.

As he and his therapist explored these issues, the therapist asked John if he began having insomnia when his mother caught him being sexually aroused at age 14.  In response, John thought about it for a moment and he was surprised to realize that the insomnia had, indeed, started at that age after his mother caught him.

His therapist helped John to understand the connection the trauma of his mother discovering his sexual arousal, the guilt and shame, and the consequent insomnia which continued through the years.

She also suggested that they process the memory of his mother walking in on him using a form of trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to see if his insomnia would resolve (see my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Although it was difficult for John to go back into that memory, during EMDR therapy, he was able to tell his therapist that he still felt somewhat guilty and ashamed about it--even though he knew logically that having sexual thoughts is normal.  He could still remember the horrified look on his mother's face and how angry and disappointed she had been.

As John and his therapist continued to use EMDR, he began to feel better, and his sleep problem started to abate.

Over time, he was able to process his guilt and shame for his sexual thoughts as a 14 year and also for disappointing his mother.  He also felt on a visceral level (not just on rational level) that having sexual thoughts wasn't wrong, and he no longer felt like a "bad person" (see my article: What's the Difference Between Toxic and Healthy Shame?).

Overcoming Your Guilt and Shame About "Thought Crimes"

On the contrary, he could feel that he was actually a very good and decent person and he had nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.

Over time, as John let go of his negative emotions about sexual thoughts, he also began socializing more easily. Eventually, he entered into a stable relationship with a woman he met at a party, and they were able to have a satisfying sexual relationship.

Feeling guilty and ashamed about having particular thoughts is a common experience for many people.

In the vignette above, the guilt and shame were about sexual thoughts, but any thought can be experienced as taboo.

Guilt and shame can manifest in physical symptoms like insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, backaches and other bodily symptoms.

Making these connections on your own is often difficult, but a skilled trauma therapist can help you to make the connections and also help you to resolve the underlying issues through a form of trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy.

Getting Help in Trauma Therapy
If you've been feeling guilty and ashamed about your thoughts, you might know, on a rational level, that thoughts are harmless.  But on an emotional level, you can continue to feel these negative emotions because intellectual insight isn't enough to help you to change.

Unlike regular talk therapy, which can help you to develop intellectual insight, trauma therapy, like EMDR, gets to the deeper places in your brain where the unresolved trauma resides and helps you to process the trauma to the point of resolution.

Trauma therapy can free from your traumatic history so you can lead a fuller and happier life, so rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from a skilled trauma therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapists who works with individual adults (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy). 

As a trauma therapist, I have helped many clients to overcome longstanding trauma so they could lead happier lives.

I also use Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help couples with relationship problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.