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Following forbidden thoughts in a pandemic

Updated: Apr 3

A client of mine revealed during a session that some part of him hoped that his mother would die of COVID-19. Our conversation had deviated from him feeling particularly unproductive ever since quarantine measures went into effect. After realizing what he’d said, he tried to self-flagellate before I cut him off:


Client: I know, it’s a terrible thing. Who would think something like that about their –
Tee: Actually, let’s stay with this. What are all of the things you would feel if she passed away from the Coronavirus?

People typically attempt getting a grip on emotional issues by pathologizing them, helping others by offering reassurances like, “you don’t mean that, you’re going through a tough time. You’re a good person,” or “let’s see how we can fix this so that you don’t think these bad thoughts.” Taboo thoughts are framed as bad things to be forgotten, avoided, fixed or eventually gotten rid of one way or another. But there’s a better alternative. Exploring my client’s forbidden thought wasn’t morbid curiosity on my part. Following taboo thoughts can be incredibly rewarding. Taking a ‘pro-symptom approach’ appreciates that the negative thoughts or feelings (the “symptoms”) serve an important purpose: they can be used as vital clues to discovering what is actually causing friction in our minds. Sometimes the realization alone melts away the negative symptoms. Sometimes it simply sharpens the issue at hand, making it easier to eventually resolve. Most importantly, following the pro-symptom approach can reveal virtuous and reasonable motivations that are often being expressed in wonky ways that can make us feel bad about ourselves.


Tee: Actually, let’s stay with this. What are all of the things you would feel if she passed away from COVID-19?


Client: I’d be devastated, obviously. I’d be a little bit relieved though to be honest after it was all said and done.


Tee: What would be relieving about not having your mother around?


Client: As it is, I don’t really know what I can do for her since I’ve grown up. I don’t really know how many times to call, or what to do. It just makes me feel bad and I try to “keep in touch” [air quotes added], which makes me feel worse because it feels like not enough. She needs to be checked on actually but doesn’t know it.


It turned out that my client had been finding it difficult to transition into a different role as the son –from being looked after, cared for and the object of concern, into being the one who now needs to look after his aging mother, and who needs to provide care and concern for her. It was increasingly daunting to confront the realities of her aging and the weakening of his ties to childhood, including her capacities as a nurturer. In his memory, her death would keep the relationship they used to have – his childhood relation to her – intact.


The desire to preserve a deeply meaningful relationship is something we can all relate with. This goodness got missed by being expressed in a contorted fashion – as a ‘negative’ symptom. The idea is to appreciate what the negative feeling or thoughts are meant to accomplish, then finding healthier ways to fulfill those needs and desires.


If you’ll notice, that sharpened the issue considerably, removing the shame and adding nuance to his previous thoughts. Neutralizing shame allows us to address internal dissonance, which typically results from not having a way to deal with a situation. The issue turns from “I’m terrible because I wished my mother were dead” to “I’m struggling with my new role as an adult son with an aging parent. Our relationship can no longer be what it was.”


Here are the nuts and bolts of the process that often works for my clients:


Step 1: State the forbidden thought you had.


Step 2: Entertain the possibility that the forbidden thought doesn’t automatically make you a bad person, but may instead be coming from a natural and relatable place once uncovered.


Encountering this thought could be your subconscious trying to bring something important to your attention. Try to receive and hold the thought as it is without jumping to judgement or conclusions.


Step 3: Ask whether, if the forbidden thought were true, would there be anything that would be relieving about that?


Put another way, would it be all bad if the thought were true? Would there be a silver lining of any kind if the thought were true? Taboo thoughts can mask what we’re trying to avoid. They can surface as brash fixes or lashing out at things we don’t know how to deal with.


Step 4: At this point, you may have an inkling of what deeper motivation is underlying the forbidden thought. Inquire as to this motivation, this functional role of the thought.


Might the thought be keeping you at a distance from even more daunting thoughts? If so, what are they? How was the forbidden thought giving you space from unsurfaced thoughts that were potentially more troublesome or worrying?


Step 5: Once uncovered, try to appreciate how the forbidden thought was trying to help, or serve a noble/protective purpose.


Step 6: Ask whether these clarifications change how you feel about the forbidden thought? Do you feel better simply thinking about it differently?


Sometimes this provides resolution enough. Other times you are directed to an underlying issue which needs attention in turn.


Step 7: Turn your attention towards addressing the underlying issue. What would you like to have happen? How would things need to change in order for the issue to reach a resolution?


There are other methods for addressing underlying issues, depending on what type of issue is at play. But being able to find the underlying issue encoded in the forbidden thought is half the battle.


Process in practice with COVID-19 as the subject:


Step 1: State the forbidden thought you had.


Tweeted my thoughts about how everyone in my peer group should feel comforted by the fact that we’re not the most vulnerable or oldest people. Now I feel like a bad person for thinking this, especially after getting some serious backlash online. Maybe I’m just a selfish asshole in all this and just want to make myself feel better.


Step 2: Entertain the possibility that the forbidden thought doesn’t automatically make you a bad person, but may instead be coming from a natural and relatable place once uncovered.


Encountering this thought could be your subconscious trying to bring something important to your attention. Try to receive and hold the thought as it is without jumping to judgement or conclusions.


Step 3: Ask whether, if the forbidden thought were true, would there be anything that would be relieving about that?


Put another way, would it be all bad if the thought were true? Would there be a silver lining of any kind if the thought were true? Taboo thoughts can mask what we’re trying to avoid. They can surface as brash fixes or lashing out at things we don’t know how to deal with.


Having these thoughts about not being among the most vulnerable to the virus makes me feel better, to be honest. I’m relieved to know that it’s unlikely I will die and that most everyone I know, including the vast majority of the world, will be okay. That’s what I was trying to give to others. I wanted them to feel that.


Step 4: At this point, you may have an inkling of what deeper motivation is underlying the forbidden thought. Inquire as to this motivation, this functional role of the thought.


Might the thought be keeping you at a distance from even more daunting thoughts? If so, what are they? How was the forbidden thought giving you space from unsurfaced thoughts that were potentially more troublesome or worrying?


There’s a tremendous amount of stress and grief in the world currently, and I feel the need to help the world deal with it, but I wouldn’t know where to begin with something like that, let alone managing my own emotions. Processing the amount of suffering happening on a mass scale and thinking through what I can do to help is overwhelming. It makes me feel really small and powerless. Reminding my peer group about how they’re likely to be okay was one way that I thought I could influence a whole bunch of people positively without having to process the enormous emotional complexity brought on by this pandemic.


Step 5: Once uncovered, try to appreciate how the forbidden thought was trying to help, or serve a noble/protective purpose.


The thought was trying to provide safety and security, probably. It’s stabilizing to know that I’ll probably be okay. But I know it wasn’t purely selfish for two reasons. For one thing, I know deep down that I do love my older family members, so others concluding that I must not care for them is wrong. Two, trying to spread that message of stability means that some part of me thought it was important for other people to hear that. I felt freed from worrying so much about dying. I made better choices and kept my head during this time. Maybe that would work for them too.


Step 6: Ask whether these clarifications change how you feel about the forbidden thought? Do you feel better simply thinking about it differently?


Sometimes this provides resolution enough. Other times you are directed to an underlying issue which needs attention in turn.


Yes, when I break it down, I was able to soothe myself and was trying to connect with others by sharing a stabilizing and comforting idea. I no longer feel like people judging me for being selfish is accurate, nor do I jump to concluding that I’m a bad person.


Step 7: Turn your attention towards addressing the underlying issue. What would you like to have happen? How would things need to change in order for the issue to reach a resolution?


There are other methods for addressing underlying issues, depending on what type of issue is at play. But being able to find the underlying issue encoded in the forbidden thought is half the battle.


I get what I was trying to do, but my intent was to connect with others to make them feel more secure, not anger people by coming off as insensitive. I could have framed the message differently by…


I could also put aside more reflective time to process what’s going on and deliberately thinking through ways that I can make a positive contribution.


See if you can finish the final step on the process based on what you read above. If you find yourself having ‘forbidden’ thoughts or disquieting feelings during this difficult time, following them in this structured way may be far healthier than you might think. As always, feel free to reach out if you need help or have questions.


Please note: personal strategist services are not a substitute for therapy with a licensed professional. While these ideas may be relevant to handling the challenges you're facing, this advice should not be mistaken for therapy or the advice of a doctor. Please seek a professionally licensed therapist where necessary.


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