Dealing with obsessive thoughts isn’t easy.

Dealing with obsessive thoughts especially isn’t easy when the obsessive thoughts are associated with our partner’s past relationships and/or sexual history.

Retroactive jealousy OCD is one of the most frustrating and debilitating mental disorders. Quality information to help you overcome it is rare.

Thankfully, however, as I noted in a previous video, we can look to the literature on OCD for some guidance and suggestions.

Referred to by some as the “OCD bible,” Jeffrey Schwartz’s book Brain Lock might be the most popular and effective book for helping to manage the symptoms associated with OCD.

I didn’t read Brain Lock back when I was dealing with obsessive thoughts associated with my partner’s past.

That might have been a mistake.

There’s a lot of quality information in the book, most notably, the “Four Step Program”…

From OCDUK.org:

The basic principle is that by understanding what these thoughts and urges really are, you can learn to manage the fear and anxiety that OCD causes. Managing your fear, in turn, will allow you to control your behavioural responses much more effectively. You will use biological knowledge and cognitive awareness to help you perform exposure and response prevention on your own. This strategy has four basic steps:

Step 1: Relabel

Step 2: Reattribute

Step 3: Refocus

Step 4: Revalue

Today’s video will explain the 4 step program for dealing with obsessive thoughts to you in-depth, while offering other useful tools and practices for overcoming retroactive jealousy OCD.

(I also sneak a bonus Austin Powers reference in there.)

This is a bonus lecture on dealing with obsessive thoughts from my video course on overcoming retroactive jealousy, “Get Over Your Partner’s Past Fast.”

If you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts, feeling “stuck,” and looking for a solution, this might be the most important video lecture you ever watch.

Hundreds of thousands of OCD sufferers have found relief through Dr. Schwartz’s methods, and while overcoming retroactive jealousy OCD requires a holistic approach, this is a great place to get started.

I hope you enjoy. (Leave a comment beneath this post and let me know!)

Click below to watch my video on dealing with obsessive thoughts with Brain Lock [edited transcript underneath]:

This lecture is called “Four Steps to Freedom.”

Many of the ideas, perspectives, and practices in this lecture are based on ideas from Dr. Jeffery Schwartz’s book Brain Lock which many people refer to as the “OCD bible.”

Schwartz writes:

For the first time ever for any psychiatric condition or any psychotherapy technique we have scientific evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy alone actually causes chemical changes in the brains of people with OCD.

The end result is increased self control and enhanced self command resulting in heightened self-esteem. So the core message in treating OCD is this do not make the mistake of waiting passively for the ideas and urges to go away.

This ties in with what I often say to people about retroactive jealousy. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

The most important thing is to do something; to not sit there and wait for this problem to go away because it won’t. You have to put in the work.

A psychological understanding of the emotional content of the thoughts and urges will rarely make them disappear. Succumbing to the notion that you can do nothing else until the thought or the urge passes is the road to hell. Your life will degenerate into one big compulsion.

Schwartz and many other therapists advocate a four-step program as one means of overcoming obsessive-compulsive disorder and this four-step program is a way of organizing your mental and behavioral responses to your internal thought processes.

So rather than just acting impulsively or reflexively like a puppet when unwanted thoughts are urges intrude you can train yourself to respond in a goal-oriented manner and can refuse to be sidetracked by self-destructive thoughts and urges.

dealing with obsessive thoughts

This four-step program consists of four Rs.

Step one is to relabel. Step two is to reattribute. Step three is to refocus. And step four is to revalue.

For the rest of this lecture, I’m going to be exploring each of these steps in-depth.

Step one: relabel.

Relabeling is about training yourself to identify what’s real and what isn’t and refusing to be misled by intrusive, destructive thoughts and urges.

What this looks like in practice is when an unwanted thought appears in your consciousness you can tell yourself “it’s not me, it’s OCD.” Or if you’d prefer you can tell yourself “it’s not me, it’s retroactive jealousy. As soon as the unwanted thought comes up this should be the next thought that occupies your consciousness: “it’s not me, it’s OCD.”

You’re acknowledging that the obsession or compulsion or whatever you’re worried about does not represent your true self. It’s a symptom of a medical condition.

This is a crucial point.

As I’ve said in other lectures, and as I’ve written on the blog, most people do not like thinking about their partner’s past. And if they find out details about their partner’s past that are fundamentally not okay with them, they break up and the relationship ends pretty quickly. But if you’re reading this article, you’re probably in a different category, unfortunately. I was too.

There’s a very good chance that when you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts you’re dealing with a true mental disorder—one that is not insurmountable, certainly—but my point is that this is not your true self.

So, when there’s a behavior that you really want to change, imagine a giant eyeball that hovers around you, keeping an eye on your behavior and on your thoughts.

Imagine there’s a giant eyeball outside of you that can acknowledge when you’re doing something wrong or when you’re submitting to a thought process that is not helpful.

Schwartz writes:

The important point to keep in mind is that… you must call [obsessive thoughts and compulsions] what they really are. They are obsessions and compulsions and you must make a conscious effort to keep firmly grounded in reality… to avoid being tricked into thinking that the feeling is a real need. It is not. Your thoughts and urges are symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, a medical disease…

People often ask me: “Zach, I know you say I should stop talking to my partner about their past, but I just have one more question for my partner… There’s just one more detail I need to clarify, and then everything will be better…”

When you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts and questions, the problem is it’s never “just one more.”

Think about an alcoholic. If an alcoholic who’s been sober for a few days tells you “okay, I think I’ll just have one more drink, a glass of wine with dinner or something,” what would you say in response?

dealing with obsessive thoughts wine

If you care about them, you’d probably tell them “that’s not a great plan,” because it’s not going to be “just one more.”

They’ve exhibited a pattern for some time that proves that it’s never “just one more.” So keep that in mind if you’re having that urge to ask, or to find out more details. Remember that there’s no relief to be found there and it’s not you, it’s retroactive jealousy. (Or if you’d prefer, “it’s not me, it’s OCD.”)

Schwartz writes:

It is vital to understand that the simple act of relabeling will not make your OCD disappear. But when you see this enemy for what it is—OCD—you sap its strength and you become stronger… If you sit and fret about whether OCD is going to invade your life on a given day, you’re only assuring yourself more dread and pain.

The struggle is not to make the feeling go away; the struggle is not to give it give in to it.. If you can hang in through the first few weeks of self-directed therapy you will have acquired the tools you need. You will have become stronger than your OCD.

Step two: reattribute.

You might ask yourself: “why don’t these bothersome thoughts, urges and behaviors go away? Why do they keep bothering me? What should I attribute them to?”

The answer is that they persist because they are symptoms of OCD, a condition that has been scientifically demonstrated to be related to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that causes your brain to misfire.

This step is related to step one, but in a way, you’re kind of going deeper. You’re not just saying “it’s not me, it’s OCD;” you’re really forcing yourself to think a little deeper about it.

People often ask me “why am I so hung up on my partner’s past? Because sometimes I can deal with it. Sometimes it’s totally fine. When I’m in my grounded moments it’s not a big deal at all… So why can’t I stop thinking about it?”

dealing with obsessive thoughts

If you think you might be suffering from OCD, there’s your answer. This is your brain misfiring. This is your brain sending you false messages. This is your brain getting stuck in a cycle of destructive and painful thoughts. And there’s a real there’s a biochemical component to it.

Sometimes if you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts about your partner’s past, there really is a genuine incompatibility with your partner.

But, in my experience, more often than not there is no genuine moral incompatibility. This is your brain misfiring.

Picture a transmission and a gear stick on a car.

Step two is all about staying grounded and recognizing that your brain is having difficulty changing gears.

You can tell yourself “this is my brain sending me a false message. I have a medical condition in which my brain does not adequately filter my thoughts and experiences and I react inappropriately to things that I know make no sense. But if I change the way I react to the false messages, I can make my brain work better.”

Just because you’re stuck in gear for the moment does not mean you have to stay there.

If your car’s transmission isn’t working, you can go to a mechanic who will fix it. What Dr. Jeffery Schwartz is suggesting is for you to be your own mechanic.

dealing with obsessive thoughts mechanic

Step three: refocus.

Schwartz writes:

Rather than responding to urges in an unthinking mechanical fashion, you present yourself with alternatives. Early in self-directed therapy it’s good to think of some alternative behaviors to have ready when the pain of OCD arises.

The key to the refocus step is to change your behavior when the unwanted obsessive thought comes up. This will help to begin repairing the broken gear shift in your brain, and your brain will quickly start shifting more smoothly to other behaviors.

The more you practice the refocus step, the easier it becomes.

That’s because your brain is beginning to function more efficiently.

There’s a wonderful quote: “idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Jeffery Schwartz includes it in this book, and it’s important to keep it in mind. So the more free time you have–the more you’re just kind of lazing about and not really doing anything–the more you’re going to be impacted by obsessions and compulsions and by retroactive jealousy in general.

So keep in mind that it’s really important–especially in the early stages of your healing–to keep yourself busy.

Many people dealing with obsessive thoughts have written to me and told me how helpful they found it to keep a full schedule, and to always make sure they had things to look forward to; activities they could turn to instead of focusing on the painful thoughts and compulsions.

Here’s a suggestion for dealing with obsessive thoughts:

Come up with a list of five to ten or more fun, mind-occupying have hobbies or tasks you can perform instead of going down the retroactive jealousy rabbit hole.

Keep the list handy.

dealing with obsessive thoughts

Schwartz writes:

The more you worry about trying to drive some foolish and bothersome idea from your mind the less chance you’ll succeed eventually you just give up and OCD will win. A key principle in self-directed CBT for OCD is this: it’s not how you feel. It’s what you do that counts.

Let that really sink in for a minute.

Refocusing is like learning a martial art. Your opponent–OCD–is very strong. But you have one clear advantage: OCD tends to be very stupid.

The closest OCD comes to being clever is the fiendish way it puts doubts in your mind. Now if you stand right in front of the stupid but powerful opponent it will knock you right over. Therefore, you have to take advantage of its stupidity. You have to step aside, put the OCD thought aside, and work around it by putting your mind in another place, and doing another behavior; one that is more pleasant and functional.

As you refocus remember the 15-minute rule. The object is to pursue the activity for at least 15 minutes instead of acting out some silly ritual in response to an obsessive thought that has come from your brain

For example: if ordinarily, you would ask your partner questions, or if ordinarily, you’d stalk their Facebook, etc. stop yourself, and refer to your list of hobbies and activities you can partake in instead.

Make sure you give it at least 15 minutes, and if you want to partake in the new activity for longer, by all means, go ahead.

Schwartz writes

One of the great ironies of life is that when we don’t really care whether we get something, it often comes our way.

How true is that?

The same principle can often apply to fighting the symptoms of OCD. So when you say to yourself “hey, who cares if the symptoms go away or not? I’m going to do something constructive with my time…” you actually increase the chance that they’ll go away.

The best refocusing activities require concentration and strategy and involve other people.

Jogging alone, for example, is less apt to take your mind off your obsessive and compulsive thoughts then a good game of bridge or even solving some work problem as long as what you do gives you pleasure.

Schwartz continues:

Refocusing at first even a minute is progress, but several weeks down the line you’ll have to push the edge of the envelope. This is fighter pilot territory. You will no longer be able to cling to your mental timer that’s set for 5 minutes or 10 minutes. You have to make yourself increase your tolerance of your discomfort…

Step four: revalue

Step four is a natural outcome of diligent practice of the first three steps. With consistent practice, you will quickly come to realize that your obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are worthless distractions to be ignored.

With this insight you’ll be able to revalue and devalue the pathological urges and fend them off until they begin to fade, and if you put in the work, they will fade. So as your brain begins to work better it’ll become easier to see the obsessions and compulsions for what they really are… As a result, the intensity of your symptoms will decrease.

The more clearly you see what OCD symptoms really are, the more rapidly you can dismiss them as worthless garbage that is not worth paying attention to, so you know you can.

In my view, step four is more like your subconscious doing the work for you.

The more you practice the first three steps, the more bored your brain will get with the old obsessions and compulsions, and the quicker you’ll be able to move on from them.

Here’s an example of a healthy cycle associated with OCD.

So: a thought about your partner’s past appears, and you immediately relabel it as RJ or OCD.

You immediately recognize that it’s not you, it’s OCD.

You then reattribute it to a very real biochemical misfiring in your brain. You recognize that it’s not a real problem, it’s not representative of your true self, it’s not something you actually need to address. This is not you, this is a medical condition.

Then you refocus by getting involved in something different. For example, maybe you haven’t spoken to a certain friend in a long while. So you might get on the phone with them and chat.

You then revalue.

The more you perform these steps, the quicker the cycle gets, as your subconscious brain revalues the original obsessive thought as worthless, boring, and not worth your time.

As you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts, be sure to take pleasure in little victories.

dealing with obsessive thoughts victory

If you had five minutes where you felt really clear-headed and peaceful, that’s a victory. Savor it.

Ask yourself: “was today better than yesterday, and if so, why? What did I do today that was different? How did I respond to these challenges in a way that was different?”

Remember:

This process takes work. Effort, consistency, and patience are required in order for this four-step process to be effective.

So be sure to power through the dark spells, and the bumps in the road,  and remember that this takes work.

Remember that OCD is a very real medical condition, but it is treatable.

You do not have to have to be dealing with obsessive thoughts indefinitely. You actually have the ability to rewire your brain.

You are not a victim.


Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.