False Memory OCD: What If I Did A Terrible Thing But Can’t Remember?

close up of a person covering their mouth

Are you struggling with false memory OCD and worry you did a terrible thing? Do you check your mind and seek reassurance that it didn’t happen? At the same time, do you tell yourself that such an awful act goes against your nature, so how could I be even capable? Then do you wonder about an actual event where you could have done the dreadful thing? After all, why would your mind make stuff up when there was a real situation where it could have happened? 

If these questions resonate with you, let’s read on and see how OCD deceives you.

Retrieving memories

First, whenever we retrieve a memory, we remember it differently or bring in new information, so an old memory becomes the most recent one each time. For example, suppose I have a memory of going to a party. First, I think of how I enjoyed dancing and drinking with friends. Then, several days later, I retrieve the memory again and recall a couple (Mark and Stella) gatecrashing the party and finding Mark attractive. So, this is my new memory. Then, I add information to the memory by wondering how Mark and Stella found the party. After that, I remember how everyone, including me, welcomed them despite not knowing them. I also recall feeling a little anxious about thinking Mark was attractive, more so because I have a partner. Still, at the time, I shook it off and thought no more about it.

However, imagine several months later, and I’m at a fun event. There is a couple I don’t know, and I find the guy attractive. It suddenly triggers the old memory of the party. So, right at that precise moment, I feel anxious again. Then, something about Mark comes to me. It feels intrusive, my anxiety starts rising, and I cannot get to grips with something I believe could have happened. The idea that came to me was, had I had too much to drink that night and made a pass at him? If I didn’t, why would I remember it? Not only that, but why didn’t I remember it before?

How false memory is formed

Scientist Susumu Tonegawa says, “an aversive or appetitive event could be associated with a past experience one may have in mind at that moment; hence a false memory is formed.” So at the fun event and after finding the guy attractive, you can see how I inadvertently associated the present situation with the party experience and thus created a false memory about Mark. 

Furthermore, Tonegawa said his team of scientists discovered that false and genuine memories could be investigated in the cells which store memories, called engram-bearing cells. For example, a scientist in the team, Xu Liu, said: “When mice recalled a false memory, it was indistinguishable from the real memory in the way it drove a fear response in the memory-forming cells of a mouse’s brain.” So, the mice developed a conditioned response to the false memory as though it was real.

The brain’s amygdala and emotional memory

Similarly, when my anxiety rose at the “memory” of making a pass at Mark, it drove a fear reaction in the memory-forming cells in my brain, creating a conditioned response. For clarity, my brain’s amygdala acted on emotional memory, warning me through anxious feelings, not words, that I was confronted with a couple again. It thus initiated my body’s fight or flight response as a means of helping me respond to the perceived threat of finding the guy attractive and avoiding an adverse outcome.

Possible Consequences

For example, people fear possible consequences when they have a conditioned response. For instance, in my case, it was my partner finding out what “happened” and ending our relationship. So, I now have a conditioned response to the false memory. In other words, when I think of it, I feel fearful. Plus, I add more information with each retrieval, blurring the earlier memories. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to distinguish it from my authentic memory. By that, I mean adding new information about Mark, like getting drunk and making a pass at him, among other stuff, connected to the old memory of finding him attractive. Consequently, it makes it seem like a complete memory. Therefore, my fear response to the possibility of making a pass at Mark looks plausible. 

So now let’s see how OCD deceives you

From the above, it’s fascinating to realise how false memory occurs and happens to almost everyone. Mostly, we don’t worry about it. Still, some people with, for example, PTSD might be alarmed by such “memories” associated with past trauma. Also, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be taken aback. A false memory can be neutral or pleasant in OCD, for example, falsely believing you dated a celebrity you met at a gig. The problem is that these play like a loop tape in the person’s mind, like a tune you cannot get out of your head. The feared consequence might be that the perceived experience wasn’t horrible, but what if I never stop thinking about it? 

In any case, false memory is often aversive in OCD. For example, some people fear they’ve harmed or sexually abused an adult or child. Or they might worry the same has happened to them. So, when they recall inaccurate information when retrieving an earlier memory, they cannot readily let it go. 

So, even though we saw earlier how false memory could not be distinguished from actual memory, we can see how the conditioned response evolves in OCD, showing it is a false memory obsession. In other words, as with all obsessional variations, it follows a pattern.

The pattern usually starts with a trigger (seeing a couple). Next comes doubt (what if I made a pass at Mark), then obsession (if I made a pass at Mark, maybe I slept with him and can’t remember). It follows with a first consequence (if I slept with him, my partner would find out and leave me), then a second consequence (if my partner leaves me, I will not cope; I’d be heartbroken). After that comes a compulsion (I’ll check to make sure). Finally, there is anxiety relief (I feel less anxious after checking, but not for long). So, the pattern starts all over again “just in case” the memory happens to be true. From this, it’s clear that at the root of all false memories in OCD, it is DOUBT.

So, what’s the solution?

First, it’s not the false memory that’s the problem in and of itself, but one’s obsession with it. Therefore, since OCD is about irrational doubt, you have a critical choice. You can either prove or expel the doubt. When you do the latter, you flip it over to certainty in the here and now. When you do the former, you enter OCD’s territory. 

For example, imagine you get an intrusive memory (thought, feeling, image, sensation) that you could have done something dreadful. When expelling this doubt, you remove OCD from a position of power. In that case, your authentic self is sure of doing no wrong and will express such confidence as, ‘This thought is nonsensical; therefore, I know I didn’t do it.’ You then let the thought go and eliminate the doubt.

So, for instance, imagine I’m confident I did not make a pass at Mark. In this case, I separate the familiarised information (about couples) from my old memory. Therefore, doubt cannot play a part, and I do not get the conditioned response as a means to fight, flee or freeze. However, if I had little confidence in my earlier memory, I would question whether I did or didn’t come onto Mark. So, the familiarised information about couples would remain active. Therefore, it would continue to alarm me when couples are in my environment. And it would make me doubt if I did or didn’t make a pass. Thus, I would feel urged to know for sure through ritualising.

So when the obsession roots itself or is already rooted, I might ruminate and bring other words related to attractiveness in my search to know. For example, since I found Mark attractive, isn’t that evidence I could have SLEPT with him but can’t remember? Then I think, if I did, it would make me a CHEAT. If I was a cheat, perhaps it means I don’t LOVE my partner. See how the words slept, cheat and love embellish the innocent idea of thinking Mark was attractive. 

By dwelling on the obsession, I somehow colour the details with false meanings from words related to the main word attractive but never acted on. It is similar to how research has tested for false memory, including Roediger and McDermott’s test that involves a critical lure word. For example, suppose participants are given a word list, e.g., sheet, duvet, pillow, blanket, etc. Now imagine the critical lure word bed is not on the list. However, the participants usually include bed when remembering the word list. Therefore, it is a false memory.

Similarly, sleeping and cheating are false memories associated with finding Mark attractive and doubting whether I love my partner. 

Questioning the doubt

So, now, let’s suppose you enter OCD’s territory. Imagine OCD is challenging you and making you question if the dreadful thing in your imagination is factual. You suddenly feel afraid to trust your memory. In this case, OCD will gladly take a position of power and increase your doubt. It will demand evidence one way or the other. It expects you to find such proof with rituals like checking and analysing your memory. When you do this, you commit to the doubt and thus are guided by it.

Hypothetical answers in an imaginary world 

So, in your efforts to confirm a solid answer, you worry that your authentic self is unsure of the truth. Cracks in your once confident self begin to show. But OCD doesn’t care. Instead, it wants you to continue checking for surety even though the obsessive fear cannot be corroborated. As a result, it makes you doubt your mind even more. Specifically, you get confused with reality and imagination. OCD is now fully controlling its acts of deception to achieve an end goal. That is, to drag you further into your imagination and search for the answer, ‘did I or didn’t I do the terrible thing?‘ There is no objective reality here, so there will only be hypothetical answers in the imaginary world.

Consider inferential confusion

Please reread the previous two paragraphs. It’s crucial because it’s true about OCD. It’s what drives it and keeps it active in your brain. It keeps you in a state of inferential confusion. In other words, you get to the stage where you fail to interpret reality correctly and consider an obsessional belief as an actual probability.

For example, let’s assume you expel the doubt. Doing so flips it over to certainty, as we’ve seen, but it’s conflicting. For instance, ‘I know deep down I didn’t do the dreadful thing (certainty), but I’m not sure (doubt).’ Can you see how certainty flips over to doubt again? So, let’s look at it this way. Certainty equals your authentic self and the original memory, whereas doubt matches your imaginary self (the false memory obsession). OCD tries to convince you that there is a possibility that your authentic self could do the dreadful thing in reality. Specifically, as noted, it isn’t easy to separate conditioned information from the old memory, so on retrieval each time, new information, such as inferences, continues to support the memory in its “entirety” as though the false element is part of the whole and valid.

Inferences add credibility to the obsession

You might think then of inferences and how they can add credibility to your obsession, increasing the doubt that you may have done what your authentic self knows you did not. An example is hearsay, for instance, hearing of someone who caused specific harm. So, if this person could cause harm this way, there’s a possibility I could too. But rumours have no relevance to your problem in the here and now. No inferences do. Remember, OCD operates in your mind, not reality. Therefore, generalisations cannot legitimise false memory obsessions.

As a further example, suppose I read a magazine article about people being attracted to others who are already in a relationship. First, I might worry and add this to my earlier retrieved memory. Then, when I next retrieved it, it would seem more credible that I made a pass at Mark because of my fear-induced conditioning about finding guys attractive when they’re a couple. But the article is conceptual and, therefore, irrelevant to the here and now. Thus, inferences that sneak into my obsession with making a pass at Mark cannot render it valid. 

So, the real question is, since you know your authentic self, will you trust it and expel the doubt? Will you authorise and build conviction in your genuine self and handle further doubts with your senses and common sense in the here and now? Or will you trust your imaginary self (the obsession), be guided by its source (OCD doubt) and continue to distrust what you know about your true self and original memory?


If you choose to be driven by doubt, you must acknowledge that your search for the facts of did I or didn’t I do the awful thing will be never-ending. Why? Because OCD works in a way that gets you transient relief only. That is, allowing you to believe the rituals will prove your innocence or guilt. But, of course, it’s repetitive, so it teases you toward relief again and again, making you feel unsure. It’s like travelling on the road with twists and turns. One minute, you didn’t do it (relief), then the next minute, you doubt it and think, but what if I did? Thus, more rituals lead you deeper into your imagination, where you become increasingly absorbed in the obsession.

By now, you might be more clear how false memory is not the problem per se but the obsession with it.

Knowing and Remembering

But back to becoming absorbed. If becoming immersed in the obsession wasn’t enough, suppose you have what you think is a faint memory of “actually” doing the dreadful thing. It feels real, so you think it’s something to go on and prove you could have done it. If only you could bring the faint memory to the forefront of your mind, grasp it, and figure it out. Then you’d know for sure. 

However, in this case, think of it as knowing and remembering, a procedure that helps process memory awareness. In other words, implicit recall (knowing) is semantic. It is when you suggest ideas about a memory rather than directly express them. It feels familiar in some way but is not explicit. For instance, suppose I explain my memory of making a pass at Mark. It feels like it happened when it connected with the original memory, but I cannot remember it. In short, I have no explicit memory of making a pass at Mark; instead, there’s just a feeling about it. For the life of me, and with all the rituals I’ve done, I cannot get hold of it. Instead, embellishing my original story (memory) with doubts, inferences, suggestions and ‘what-if’ scenarios makes “knowing” more credible. It makes it feel like an episodic memory. Therefore, I worry that it could be plausible; consequently, I need to remember explicitly to be sure.  

In contrast, therefore, remembering is explicit, so you can clearly define the vividness and meaning of the episodic memory. In other words, imagine I describe the party where I met Mark and mention I thought he was attractive. I can clearly express the event as to leave no doubt about what happened. For example, I remember chatting with Mark and his partner, having fun with friends, drinking excellent wine and dancing to great music. So, the implicit memory of making a pass at Mark differs from my explicit memory of chatting with him. 

But in any case, when you’re struggling with inferential confusion, you think the implicit memory could be accurate, as noted. Yet, on the other hand, it may seem ridiculous. In this case of ridiculousness, you can trust that it’s false and let it go. But suppose you count on the feeling of “knowing” as a possibility of it being true. In this instance, OCD will continue to direct your path, increasing doubt and maintaining the conditioned fearful response. And it bothers you when you don’t reach the implicit memory. Sometimes, you think you’ve got it, and it comes as a relief. So, you try to keep it there in your mind, then “lose” it and are distressed because of that. But, it will always be implied, like an illusion. In other words, the false memory is a misconception. Therefore, allowing your authentic self to settle for uncertainty can help you manage the root cause of OCD: Doubt.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) or Inference-Based Cognitive Therapy (I-CBT)

So what will you do? Will you expel the doubt? Will you trust in your authentic self and resist going into your imagination to find proof? Do you want to do ERP but are afraid to confront your fear even though it will help you build a tolerance for anxiety and manage uncertainty?

In my short book, I discuss seeing uncertainty and ERP differently. In this 90-minute read, I write to help my readers establish self-reliance where such assurance leads to a feeling of security. Therefore, what I write about can help you develop a state of mind where you will no longer be guided by doubt but prepared to defeat OCD with ERP and embrace risk. 

Alternatively, I-CBT does not involve exposing yourself to your fears, as it does with ERP. Instead, it helps you build trust in your authentic self and weakens the imaginary self (the obsession). It reorients you back to the here and now where you use your senses and common sense. Doing so makes you see that compulsions keep you trapped. Therefore, you realise they’ve been unhelpful in the long run despite giving you “safety” and anxiety relief in the short term. My other book describes more about I-CBT as well as ERP. It can help you choose the therapy you want to use or combine them. ERP and I-CBT are evidence-based treatments.

Inferences/inferential confusion/authentic and imaginary self: Frederick Aardema and Kieron O’Connor, 2012 Semantic and episodic memory: Endel Tulving – Wikipedia

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