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 you didn’t do it? At the same time, do you tell yourself that such an awful act goes against your nature, so how could you 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.


First, 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. When you do the former, you enter OCD’s territory. 

For example, imagine you get an intrusive thought 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 will express confidence of, ‘This thought is nonsensical; therefore, I know I didn’t do it.’ You then let the thought go.


But, of course, if the problem of doing something awful was a legitimate doubt, you would have the confidence to say you did or didn’t do it in reality. So, in other words, you would know with your senses and common sense one way or another. But in this instance, it isn’t a legitimate concern, so you don’t have to worry about it either way.


So back to OCD and irrational doubt. Suppose OCD is challenging you and making you question if the dreadful thing is an obsessive fear or factual. You’re afraid to trust your authentic self about what you didn’t do. In this case, OCD will gladly take a position of prominence and increase your doubt. It will want you to prove you are absolutely sure you didn’t do what you fear. It expects you to verify your conviction with rituals like checking and analysing your memory. When you do this, you commit to the doubt and are guided by it.

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 prove your innocence even though the obsessive fear cannot be corroborated. Still, 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?‘ But, of course, there will only be hypothetical answers in the imaginary world.


Please reread the previous two paragraphs. It’s crucial because it’s true about the disorder. 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 doubt matches your imaginary self (the obsession). The latter makes you examine confidence in your authentic self. Consequently, you begin to distrust your senses and common sense and fret about the possibility of doing the dreadful thing in reality.


It has you spot inferences that add credibility to the obsession, making you doubt that you may have done what your authentic self knows you did not. An example is hearsay, for instance, hearing of someone who did what you fear you might have done, such as molesting someone or cheating on your partner. So, if this person could do it, 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.

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 authentic self and handle doubts with your senses and common sense? Or will you trust your imaginary self (the obsession), be guided by its source (doubt) and distrust what you know about your true self?


If you choose to be driven by doubt, you must acknowledge that your search for the facts of ‘did I do it or didn’t I?’ will be never-ending. Why? Because OCD works in a way that you get transient relief. That is, by allowing you momentary reassurance and alleviating anxiety when you do rituals to prove your innocence. But, then, it intercepts and teases you toward relief again, making you feel unsure, and so 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.


Moreover, suppose you have what you think is a faint memory of doing the dreadful thing but are not quite sure if it’s real. But it’s something to go on and prove you could have done the terrible thing. If only you could bring the faint memory to the forefront of your mind, grasp it, and not let it go. Then you’d know for sure. Because, on the one hand, you think this memory could be accurate and, on the other hand, ridiculous. In this case, you can decide to trust that it’s the latter and let it go. But if you count on it being a possibility, OCD will continue to direct your path, increasing doubt, as noted. So let’s, in this case, assume you go with ridiculous.


Of course, when doubt creeps in with “what if” questions later, this is the time to stand up for your authentic self and not give OCD dominance. In other words, you can remind yourself to stay in the here and now and use your senses and common sense. You can choose not to ruminate about the obsession. You can choose not to trace back how and why it all started. Instead, you can live with the uncertainty about it and then be mindful elsewhere. You can tell yourself you know and trust your authentic self, so there is no need to search for the whys and hows that result in hypothetical solutions. You don’t have to be swayed by doubt. If you do, you will lose conviction in your true self, beliefs, morals and memory and want to give up. 


So what will you do? Will you expel the doubt? Will you trust in your authentic self and resist going into your imagination to prove your innocence with rituals when met with inferential confusion? This means exposing yourself to your fear. But more importantly, it means using response prevention, which is resisting the rituals. You will have to tolerate increased anxiety for longer rather than doing compulsions for momentary relief. You will have to manage uncertainty. But of course, if you choose to do ERP, you’ll head towards remission from OCD or much-reduced symptoms, and the anticipation of “what ifs?”, “whys” and “hows” will look different than before recovery. You will have a firm handle on it and expel the doubts.


In my short book about seeing ERP differently, I write with conviction 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. 

Inferences: Frederick Aardema and Kieron O’Connor, 2012

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