For people with minimal knowledge of or exposure to obsessive-compulsive disorder, compulsive behaviors can seem weird, crazy, or ridiculous. Their comments are often along the lines of, “Their hands are clean, so they should just stop washing them” or “Everyone locks the front door at night, and even if you forgot it’s not a big deal.” These comments would make logical sense if the core fears were being clean or keeping the home safe. However, those are rarely (if ever) the core fears.
Although the media often portray OCD rituals as solely about flipping a light switch, being extremely organized, or handwashing, there are several common themes that are rarely known outside of the OCD community. Among them are harm, pedophile, and sexual orientation.
For people struggling with harming obsessions, they might believe that not washing their hands thoroughly could result in passing potentially deadly contaminants to another person. The false belief could then become, “If I don’t wash my hands enough, that means I want to be a murderer.”
If a person has sexual orientation OCD, the surface fear is that they’ve been living as heterosexual but are actually homosexual, or conversely are gay and worrying that they’re actually straight. However, the thoughts don’t end there. “If I’m actually gay then I’ll need to divorce my wife, which will devastate her and crush our children. I’ll hurt her family and mine, and I’ll need to come out and risk being rejected by people I love and care about. So, not only will I be a bad person because I’ve been living a lie, but I’ll hurt everyone who matters to me.”
One theme that some consider the “worst” to face is pedophile OCD. The sufferer struggles with the idea that they have or want to touch a child inappropriately, and struggle with normal functioning. If a child walks by and the person thinks, “What a cute kid,” the fear might be, “Do I mean cute as in adorable or cute as in sexy?” Or when offering to change the diaper of a relative’s infant, the person might freeze thinking, “Did I offer to be helpful or because I wanted to touch the baby’s genitals?”
Anyone who has these thoughts and buys into them would naturally be horrified and disturbed. It’s reasonable to want to prevent these events from occurring, and that’s where the compulsive part of OCD really kicks in. OCD tells sufferers that they need to perform certain mental or physical tasks to prevent the terrible thought from coming true. Most people with OCD have enough insight to know that rituals can’t prevent these terrible outcomes. But, what if they can…
OCD is often called the “doubting disorder” because it makes people question their logical thinking processes – because of all the things OCD is, logical isn’t one of them. This is why attempting to apply reason to reduce OCD distress is fruitless and frustrating.
So, if there’s doubt about the unlikeliness of the instructive thought coming true, then it only stands to reason that OCD is telling you how to prevent it from happening. This must mean that OCD is trying to make the sufferer a better person, right? No. Like almost everything else OCD says, this is false.
OCD is egodystonic. That is, it’s not in alignment with a person’s true values, beliefs, and will. This is part of what makes OCD-related intrusive thoughts so disturbing – it not only goes against what a person believes, but latches onto things that matter most to the individual.
As a result, sufferers will likely do anything in their power to suppress or eliminate the thought… even when the behaviors seem ridiculous to everyone, even to the person doing them. The cost of not doing them nonetheless feels so great that performing these rituals seems worth it because the alternative is just too awful to consider.
OCD leads sufferers down a dark path: if they aren’t willing to perform compulsions then they must be awful people, because doing nothing to stop a horrible consequence means being a terrible parent, child, friend, sibling, partner, employee, students, or even general member of society.
There are several problems with heading down this path. This is the beginnings of buying into the idea that someone who doesn’t perform the compulsive behavior isn’t a good person. In truth, an awful person wouldn’t be disturbed by the feared consequence in the first place. But once a person has “bought in,” it’s very difficult to let go. Rituals make the sufferer a slave to OCD, doing what OCD wants instead of what the individual wants. This is how a typically logical and rational person can believe that without performing obscure, absurd, or bizarre behaviors, an unrelated dire consequence will occur. These rules most often apply only to the person with OCD, creating a me-versus-world mentality that leaves the individual feeling isolated.
A core practice in overcoming OCD is adopting the attitude of taking the same risks as everyone else and accepting the uncertainty that a feared outcome might occur. This flies in the face of natural instincts to do whatever it takes to be a good person – but then again, OCD isn’t trying to make anyone better. Things that make us better reinforce our values, rather than push us away from them. Things that make us better encourage us to spend more time with people we love, not less. We find pleasure and not punishment in our activities. Leisurely activities are in fact leisurely, and not stressful.
As challenging as OCD is – and it very certainly is – the best way for us to be better people is to fight against intrusive thoughts and behaviors and align with our egosyntomic selves.