This blog post has been reposed on TheMighty.com
While working on OCD in therapy for a little over a year now one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that OCD loves to lie. Through these sneaky lies OCD likes to pretend to be a helpful friend keeping us safe and manipulates us into doing more and more rituals. When stressed and struggling with an obsession I’ve found it to be very helpful if I can identify OCD is trying to tell a lie. Then I’m more likely to resist doing a ritual or to fight through the discomfort of an exposure. Here are ten common lies OCD tries to tell…and why you shouldn’t believe them!
1. I have to do rituals to feel safe or keep others safe.
While most people with OCD know their fears are irrational, sometimes in a stressful moment they can feel more true. At times like this I try to remember that the relief and feelings of safety that might come after doing a compulsion will only be temporary. Doing rituals never makes us feel safe in the long-run. Delaying a ritual and sitting with the anxiety is actually what gives us feelings of safety and having control.
2. I have to do rituals if I want to feel less anxious.
Because of its cyclical nature, one of the main pitfalls of OCD is that it can grow very quickly. Doing a ritual decreases our anxiety, which feels really good in the moment, but the relief is only temporary. When the obsession pops up again we have to do the ritual more and more times for our anxiety to go away. With every ritual we do we continue to learn ritual=less anxiety, even though it doesn’t work very well. What exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) reteaches our brain is that if we don’t do a ritual, eventually our anxiety will come down on its own. With every exposure we do our anxiety comes down faster and we learn instead that not doing a ritual=less anxiety, but this drop in anxiety lasts.
This lie can feel especially true during an exposure or panic attack but it is not only false, it is impossible. Our bodies cannot sustain being in an extremely heightened state of anxiety for a prolonged period of time. All anxiety will come down eventually. It might soon go back up again, then down, then up, etc. but it will come down. I pinky promise this is science and is true.
4. Just do the ritual one more time. It’ll be over sooner than trying to resist the ritual.
This is one of the lies OCD tells me most often: “One more time!” It’s the same lie music directors and dance teachers always told us, and it is never true. It is always many more times and ends up taking just as long if not longer than it would have taken to not do the ritual and sit with the anxiety. Plus, giving into the ritual only makes the obsession grow more…which means you will have to do the ritual even more times.
5. My thoughts are dangerous.
Something my therapist told me this week is, “We can’t choose what thoughts we have, but we can choose what we do.” What many people don’t realize is everyone has weird, intrusive thoughts. However, not everyone is bothered by these thoughts. While most people shrug them off and go about their day, the difference for people with OCD is we overreact to these thoughts. We feel responsible for our weird thoughts and feel like dangerous people. Because of this we obsess about the thoughts and engage in rituals to reduce our anxiety…which accidentally makes the thoughts come more often. This lie is simply not true; thoughts are just thoughts.
When OCD tells us our thoughts are dangerous, OCD also tells us to keep these thoughts a secret. We don’t want people to know all the weird thoughts we have (even though there is a good chance other people have had the same weird thoughts at some point). What this does though is only make the thoughts stronger; we fall deeper into the obsession. It also makes it harder to get as much help if you aren’t sharing the thoughts that are bothering you. It’s like saying Voldemort; you can take some of the power away just by saying it out loud.
Side note: Unless of course you are talking about your intrusive thoughts as some form of reassurance seeking. Don’t do that…
7. I should be able to control my thoughts.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could try really hard and just stop having intrusive thoughts? Yes that would be nice but I’m sorry to say it is entirely impossible to control your thoughts. Go ahead and try, I’ll wait…Tired yet? As nice as it would be to have control over our thoughts I repeat, “We cannot choose what thoughts we have, but we can choose how we react to them.” The more we react to the thought and try to stop thinking about it, the more we think about it. The less we react to a thought and treat it as just a thought, the sooner it passes.
A common way to demonstrate this phenomenon is the pink elephant experiment. Try it yourself here!
8. There is a high probability that something bad will happen.
This is a common lie all anxiety disorders try to tell, but one I’ve tried especially hard to fight back against and test out many times. What I’ve found is usually it is not as bad as I expect it to be or the bad thing doesn’t even happen at all. Quite often when I do an exposure the anticipatory anxiety is worse than the anxiety I feel when I’m actually doing the exposure. Our brains really like to keep us safe which means our brains really like to tell us something bad will happen, even when most of the time it doesn’t happen.
9. If something bad does happen I won’t be able to cope.
But what about when you take the risk or do an exposure and the bad thing does happen? Okay, so the bad thing usually doesn’t actually happen but I would be lying to say it never happens. Sometimes it does, sorry. But we also underestimate our ability to cope with something bad happening. We are far more capable of coping than we usually believe.
10. I need certainty.
OCD-related fears come in all shapes and sizes but one aspect that ties them all together is an intolerance of uncertainty. Whether you check a lock multiple times or reread a page over and over the goal is to feel certain that the feared outcome won’t happen. The problem is certainty is impossible and the only way to feel free is to embrace uncertainty. Instead of responding to a “What if?” by ritualizing and desperately trying to achieve certainty, it is better to respond with “Maybe…” and work on accepting the uncertainty.