How many times have we watched a movie displaying a career or job that misrepresents it into a universal experience or character? There is the stereotypical socially awkward librarian, or the therapist with the notepad leaning back in their chair with thick rimmed glasses and ignoring everything their client is saying and responding, “And how does that make you feel?..”. You can sometimes see it within messaging of the mental health spectrum as well.
I sometimes ask myself why it seems every individual with Obsessive Compulsive tendencies that I see in media descriptions is the obsessive cleaner or hand washer.
That, however, diminishes the reality that individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may not be experiencing either of those things. Let’s deconstruct and reconstruct a few messages together.
Destigmatizing Intrusive Thoughts
Many of us will experience intrusive thoughts in our lifetime. Did you ever have a moment as a child where you had a thought to yourself such as, “Huh, I wonder what would happen if I stuck a penny in my nose?” Though studies vary, we know that the brain creates thousands of thoughts per day. Play the law of percentages, and it’s bound that one or two of them may stick out to you as a bit strange.
Intrusive thoughts are just that- thoughts.
While some can feel strange or disturbing, that doesn’t indicate that you want to do odd things or that you will act on every thought you have. There wouldn’t be enough time in a week, let alone a day!
The Myth of Cleanliness
Has anyone ever had someone offer advice on how to deal with a condition such as anxiety, only to find that what they suggested doesn’t really work for you or meet your experience? This is, unfortunately, a common misconception about OCD. Certainly, there are individuals that may engage in hand washing or cleaning-related compulsions as commonly depicted, but there is a vast array of experiences that can differ between individuals who experience a shared term or condition.
Obsessions and Compulsions
Have you ever had this feeling that you left a burner on the stove before leaving your house and went back to check it? Have you ever knocked on a piece of wooden furniture after talking about a positive outcome?
Many individuals can engage in compulsions without having OCD.
We all have probably at some point whether we know it or not. This is part of the human experience for many.
Now, imagine that same person who knows they turned the stove off goes back into their home and turns the knobs on the stove down to ‘zero’, rechecking multiple times for 20 minutes before leaving the house. This is what a difference can look like for someone with OCD who may be experiencing debilitating daily anxieties stemming from their condition and someone who engages in a compulsion on occasion.
Let’s differentiate an obsession and a compulsion.
They both compose an individual’s experience with OCD.
An obsession is like a repeated unwanted or intrusive that causes distress or anxiety.
Someone with OCD may try to ignore the unwanted thought or engage in a compulsion to provide a temporary relief to the anxiety stemming from the obsession. Obsessions are unique to the individual with OCD, but may include unpleasant visual images, doubts that you’ve done certain daily activities that you know you engage in on a daily basis, or stress when objects aren’t in a certain symmetrical position.
Compulsions are repetitive mental or physical behaviors that you engage in to make the distress or anxiety from an obsession go away.
It is sort of like a safety behavior; a behavior that provides temporary relief but overtime will only reinforce the anxiety to a similar or greater degree. Compulsions may look like reassurance seeking from a friend or loved one (e.g., “Wait, I didn’t act weird around your friend, did I?”), checking objects to make sure they are locked or turned off, or arranging objects to be in a similar pattern or facing the same direction.
How Can I Potentially Support Someone with OCD?
- Like other experiences with mental health, OCD is vastly unique to the person that is experiencing it even if there are some commonalities between individuals.
- If someone is engaging in compulsions that are interfering with daily well-being and routine, it can be very helpful to have them talk with a therapist. In particular, a therapist who is well acquainted with OCD and understands its impact and how it shows up for the unique individual.
- Avoid cliches such as, “I’m so OCD.” This can be incredibly delegitimizing to an individual who is struggling with OCD.
- Recognizing that many people have the occasional strange or unwanted thought, and that is indicative of who they are as a person. Our thoughts do not determine our character!!
- Learning about peoples’ experiences with OCD: Coping With Severe OCD as a Teenager
Interested in learning more or booking a session? Please feel free to reach out to Chris Roland at Emery Counseling!
Email: [email protected]
Website and Booking: Chris Roland – Emery Counseling