I have been a professional observer of human behavior for more years than I care to admit. In my experience, and I am by no means the first to say this, people are much touchier these days—quicker to take offense, react angrily to seemingly minor provocations, and denigrate others for expressing different opinions.
Leaving the obvious arenas of politics and world affairs aside, I see frequent evidence of these hair-trigger responses when I read social media posts in the groups I follow. Just recently, for instance, there was a heated discussion about an answer in the New York Times Connections game, which I have been playing daily. My approach is pretty laissez-faire: I try to do the best I can, competing with myself to beat previous scores, but I will use Google when necessary and concede defeat if I bomb out. I find it relaxing and fun and don’t care much about my performance.
But others, apparently, take it much more seriously. The Connections game has sixteen words that fit into four categories of four words each. It can be tricky because some of the words can work in more than one category. In a recent game that caused a furor among players, one category contained words that are countries when “land” is added to them: Fin, Ice, Ire, Nether. But as many incensed gamers noted, Netherland is not a country. They complained, they worked themselves up into a frenzy over the editing error, and they even attacked each other over either being too pedantic or not caring enough about grammatical correctness.
The Times apparently took the criticism to heart because when I looked at the game later that day to refresh my memory for this post, the word Nether was gone and was replaced by Green. Which should have made some of the haters happy but, predictably, only led to more dissent in the group.
All very trivial, to be sure. But it reflects a broader concern: the fear of doing or saying something wrong and being publicly skewered for it. I see this worry coming up much more frequently these days in the people seeking treatment with me for OCD. Most of the calls I get lately are not from compulsive hand-washers or stove-checkers but from individuals with obsessional worries about having committed an offensive or immoral act. And because OCD thrives on ambiguity, these imagined transgressions are not obvious or clear-cut, such as inappropriately touching someone or cheating on your income taxes, but fall into the realm of “what if I accidentally did this terrible thing I may not even know I did?”
As with any OCD worry, the solution is not to review the past to determine what really happened (because memory is unreliable and will never yield the desired certainty) or to seek reassurance from others. It is to give yourself grace. Acknowledge your mistake, if you actually made one, accept your imperfections, learn from the experience, and move on.
Self-compassion and kindness towards others are two qualities in short supply these days. Let’s work on cultivating them.
With summer travel in full swing, you may be tempted to look for “hacks” to make your packing and departure easier. Many are perfectly innocuous and even helpful. Rolling your clothes to maximize suitcase space or stuffing your shoes with your socks and underwear? Good ideas!
But if you have OCD and get stuck checking appliances, light switches, and door locks prior to leaving on a trip (or even for just the day), I would strongly advise you not to listen to the Lifehacker tip to take photos of your stove, thermostat, and appliances prior to travelling to ease your anxiety about having left something turned on.
It may be tempting to sidestep the checking process by snapping pictures to reassure yourself that you won’t have started a fire or caused a burglary. For a short time, your anxiety may lessen. But if you have OCD, the relief you feel will undoubtedly be short-lived.
Compulsions such as checking do serve to relieve anxiety in the short run. But they tend to escalate and demand more and more time because the doubt returns. The intolerance of uncertainty is a core feature of the thinking patterns fueling compulsive checking and other OCD behaviors.
Rather than checking over and over (or taking pictures) to feel certain, you need to train your mind to accept the lingering feeling of doubt by practicing—preferably before you go away for an extended period of time—setting a limit on the number of times you allow yourself to check and leaving even if you feel the urge to go back for another once over. The key is deciding ahead of time, rather than letting anxiety guide your actions. If you typically check appliances or the door ten times, say, start by cutting back by ten percent. When that becomes easier, reduce the number of checks again, and so on, until you are down to one or two.
When leaving for vacation, you can allow yourself an extra check (but only if you decide on the number in advance). Taking a picture might seem tempting, but it won’t lessen your discomfort if you have OCD. I’ve had patients tell me they’ve tried the picture hack only to question whether they might have turned the stove back on or plugged the iron in again after taking the photo.
So come up with a plan in advance, practice over and over before your trip, and save the photos for the sights you want to capture on your travels.
With all the misinformation about vaccines and health risks, you would think people might think twice about looking to the internet for diagnostic advice about their mental status. Sadly, this is not the case.
Despite the many credible sources (including this one) dispelling the myth of “pure O” OCD, I still get frequent queries from people who have diagnosed themselves as having “pure O” and are looking for treatment to help them get rid of their disturbing thoughts.
If you think you suffer from Pure O, you probably have been stuck in a repetitive thought loop about a distressing event or belief. You think you have obsessions without compulsions (such as the stereotypical ones like hand-washing and checking). But I guarantee you are engaging in rituals even if they are not readily apparent to an outside observer or only exist in your head.
Here are some common obsessional thoughts that may masquerade as Pure O:
I am a pedophile.
I have violent thoughts and may kill someone.
I might kill myself.
I have an underlying mental illness and will go crazy.
Let’s do some unpacking:
If you worry about having these types of thoughts, you are falling prey to a common OCD cognitive distortion: thought-action fusion—the belief that thinking about an action is the same as actually doing it. Thought-action fusion can also cause you to believe, superstitiously, that having a thought will make the event more likely to happen.
Thoughts of committing a violent or repugnant act can feel very real. Such obsessions often lead to repeated attempts (compulsions) to push them away in order to relieve distress. Some common rituals are: mentally reviewing the past for signs of the feared action; seeking reassurance from friends and family; repeating a phrase or mantra (“I would never do that,” “I’m a good person”); praying; doing research about people who have committed the feared action and comparing yourself to them.
Trying to control thoughts only makes them more tenacious, as countless experiments on thought suppression have shown. Contrary to what the false notion of Pure O would have us believe, thoughts are not the problem!
OCD worries gain a foothold from the efforts to suppress thoughts, not from the thoughts themselves. The most effective way to deal with unwanted mental intrusions, then, is to allow them. In fact, if you stop trying to barricade the door against the unwelcome cognitive intruders and invite them in, they will lose their power over you in time. Little by little, you will find it easier to realize they are not evidence of a deep-seated pathology or predictions of future actions.
They are just products of an over-active imagination, nothing more.
So remember: “Pure O” is never pure, and don’t trust those who tell you otherwise.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.