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.
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