While working on my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in therapy for a little over a year now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that OCD loves to lie. Through these sneaky lies, OCD pretends to be a helpful friend who wants to keep us safe. But really, it only manipulates us into doing more and more rituals. When stressed and struggling with an obsession, I’ve found it’s helpful to identify when 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 10 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 those fears can feel true. At times like this, I try to remember the relief and feelings of safety you feel after doing a compulsion will only be temporary. Doing rituals never makes me feel safe in the long run. Delaying a ritual and sitting with the anxiety is actually what gives me feelings of safety and 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 quickly. Doing a ritual decreases 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 for our anxiety to go away. With every ritual we do, we continue to learn that ritual equals less anxiety, even though it doesn’t work very well. Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) reteaches our brain 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.
3. This anxiety will last forever.
This lie can feel especially true during an exposure or panic attack, but it’s not only false — it’s impossible. 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.
4. Just do the ritual one more time. It’s better than trying to resist.
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 in practice, and it’s never true. Giving into the ritual only makes the obsession grow more, which means you’ll have to do the ritual even more times.
5. My thoughts make me 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. While most people shrug them off and go about their day, the difference is people with OCD tend to 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.
6. I shouldn’t tell people about my thoughts.
When my OCD tells me my thoughts are dangerous, it also tells me to keep them a secret. We don’t want people to know all the weird thoughts we have. This only makes the thoughts stronger; we fall deeper into the obsession. It also makes it harder to get help. It’s like saying “Voldemort” — you can take some of the power away just by saying it out loud.
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 that’s not the reality. 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’s 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, then I won’t be able to cope.
What about when you take the risk or do an exposure, and the bad thing does happen? I also underestimate my ability to cope with something bad. 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 only way to feel free then is to embrace uncertainty. Instead of responding to a “What if?” by ritualizing and desperately trying to achieve certainty, it’s better to respond with “Maybe…” and work on accepting the uncertainty.