Anyone who is familiar with OCD can attest to the gnawing sense of doubt it creates, so it might come as no surprise that the condition is often called the “doubting disorder.” People living with OCD are often plagued by doubt, feeling as though they cannot trust their own memories or selves. These feelings of doubt go hand in hand with uncertainty.
When doubt arises, OCD will convince people that they need to feel certain, leading them to do everything in their power to find the certainty they crave. But this search for certainty only fuels the cycle of OCD.
How misconceptions about accepting uncertainty can hold you back
When it comes to OCD, there is no shortage of misconceptions. The same can be said for the idea of accepting uncertainty in OCD treatment. Sadly, many individuals with OCD believe that accepting uncertainty means acceptance that their scariest and most tormenting fear is true.
In OCD treatment, we want individuals to allow the uncertain feelings surrounding their feared topic. This is because we know that they will never feel certain enough. They will have to accept that they cannot know themselves fully or that they may be capable of acting completely out of character.
Whether they realize it or not, individuals with OCD are already living with a constant, nagging sense of uncertainty. The goal is for them to accept that they may never feel certain enough and continue living their lives toward their values. If and when their feared outcome occurs, well, they can figure out what to do at that point. There’s a quote from Mark Twain that I think illustrates this well, “I have had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Allowing uncertainty to exist breaks the constant cycle of trying to appease OCD with compulsions, only to have fears resurface after the feeling of temporary relief subsides. The goal of accepting uncertainty is not for the individual with OCD to accept that there is a 50/50 chance of their obsession being true. The goal is to learn that possibility can exist without probability.
Misconception #1: “Certainty exists.”
This doesn’t mean that one cannot be confident in responses or results. It’s possible to be “sure enough” about outcomes based on a close inspection of the past and what has previously been true. It has been said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. At the same time, unaccounted-for factors and environmental unpredictability can exist and have the potential to change the outcome.
For example, one could argue that the grass is green, and that this is a factual statement; most people would agree with this. But let’s say someone is color blind and sees the grass as a different color. Does the truth change for them? Is their experience less true? Do we really know that color blindness exists, or could the people who aren’t color blind actually be the ones perceiving colors incorrectly? This is what we mean by accepting a level of uncertainty. Having OCD means learning to deal with intense feelings of doubt.
Misconception #2: “It would be dangerous to accept uncertainty surrounding this particular thing. It’s too important; too critical.”
When someone has OCD, the doubt they feel tends to hone in on far more important content than the color of the grass. It often hyper-focuses on areas that revolve around harm or are taboo in nature, leaving the individual highly distressed. In situations like these, it can feel dangerous or selfish to accept uncertainty.
When faced with sinister thoughts, the idea is not to accept that these thoughts have a high probability of occurring, or even a 50/50 chance of occurring. Rather, it is to suppose they could occur, and that for something sinister to happen, an individual would have to make a series of decisions and choices that lead to that behavior.
Remember, when you have OCD, you will never feel 100% certain. No matter the contents of your thoughts, it’s important to allow uncertainty around them to exist.
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Misconception #3: “If I accept uncertainty around my scary thoughts, I could manifest what I’m thinking about, or give the thoughts more power.”
Magical thinking, or the belief that one’s thoughts, ideas, wishes, or actions directly influence events in the physical world, can be a permeating feature of OCD, and often arises in the face of uncertainty. This belief can drive individuals with OCD to engage in illogical and senseless compulsions if they think there is even a small chance that a distressing thought could be true, and could be neutralized through a specific behavior. People experiencing these fears may know that they are completely unrelated to a specific compulsion, but the chance that the compulsion could help alleviate their distress is enough to make them engage in the behavior.
An example of this would be someone wearing the color red and experiencing a thought about harming someone they love. This individual may then decide that the thought is tied to that color and, as a result, they can no longer wear it. They may know this is irrational, but will still refuse to wear red, “just in case.” Another example would be an individual who is watching a particular television show, has an unpleasant thought, and decides that they can never watch that show again to prevent the thought from happening. These examples illustrate just a couple of the numerous ways that magical thinking can occur, but regardless of the form, magical thinking is an attempt to avoid uncertainty.
Creating a false sense of control in the face of uncertainty is not unique to OCD. The truth is that we, as human beings, take a lot of things for granted and treat them as if we have control over them. This behavior is protective because it allows us to live our lives without being paralyzed by fear.
But the reality is that many things are out of our control and, whether we realize it or not, we accept uncertainty in many areas of our lives. This false sense of control is what helps us to survive on some level. I always say to the people I work with that there is a chance that I could walk out my front door, get hit by a meteorite or a bus, and be gone. This could happen. I suspect this would be an extremely rare occurrence—but I suppose it could occur. Accepting this enables me to leave my house, and allowing the uncertainty around that worst-case scenario to exist doesn’t make it any more or less likely to happen.
Those who suffer from OCD want control over the specific intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that cause them significant discomfort. It isn’t that they cannot accept any uncertainty—in fact, they are likely already accepting some level of uncertainty in other areas of their lives—it is that they feel unable to accept uncertainty surrounding a specific obsession or obsessions.
Learning to fight OCD’s need for certainty
While feelings of uncertainty are distressing and can feel difficult to face, you can learn to tolerate them with the help of proper treatment. In exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, you’ll collaborate with a specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialist to come up with reasonable and creative ways to gradually face the fears that hold you back from living your life.
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A successful ERP specialist will never ask you to do things that go against your values or that will cause you or others harm, nor will they force you to do anything that you are unwilling to do. Instead, they will guide, support, and motivate you as you learn to tolerate uncertainty without engaging in compulsions.If you have questions about starting ERP therapy, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our care team. On the call, we’ll assist you in either getting started with a NOCD Therapist or connect you to other resources that might be helpful. All NOCD Therapists have specialty training in ERP and are trained by some of the top OCD experts and researchers in the world—which means the best care for our members.