Having OCD can be a paradoxical experience filled with many ironies. The attempts to alleviate the anxiety and discomfort OCD causes instead often create more and more of it. It can feel like you’re trapped on a hamster wheel, running to reach a moment of clarity and certainty that never comes.
From the time-consuming and exhausting cycles of obsessions and compulsions, to the havoc it can wreak, OCD can seem to contradict itself in many ways. Understanding these various contradictions can help individuals know how to navigate the challenges they face as a result of OCD.
Contradiction 1: Exchanging long-term relief for short-term relief
Individuals with OCD often desperately want to feel free from their worries and anxiety—so much so that they will often exchange long-term relief for the short-term relief of engaging with compulsions. This constant battle for freedom from distress may leave them feeling trapped and unable to pursue the things that they value.
OCD can make people believe they are unable to tolerate the difficult emotions that arise from the obsessions, leading them to do everything in their power to avoid those emotions. But the more that people try to avoid those strong feelings, the more they show up.
The key to remember is that although the feelings may be very real, the danger is not; it is a false alarm. As long as the individual with OCD reacts in a way that tells their brain the threat is real, this false alarm will continue to go off.
Contradiction 2: Seeking certainty increases uncertainty
OCD causes people to spend a great deal of time seeking certainty, only to constantly find themselves feeling uncertain. The more they think they have achieved the elusive feeling of certainty, the less assured they feel and the more trapped they become. OCD constantly inserts doubt and will never let them feel certain enough. There is always that small chance that something could happen or could be true. This uncertainty is where OCD attacks.
Feeling like they cannot rely on the validity of their own thoughts, many people with OCD will seek constant reassurance from others. This search for validation and approval only perpetuates their state of uncertainty.
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Contradiction 3: Fighting for control, only to feel out of control
The cruel irony of the need for control that OCD creates? It only leads people to feel more and more out of control. Control and responsibility can be central themes of almost all OCD, and many individuals who experience OCD report feeling out of control or fearing that they may become out of control.
While generally, many people who do not suffer from OCD or other mental health conditions are not hyper-focused on what could go wrong on a daily basis, those with OCD may become fixated on worst-case scenarios, perceiving something to be much more likely or more harmful than it is. In the face of these fears and perceived dangers, OCD often creates a false sense of control by often attaching to themes such as hyper-responsibility.
This inflated sense of responsibility for the safety of others and themselves can lead to magical thinking, making people with OCD believe they can control the outside world through their thoughts, ideas, and actions. They may think, If only it could be completed “just right;” if only I don’t miss something important; if only I say this the best possible way—then nothing bad will happen. These responses only continue the cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
Contradiction 4: The impossibility of chasing perfection
OCD wants people to believe that if only they do something or think something in a particular way, they will feel okay. It wants people to believe that they are in control and that if they follow OCD’s outlandish rules, they will avoid distress.
But time and time again, OCD proves to be a liar. Distress is a natural and normal part of existence. It cannot be ignored or erased and sometimes, it just needs to be noticed and felt. What if there is no such thing as ‘just right’? Chasing perfection is an endless pursuit of the impossible. From the start, OCD has set you up to fail: In your pursuit of “perfect,” you are likely left with imperfection.
Contradiction 5: The scariest thoughts tend to be the most unlikely
OCD can make people feel like a monster, convincing many that they’re capable of the most terrifying things. The distress caused by their intrusive thoughts makes people overlook the fact that because they are so bothered by these thoughts, they are often the least likely to actually commit the things they obsess over.
The most anxiety-filled thoughts for OCD sufferers are ego-dystonic, meaning they go against that person’s values and desires. While these thoughts often make individuals with OCD feel like they are ‘bad’ or immoral, in actuality, their sensitivity to these thoughts means they are less likely to offend or be unconscientious towards others. But this can be difficult for them to see—individuals who suffer from OCD are more likely to discount their positive traits and focus only on their perceived faults.
Overcoming OCD’s contradictions
The many contradictions of living with OCD can be overwhelming, but it’s possible to overcome them. Through effective treatment, people can learn that they have the power to interrupt the cycle of OCD. Recovery will look different for everyone, but each individual’s journey will involve giving themselves permission to be imperfect—just as every single other human in the world is. The idea behind successful treatment is not perfection, but rather a significant improvement in symptom management and overall functioning.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold-standard treatment for OCD because it can help people achieve these outcomes. ERP specifically targets the source of your obsessions by directly exposing you to them. In many cases, people find that ERP helps their anxiety subside to the point where they no longer experience intense fears related to their thoughts on a regular basis.
ERP therapy is an active form of treatment and requires intentional buy-in when participating in exposures, a willingness to feel discomfort, and honesty with your therapist about your obsessions and compulsions (even if they are shameful or taboo). ERP therapy has been proven to effectively treat people with OCD. Remember that you are not your OCD, and getting better is possible.
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If you’re struggling with OCD and looking for treatment that can help you get better, NOCD is here for you. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with a therapist and get started with OCD treatment.