OCD subtypes
False Memory OCD

What Is False Memory OCD?

8 min read
Nicholas Farrell
By Nicholas Farrell
All types of OCD include obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, urges and doubts, while compulsions are repetitive physical or mental actions performed in an attempt to relieve distress and anxiety

False Memory OCD Symptoms

False Memory obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an OCD subtype characterized by ongoing intrusive doubting thoughts and compulsive behavior around a past event. People with False Memory OCD experience frequent doubts about things that have happened to them and may be convinced they’ve done something wrong despite no evidence of these memories being true (e.g., “Did I accidentally steal and don’t remember?”). The recurrent doubting thoughts are often viewed as an indication that their fears are true (e.g., “if I’m so concerned I stole, then I must have. Otherwise, why am I thinking about it?”), which fuels anxiety about their memories and drives sufferers to engage in various compulsions aimed at gaining certainty about their memories (e.g., asking for continual reassurance from a friend about whether you accidentally stole or searching through your home for the receipt). 

Most people with False Memory OCD find their doubting obsessions can feel impossible to let go of. Their false memories can feel like real events. The more the person fixates on them, the more their brain may fill in these false memories with even more false information, further convincing themselves they are guilty of things they haven’t done. Furthermore, even though behaviors aimed at feeling more certain of one’s memory (e.g., repeated checking) might seem to increase confidence in memory accuracy, research actually shows the opposite: these behaviors actually decrease one’s confidence in their memory (Cuttler & Graf, 2009). 

Alcohol use can play a significant role in False Memory OCD. When a person can’t clearly remember what happened for long periods of time, their OCD may take over and start spinning tales of false memories. 

Let’s say Joe is in a committed relationship. He was drinking that night and can’t exactly remember everything that happened at the bar with his friend. He has a hazy memory of a brief interaction with a woman. He might begin to fixate on this specific interaction and wonder: “Did anything else besides a brief conversation take place between us? Did I cheat on my partner last night? How can I be certain?” Joe’s uncertainty and anxiety may feel overwhelming and drive him toward compulsive behaviors in order to alleviate it. This could look like asking his friend to recall what happened last night. Do they remember you interacting with anyone? Was it a normal interaction? Joe may also be compelled to find physical evidence, like asking the bar for last night’s video footage, just to be sure. These compulsions only ease the person’s anxiety temporarily. For someone with OCD, eventually, the anxieties start up again. (e.g., Joe might start thinking, “Yes, my friend told me he saw me interact with this woman, and we only exchanged a few words, but what if something happened when he stepped outside?”)  

In some cases, False Memory OCD can have devastating consequences for a person’s life. A person could be convinced that they committed a terrible act, even if there’s no evidence to prove this. Out of shame, they could isolate themselves from others, convinced they are a bad person. In more extreme cases, people with False Memory OCD have been convinced they’ve committed a crime like murder and will confess because they believe they are guilty and should face punishment. 

False Memory OCD: Some Examples of Obsessive Thoughts

  • Did I do this immoral/taboo action?
  • Did I accidentally say something inappropriate to my friend yesterday?
  • Did I interrupt my partner when he spoke? 
  • If I’m wondering about this, doesn’t it mean it’s true?
  • Did I hurt my brother or sister when we were younger and playing at the park?
  • When my sister fell and fractured her arm when we were children, was it actually because I pushed her? Would I have done something like that? Am I a bad person? 
  • Did the person I “hooked up with” actually consent to sex with me?
  • Did I walk out of the restaurant without paying by mistake? Maybe it wasn’t by mistake. Was I trying to steal?
  • Did I touch my student inappropriately when they came to see me after class? Am I a pedophile? Did I purposely block this memory from my mind in order to forget that I am a bad person?

False Memory OCD: Some Examples of Compulsive Behaviors

Mental review: A common False Memory OCD compulsion is to mentally review past experiences to try and prove or disprove your doubts about what happened. So if your obsessive thought is that you walked out of a restaurant without paying, you might try and review every single moment of that experience in your head. You’ll try to mentally replay when exactly the waiter came over, and the moment you asked for the bill. You might try to remember whether you paid with cash or a credit card. Wouldn’t they have said something if you tried to steal? Did anyone look at you? You might replay every past dining experience you can remember to reassure yourself that you have always remembered to pay, and that you have never stolen anything in your life.

Reassurance seeking: People with False Memory OCD might turn to friends or other people who witnessed the memory in question in an effort to validate the information they are doubting. In this example, the person might call the restaurant to be sure they paid. They may ask the friend they were with or go back in person to confirm their bill was paid with the waiter. The questions may be more general as well, like asking a friend or family member: Have you ever walked out of a restaurant without paying? Do you think that could possibly happen? 

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Distracting, replacing, or suppressing thoughts: People with False Memory OCD may try to distract themselves from these obsessive thoughts, try to fill their mind with positive thoughts instead or attempt to suppress their thoughts. They might repeat to themselves: I am not a thief. I have never stolen anything in my life.

Confessing: When someone with False Memory OCD has convinced themselves they are guilty of an action that happened in the past, they may confess to important figures in their life, or to authority figures on what they’ve done wrong. For example, a person may see a news report of a murder and become convinced they were the ones to do it on the basis that they cannot exactly remember what they were doing when the murder took place but recall being in the vicinity. They may turn themselves in on the basis that they think they may potentially be guilty, even though there is no evidence at all that they had done this. 

Physical Checking: People with False Memory OCD may try to recreate a scene they have in their mind. They may physically revisit the location they are concerned about, try to access recorded footage, spend hours researching news archives about an event they may have possibly been implicated in.  

Self-punishment or Avoidance: Someone may act on the guilt from what they may have done in an effort to ease their anxiety. For example, if someone is convinced they have forgotten to pay at a restaurant, they may decide that the best course of action is to never eat at this restaurant again, for fear that they’ll be publicly identified as a thief.

Even though everyone might have doubts about what they’ve done in the past or worry that they may have forgotten to pay at a restaurant at one point or another, these thoughts usually leave a person’s mind without much difficulty. That’s unfortunately not the case for someone with False Memory OCD. The fear of false memories does not go away once the person with OCD has gotten reasonable evidence they are innocent. Instead, their brain starts spinning further possibilities of uncertainty, creating new scenarios that start the obsessive-compulsive cycle over again. One criteria for a diagnosis of False Memory OCD is that a person spends at least one hour per day on these obsessions and compulsions. Often, the obsessions and compulsions can take control of a person and their ability to function in their everyday life. 

False Memory OCD ERP Therapy 

The best course of treatment for False Memory OCD, like all types of OCD, is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment and has been found 80% effective. The majority of patients experience results within 12 – 25 sessions. As part of ERP therapy, you’d be tracking your obsessions and compulsions around your false memory and making a list of how distressing each thought is. You’ll work with your therapist to slowly put yourself into situations that bring on your obsessions. This has to be carefully planned to ensure it’s effective and so that you’re gradually building toward your goal rather than moving too quickly and getting completely overwhelmed.

The idea behind ERP therapy is that exposure to your fears is the most effective way to treat OCD. When you continually reach out for the compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage in them.

On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to respond and will very likely experience a noticeable reduction in your anxiety.

Example of False Memory OCD Exposures 

Let’s take the example where someone is afraid they’ve left a restaurant without paying and have decided to avoid this restaurant at all costs for fear of being identified as a thief. A therapist may work with you to eventually face your fear and dine at this restaurant again. This may take time, especially if this exposure feels overwhelming and touches on one of your biggest fears (public humiliation). Together with your therapist, you’ll work to rank different exposures by difficulty. A less stressful exposure in this scenario might be to repeat to yourself, “I may or may not have walked out of this restaurant without paying. It’s impossible to know for sure.” ERP therapy aims to acquaint you with uncertainty and become more comfortable with it so that the anxiety of the unknown no longer feels as terrifying or unmanageable. 

Other exposures for False Memory OCD may be to prevent yourself from seeking reassurance about a particular event you’re unsure about. Instead of calling friends or trying to verify a particular event by researching news reports, a therapist might have you describe this memory as if it actually happened, walk through the worst-case scenario, and what this might mean for your life. If you’ve spent years avoiding speaking about a false memory, this might sound terrifying, but the intention is that once you’ve mentally walked through the worst-case scenario in your mind, it will no longer hold as much of a grip on you. 

How to Get Help for False Memory OCD

False Memory OCD might be difficult to pinpoint because it’s not what people traditionally associate with OCD. A person with this subtype may also be convinced their memories are real, and not a part of False Memory OCD. However, a mental health professional who specializes in OCD will be able to make an accurate diagnosis. If you’re interested in learning about False Memory OCD and how it’s treated with ERP, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD clinical team to find out how this type of treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many of them have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is. NOCD offers live face-to-face video therapy sessions with OCD therapists, in addition to ongoing support on the NOCD telehealth app, so that you’re fully supported during the course of your treatment.

Learn more about False Memory OCD

Nicholas Farrell

Nicholas R. Farrell, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the Network Director of Clinical Training and Development for NOCD where he provides clinical leadership and direction for our teletherapy services. In this role, he works closely with our clinical leadership team to provide a high-quality training and developmental experience for all of our therapists with the aim of maximizing treatment effectiveness and improving our members’ experience. Dr. Farrell received his master's and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wyoming (Laramie, WY, USA). He served as a graduate research assistant in the Anxiety Disorders Research Laboratory at the University of Wyoming from 2010 to 2015 and completed his predoctoral internship training as a psychology resident at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (Ontario, Canada).

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NOCD Therapists specialize in treating False Memory OCD

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Adriana Delgado

Adriana Delgado

Licensed Therapist, LMHC

My journey as a therapist has brought me in front of more and more cases of OCD, which has led to specialization in OCD treatment. My experience working at intensive in-home services for children & families, and intensive outpatient programs, has prepared me for even the biggest challenges. During sessions, I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s one of the most effective treatments for OCD, and works for any OCD subtype.

Alyse Eldred

Alyse Eldred

Licensed Therapist, LMFT

I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017, and as an OCD specialist, I only use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Research shows that ERP is the most effective OCD treatment available. I truly enjoy helping people understand themselves through ERP and I’m grateful to be part of a process that helps people gain control of their lives.

Andrew Moeller

Andrew Moeller

Licensed Therapy, LMHC

I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.

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