If your memories are the story of your life, you can think of OCD as an uninvited co-author. While almost everyone questions their memories from time to time, OCD’s tendency to cause doubt can go as far as creating memories of things that never occurred. These false memories can seem convincing and make it feel difficult to trust yourself.
False memories can vary in scale from altered details and timeframes to entire fabricated events. In any form, they can distort reality in a way that causes anxiety and distress. But while it can feel overwhelming and confusing to question your own memories, it’s more common than you think. Understanding the phenomenon of false memories can help you begin to untangle OCD’s web of doubts and take steps to reclaim your life’s narrative.
How can OCD cause false memories?
Everyone, regardless of whether or not they have OCD, can experience false memories. We don’t always remember things perfectly and our memories can easily be shaped or confused beyond their imperfect starting state. Memories are also suggestable, meaning they can be influenced by others. Because of these innate human qualities, false memories can occur in many psychiatric disorders.
Considering how these qualities of our memories might interact with OCD’s nature to cause pathological doubt, it makes sense that a person with OCD could experience doubts around their own memories. And not only does it make sense, it’s common—there’s even an OCD subtype characterized by obsessions around false memories. However, without understanding this, individuals with OCD may worry that they are experiencing false memory syndrome.
While OCD and false memories typically both involve intrusive thoughts—unwanted thoughts that are disturbing or taboo—it’s also possible to experience false memories that are innocuous. An example of this would be a person believing they went on a particular vacation in 5th grade, when they actually went in 7th grade. Similarly, another innocuous false memory would be a child believing they were present at a certain event, like the birth of a sibling, when really they were only told details about it. However, when false memories and OCD intertwine, it’s often far less innocent.
Why do false memories seem so convincing?
When OCD makes false memories emerge, it can have devastating effects on the person suffering. Intrusive thoughts in OCD often revolve around taboo fears. They can appear not only as thoughts, but as unwanted images, feelings, or urges. In any form, intrusive thoughts involving false memories tend to cause distress because they often alter an individual’s memory in a way that goes against what that person values or wants to think. We call this being ego-dystonic. The distress caused by intrusive thoughts involving false memories can lead to a significant impairment in functioning, time-consuming compulsions, and high levels of anxiety.
Another reason false memories can feel so convincing when you have OCD is because of the strong and chronic doubt that OCD often causes. You can see this in almost any theme of OCD. Individuals with OCD often struggle to “know for sure” whether something is true or not. A false memory creates doubt around your own ability to remember, which can be uncomfortable. Faced with discomfort, OCD will often try to tell us that we need to feel certain—but telling us that we need to feel completely sure about our memories is just another way OCD tries to keep us in its cycle.
What can false memories in OCD look like?
While False Memory OCD is characterized by obsessions involving false memories, false memories can appear in any theme or subtype of OCD. The following examples are a few of the many ways they may present and behaviors they may involve.
Checking behaviors: Why do people with OCD sometimes repeatedly check and recheck doors to ensure they are locked? They doubt their memory. They know on some level that they have locked the door, yet they can’t be fully convinced. OCD makes them believe that if they don’t go back and make sure they locked it—and then repeatedly check again until it feels okay—that something terrible may happen. Oftentimes, this also leads them to believe that if anything bad were to happen, it would somehow be their fault. This endless loop of checking and rechecking only makes them feel less and less certain, continuing the OCD cycle.
Harm-related obsessions: False memories can also lead people to believe that they’ve committed harm to someone else. Those who suffer from “hit and run” OCD may hear a noise or hit a pothole while driving and instantly think they’ve hit someone with their car. Nightmarish images of someone lying in the road behind them, unable to get help, may flash over and over in their minds. Unable to cope with this possibility, they may drive the streets they’ve traveled to check if they really did harm someone with their car. Not seeing any visible confirmation of their fear, they may think, “Maybe they crawled over to the side of the road?” And so the cycle continues—they now feel they must check the sides of the road as well.
Contamination fears: When people wash their hands until they’re raw and still imagine germs or some other contaminant to be present, they’re also doubting their memory. They may believe that they’ve missed a spot, or that they touched something and became contaminated again. They may even worry that the soap itself was contaminated, and feel the need to use a different soap creep in. Worries like these can drive a constant pursuit of feeling clean enough, but no matter how many times they wash their hands, how thoroughly they do it, or what soap they use, OCD will try to convince them that they’re not remembering it correctly.
Disturbing and taboo false memories
Although the previous examples of how OCD can play tricks on people with false memories can all be exhausting and time-consuming, some people with OCD may experience false memories that could have the potential for serious consequences. False memories can revolve around some of the most taboo topics. Even with no actual evidence of these events having occurred, someone with OCD may still wonder whether they murdered someone, sexually assaulted someone, stole something, said something terribly inappropriate, or acted in an illegal manner. And the list could go on and on.
These thoughts can be triggered seemingly out of nowhere and may blindside the person experiencing them. Take, for example, the following case. Henry is a middle-aged man who’s always had anxiety and struggles with obsessive thinking. More recently, he’s been having thoughts and images that torment him, focusing on an interaction he had with a relative when they were both children. He thinks he was probably ten and the relative was nine at the time. He cannot quite recall, but he remembers them playing a game and hiding under the covers, and pictures himself touching the relative inappropriately. He had never thought of this until recently, and when he did, he immediately felt sick to his stomach about it.
He worries incessantly that this event may have actually occurred. On the other hand, he tells himself that it seems like if this had happened, the relative would’ve said something about it, or there would be some sort of evidence that it occurred. He can’t think of anything that supports this memory, but still, it haunts him. Feeling intense guilt and shame over the mere chance that something could have taken place, he decides to confide in his mother. She reassures him that this couldn’t have happened, saying that it’s not in his nature to do something like that—but still, he can’t seem to shake this awful feeling.
False memory OCD like what Henry is experiencing is not as rare as you may think. Many people who experience OCD report similar fears. Imagine doubting who you are and what you are capable of at your core. This is how OCD works. Intense stress and guilt can permeate any area of life and lead to all-consuming compulsions. At their worst, false memories can even lead to false confessions. Thankfully, all of this is recognizable by OCD specialists and can be very well-managed.
Finding support for OCD and false memories
All false memories, no matter their focus or how disturbing or taboo they may seem, are treatable. If you or someone you know are struggling with false memories, the best course of treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is a highly effective treatment for all types of OCD, and the majority of patients experience results within 12-25 sessions.
In ERP, you will work with a therapist to develop tools that help you manage false memories and the distress they cause. You will learn to face the what-if questions that arise as a result of doubting a memory, without engaging in compulsions. Over time, this process will help you allow feelings of distress and anxiety to pass on their own and find freedom from exhausting compulsions that only bring temporary relief.
ERP is most effective under the guidance of a therapist who truly specializes in OCD and has been trained in treating it with ERP. Our licensed therapists at NOCD deeply understand OCD and all of its symptoms and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP therapy. 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 one and get started with OCD treatment.