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The “Certainty Trap” in OCD

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Jul 10, 20235 minute read

Have you ever replayed a childhood memory over and over in your mind? Maybe a nostalgic feeling swept over you as you recalled the events of that particular day. Reliving that Christmas morning when you were given that gift you had been longing for or that time you were on that special vacation. 

Many people can reminisce in great detail these moments, confident in what you experienced. The same may be just as true about a negative experience you have had in life. Maybe a time when you felt embarrassed, or a time when you were in danger. You can look back on these events and feel pretty sure about what happened—or at least certain enough.

If you are one of the 1 in 40 of people worldwide who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) you may not ‘trust’ your own memories. How can you feel certain that the events you are thinking about really happened the way that you envision in your mind? Maybe during that vacation, something traumatic happened, something so horrible that you blocked it from your memory. Intrusive thoughts surrounding anything and everything can haunt the OCD sufferer’s mind, leaving them unsure about even the most minute details of their lives: How can I be completely sure?

The need to feel completely sure about something, including memories, is extremely common in OCD—based on my experiences living with, recovering from, and treating OCD, I refer to it as the “certainty trap.” Let’s look at a couple examples to understand how the trap works.

Plagued by “what-ifs”

Grayson just finished giving a speech at his high school graduation. For weeks he has practiced and prepared, reciting line by line precisely what he wanted to say. Grayson struggled with anxiety throughout high school, but he had learned to manage it well. As he neared his graduation, however, he noticed that his anxiety seemed to be creeping back. His once confident and self-assured demeanor had started to diminish. He now wondered if he had said or done something that may have upset his friends or teachers. He would ask them if they were mad at him, if he might have said something inappropriate, or if there was anything they were holding back. This behavior did bring him some frustrated looks, but most people just answered him. and he felt better for the moment. 

As Grayson looked around the crowd on his graduation day, he felt overwhelmed with worry. Thoughts raced and rattled through his brain. He was able to recite the speech pretty accurately—right? As the minutes ticked by, his mind raced more and more. How could he be sure he had included everything he wanted to? What if he missed something important, or stumbled over a word? His mind was consumed. 

Grayson tried to shrug these off, telling himself that it was too late to change his speech—it would have to be good enough. Still, nagging thoughts crept into his mind. He remembered a particular word he had changed at the last minute—what if he made the wrong choice? 

When the time came to deliver his speech, Grayson simply went through the motions. Nothing felt out of the ordinary, but felt relieved and satisfied overall as he stepped off stage to applause. It went well. Later that night, however, his doubts came creeping back. Did it actually go okay? Were there some laughs or jeers mixed into the applause he’d heard? He woke his father up and asked to watch the recording he had made of the speech. For the rest of the night, he pored over the footage, making sure he heard everything correctly. How else could he be sure his big day hadn’t been a disaster?

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That unshakable feeling

Lauren went back and forth from the doorway entry of her apartment to her bedroom. She lived alone and it was around 2am. She thought that she had locked her door before bed, just as she had done for the past two years. But what if she hadn’t?

Lauren had a nightly routine. She went around to each window to make sure they were all latched. She checked her door knob and her deadbolt lock 2 times. And then she went to bed. Some nights, though, she starts getting comfy in bed, only for her brain to intrude at the last second: had she really locked the door? Had she really latched the windows? All the way? 

In those events, the prospect of sleep feels impossible, and Lauren repeats the chore all over again. She tries to pay attention to every movement she makes to ensure that they stick with her. She stares at the locked door as if to tell her brain it is complete. Unfortunately, when she gets back to bed, she is left with lingering doubts—a pit in her stomach signifying that she may have missed something. Thoughts about people breaking in or hurting her seem unshakeable. Without knowing exactly when her exhaustion had finally won out, she awakes in the morning depleted, having lost who knows how many hours of shuteye.

If you are like Grayson or Lauren, these experiences may sound all too familiar. Stories like this are not uncommon with OCD. It is, after all, often referred to as the “doubting disorder.” It can cause people to doubt anything and everything: their own intentions, their memories, their feelings, their identity. Grayson and Lauren’s experiences may belong to real event OCD, false memory OCD, or perhaps harm OCD, but the persistent, overwhelming doubt they felt can be seen in any of the innumerable OCD subtypes.

ERP can help you learn to live with uncertainty

Are you struggling with feeling the need for perfect certainty? Do you feel like you just cannot move forward until you know something “for sure”? If you’re ready to start your own recovery journey, we can help.

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Our licensed therapists at NOCD deeply understand OCD 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.

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