It’s common to hear people say things like “I’m doing self-care” and “Take care of your mental health”—they feel like pleasant messages, but it can be difficult to figure out what such phrases actually mean.
The idea is that we need to value caring for ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually—but how? And what happens when you have a severe and persistent mental health condition like OCD? Showing yourself self-compassion and care can seem like a distant, almost impossible concept. Believe me: it’s not. Practicing self-compassion and self-care may be more difficult for people with OCD, but it can also make a huge impact.
Internalization is the process of accepting thoughts, beliefs, and experiences as part of how one sees themselves. These things often define our self-image, for better or worse. Of course, if our internal world is one of torment (which is often the case when someone has OCD) this can lead to devastating effects, like social withdrawal driven by internalized feelings of inferiority. Many people who experience great levels of shame or guilt may engage in these internalizing behaviors, and I see them often in people with OCD.
Rather than reaching out for help with difficult emotions, people who internalize feelings of low self-worth often feel as if they must cope with everything on their own. They may hide their pain and suffering or isolate themselves. This can come with many issues. By isolating themselves from sources of help, these internalized feelings continue and get worse over time. The longer a person believes these things to be true about themselves, the more embedded these thoughts become in their self-esteem.
When I am meeting with members who have OCD, it is all too common that I hear about self-worth and even self-hatred. These individuals tend to internalize their intrusive thoughts and feelings, believing that they mean something about who they are as a person. It can be as if the illness has overtaken everything they previously envisioned themselves to be.
On the path to recovery, it is important to recognize that feelings can be misleading. I often explain that feelings can also be intrusive. When I talk about intrusive thoughts, I refer not only to thoughts, but also the urges, images, and feelings that are seen in OCD.
Talk to yourself like you would a loved one
Another topic that inevitably arises when I am working with therapy members is how they speak to themselves. You are the person that you will spend the most time with; it is your own voice that you will hear constantly, that you will not escape from. Most conversations you will ever have will take place between you and your own thoughts, and they may be the most important conversations you have.
Isn’t it amazing how we can readily recognize things in the people we love and respond with compassion and kindness? Yet we are reluctant or unable to do this for ourselves. Frequently I ask my members to imagine if they were talking to someone they cared for deeply who was struggling in the same way that they are. What would they say? How would they say it? What if you tried saying it to yourself?
Many people I have worked with who have OCD will say things like “I am a bad person” or “I don’t deserve to feel better.” They have mistakenly believed that having thoughts that are scary or distressing are tied to who they are as an individual. It’s simply not true: you are not what your intrusive thoughts want you to think you are. In fact, we know that individuals who suffer from OCD are experiencing ego-dystonic thoughts. This just means that the thoughts oppose their morals and values. That is precisely why they’re so distressing.
Where do I start?
When starting to show yourself compassion, you should expect it to feel strange. This is not something that you are likely used to. That’s okay—stick with it regardless. The first step is to change how you speak to yourself, your internal dialogue. In plain words, be nice to yourself. Try to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a loved one.
The next step is to remember that you are an imperfect human being, just like every single other person on this earth. Everyone else has the same sorts of thoughts, but their brains allow them to move on from them more easily. That’s the difference. OCD may try to convince you that there is something special about you that means you don’t deserve self-compassion, but it’s not true.
The good news is that OCD is very treatable. You can live a life in recovery. You can relearn what makes you truly you, and special, in ways not connected to OCD—and you can start today. Giving yourself compassion may never “feel” like the right thing to do, but you can do it anyway. Our feelings often catch up to our behaviors.
Some concrete ideas for increasing self-compassion that I have found useful throughout the years are journaling, saying or writing down affirmations, and gratitude reminders. Making a sort of vision board of inspiration is something others have found useful. Get creative! And remember that feelings are not always accurate. Return to treating yourself with the same respect you do so many others.
ERP can help you be more compassionate toward yourself
Specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialists can help you to move towards your values and learn to be kinder, and gentler with yourself. A successful exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapist will guide, support, and motivate you. They will come up with reasonable and creative ways for you to gradually face the fears that are holding you back from living the life that you want to live, while helping you gain skills to develop the self-compassion needed for recovery.
If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about the treatment, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. We’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP, or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.