When you’re living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it can be challenging to know the difference between setting boundaries and performing compulsive behaviors. OCD can create an intense need for control and then make it seem like performing a compulsion will help you achieve it. Unfortunately, this only serves to keep OCD in the driver’s seat.
This is why the establishment of healthy boundaries is a crucial aspect of any journey to conquering OCD. Setting boundaries can act as a powerful tool, allowing you to push back against OCD and enabling you to feel less anxiety and distress over time. With just a few straightforward steps, you can start initiating this change in your life.
Setting healthy boundaries with yourself
Your power lies in the ability to choose your response to OCD. You get a choice in how you react to your thoughts. This is where learning to set healthy boundaries with yourself can have a powerful impact. If you’re wondering how you can practice setting boundaries around your responses to intrusive thoughts, urges, images, or physical sensations, here are three steps I’ve personally found to be helpful.
1. Acknowledge that when you have OCD, your thoughts are not reflective of your true identity.
Many people with OCD struggle with thought-action fusion, or to put it more simply, believe that just thinking something is as bad as doing it. This is false. The thoughts you’re having are just that: thoughts. They don’t need meaning or judgment attached to them because they don’t say anything about who you are, indicate anything you’re going to do, or predict anything that’s going to happen. This is true of intrusive images, feelings, and urges that can creep up in OCD, too. None of them reflect your identity.
2. Let intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, and urges pass on their own.
They don’t need any special attention or care paid to them. They can just be, and you don’t have to do anything about their presence. It can feel strange to do nothing at first, but it’s one of the most effective ways you can respond. Think of intrusive thoughts—or any thoughts—as a train. In the same way you wouldn’t hop off at every stop, you don’t have to engage with every thought. You can watch the places where you don’t need to be (or the thoughts you don’t need to engage with) pass by without getting involved. Every intrusive thought is temporary. By allowing them to pass, you’re giving yourself the freedom to keep moving forward.
3. Release yourself from hyper-responsibility for things you can’t control.
Many individuals who suffer from OCD experience a sense of overactive empathy, or hyper-responsibility for the emotions and pain of others. In other words, they feel overly responsible for things they cannot possibly control. When you’re preoccupied with trying to meet the perceived needs of others, you can end up neglecting your own needs and desires. In these situations, setting firm boundaries around how you respond to guilt-ridden thoughts can have a life-changing impact on your mental well-being. This may look like setting aside specific time dedicated to things that you enjoy or that promote relaxation, or being intentional with your time and energy, depending on your unique needs and situation.
Setting boundaries with loved ones and those around us
Communicating our wants and needs to loved ones, friends, and co-workers can be another beneficial form of having healthy boundaries in place. Setting boundaries around discussing our OCD symptoms and treatment can help ensure we’re being supported in a way that furthers our growth. If you start to feel guilty or “bad” about setting boundaries with others, remember that you are taking care of yourself by doing this. In situations where the people closest to us don’t realize the depths of suffering that we are going through, we still have the power to be our own biggest supporters.
There are many different ways to set healthy boundaries, depending on your needs and the relationships in your life. Here are a couple examples to help guide you as you practice establishing boundaries with others.
Example #1: Setting healthy boundaries with family members or friends
You’re at a holiday party with your family members, some of whom know about your struggles with OCD. This year in particular has had its fair share of ups and downs, which you’d prefer not to discuss, but Uncle Bob, the busybody of the family, corners you and starts to loudly inquire about your OCD and how you’ve been doing. There are people all around and even though his intentions may have been good, he’s bringing up things you aren’t comfortable talking about, especially in front of others.
In this moment, setting a healthy boundary could look like telling him, “Thanks for asking! I prefer to keep my mental health private, but I’d be happy to send you some resources on OCD if you would like.” You could also change the subject in a less direct manner by saying something like, “I’m so glad you’re thinking of me. I really appreciate that you care about how I’m doing,” before promptly changing the subject.
If Uncle Bob has a habit of prying, even after you’ve let him know your feelings, you could also flip the script and take a bold approach by asking how his mental health has been. Remember, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” model for this—you can set boundaries in whatever way feels most comfortable for you.
Example #2: Setting healthy boundaries at work
You’re on your lunch break, sitting at a table with several co-workers. There are some you know well and others you don’t. One of them is your close work friend, Emily. Emily knows a lot of personal details about your OCD symptoms and has been very supportive as you’ve navigated triggers in the workplace. You’ve come to trust her deeply.
In the conversation at your table, something brings up something they’re afraid of. Emily blurts out that you can help them and says that the two of you should do some “exposures.” This other person has no idea what exposure therapy is, so Emily starts to describe it. You feel mortified.
There are several ways you could manage this. Because you know Emily, and know that she likely didn’t mean to cause you any harm, you could choose a friendly but firm approach. You could say something to the effect of, “I like to keep my private life separate from work, but if you’re interested in learning more about exposure therapy, I’d be happy to send you information via email.”
You could also say, “I appreciate your curiosity, but my mental health is personal. Talking about it in such a public space isn’t something I’m comfortable with.” You may also choose to change the topic, laugh it off, and pull Emily aside later for a more private conversation about how you weren’t comfortable with what she said. Again, these are just a few of the many different ways in which you can practice setting boundaries when it comes to OCD.
The goal of establishing boundaries
Setting firm boundaries with yourself and others is more than a good skill to practice. It’s also one of the most important parts of treatment for OCD–and believe it or not, you’re probably already doing it. You set boundaries with yourself when you decide not to engage in compulsions, no matter how strong the pull is. The key is to expand these boundaries outward, and to keep in mind that the goal of setting boundaries is not complete control. That would be unachievable. The goal is to remind yourself of the things you do have control over.
You can control how you respond to intrusive thoughts and urges to perform compulsions, and when you do, you’re kicking OCD out of the driver’s seat. By setting boundaries in your personal life, you’re teaching others how to best support you. You’re also teaching yourself that your needs are important and fighting back against the hyper-responsibility of OCD.
Expert guidance on healthy boundaries
If you’re ready to set healthy boundaries but aren’t sure where to begin, seeking the help of an OCD specialist is a great place to start. At NOCD, all of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive specific training in ERP, an evidence-based, highly effective treatment for OCD that can help you set healthy boundaries and manage distress.
Many of our therapists have dealt with OCD themselves, so they understand both what it’s like and how crucial ERP therapy is. They’ll use their expertise to design a personalized treatment plan based on your unique needs, helping you set healthy boundaries and develop tools to achieve your goals, and cheering you on at every step of the way.
To make this life-changing treatment accessible, we offer live face-to-face video ERP therapy sessions, accept many insurance plans, and provide affordable options for our members not using insurance. We’re dedicated to helping people regain their lives from OCD and we’ll ensure you’re supported at every step of your journey including between sessions, when you need it most.
If you have any questions about starting NOCD Therapy or need more information, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our team. On the call, you can ask any questions you have and share any feeling, doubt, or concern that’s on your mind, with no pressure or judgment involved. We’re here to listen, and to address any obstacles that may be blocking you from pursuing treatment that can help you conquer OCD.