In October 2017, I was working on a presentation that involved crunching numbers together. Even though I am a very analytical, astute person, I was not calculating the numbers correctly. This led to a very harsh email from my manager berating me and asking why I was not able to understand it correctly. When I received that email, I felt like my brain short-circuited. I was drowned with what I know now as intrusive thoughts.
- “If I don’t figure it out, I will get fired and lose my career.”
- “I am a failure for not figuring this out.”
- “How can anyone love me when I can’t do something so simple in my life?”
I felt like my head was on fire. I rushed away from my desk to breathe. This avoidance continued for months and I didn’t know it back then, but this moment began a chapter in my life full of struggle, hurt and initial recovery.
Source of perfectionism and avoidance
To understand how I reacted to October 2017, it’s worth noting how I grew up. I want to ask you a question; when you were a kid, did you ever dream of what you were going to be when you grew up? It’s hard for me to answer that question because I never had a dream like that. I only cared about one thing as a child: having the best grades in school.
It was not hard to find my source for perfectionistic tendencies. Looking back, I realize I grew up in an anxious household. My parents drilled into me to get good grades to obtain a good job. However, my mind added that if I got bad grades, I would not get a good job, I would not have a secure income, no one would like or marry me, and I will pretty much be worthless. It became an incestuous value I seeded in my brain.
This made me put a lot of pressure on myself when studying for exams or doing homework. I saw I was spending more time studying than other people to get a B or a B- on an exam, which is not bad, but I was studying 10 hours a day sometimes in high school and college. I must admit, almost half the time was spent avoiding studying because I did not want to deal with the stress of potentially getting a bad grade.
This also showed up in my extracurricular activities. I played the violin and whenever I would compete in orchestra competitions I would get pretty low scores even though I was one of the best violinists in my high school. I realized I avoided practicing because I was afraid I would obsess in every single note and sound on my violin and if I wasn’t perfect, I would hate myself for even trying.
But I shrugged it off back then as “This is what everyone goes through. I’m not special.” As an Indian-American, I had heard similar stories from other Indian-American children so I thought, they were probably bawling their eyes out too on their failures. Plus, I did get a job right after graduating in 2012, which made me think all my suffering was vindicated! I wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore as everything would fall in my lap. That was clearly not the case.
I was in the Information Technology field and the main way people advance their careers is to certify in different technologies and concepts. This time around I struggled to study on a daily basis. The school wasn’t my whole world anymore. I had a job and had to focus on relationships, friendships, family, and money. I couldn’t study for 10 hours a day. This led me to either fail or not even attempt any certifications. Even as I write this, it is still something I struggle with. So I thought, I am going to advance my career by going back to school. And I did, I got my MBA in Consulting and found a job in 2017. I had that same feeling: nothing can go wrong. That’s when the bricks start to really fall. Back to October 2017.
That night after the email fiasco, I spent the whole weekend lying on the couch going through the day in my mind and believing all the intrusive thoughts I was telling myself. The days after that were extremely difficult. Many days I did not want to go to work. There was even a day I woke up crying and praying I didn’t have to go and deal with it. I was afraid to even view emails sent from my boss because I was afraid it would be another berating email. It was starting to affect my work performance considerably and I was fired from the role in February 2018. I fell into a deep depression. I was not interacting with my friends or family. My thought was simple, I failed at my job, so I failed at my life.
I began talk therapy at this time but I did not learn a lot. I was basically being reassured that nothing is wrong with me and that I will be okay in the long run. The advice helped at the moment, but I was only being reassured everything was going to be alright. I stopped going after 4 months. I think I would have dropped into a bigger depression thinking even a therapist couldn’t help me. But I got lucky. 6 months after I was fired, I was able to find a new role and all the pent-up depression went away! While it was nice to breathe a sigh of relief, in the back of my mind, I knew something wasn’t right.
My OCD realization
I knew at the time my value was solely connected to my employment. So I continued to research different disorders. What’s funny is I thought I had OCD but I dismissed the thought because I didn’t have the same characteristics as the typical OCD sufferer that the media portrayed.
I have always been a sports fan, specifically an ice hockey fan. In 2020, I came across an article written by Colin Wilson, a former hockey player. In the article, he openly disclosed he had OCD during his playing career. When reading this, he wrote a line that made me audibly gasp. It said OCD has this “Internal critic that nags at you – that constantly reminds you that, no matter how hard you try, you aren’t ever in control, and because you’re not, you aren’t good enough.” I knew right away, I was dealing with intrusive thoughts and messages that I was never good enough. I had OCD.
I connected with NOCD in March 2021 and began to learn and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). The ERP focused on managing uncertainty when dealing with my perfectionistic thoughts. Through exercises, each day I was able to manage a little more uncertainty in my daily work routines which has made me more successful in my career. One of the most enjoyable moments of recovery is when you actually feel your brain learning and growing.
Now you may be wondering, how have my friends and family reacted? Growing up, I’ve always been an extrovert who loved other people’s company. In fact, being around friends gave me a reprieve from my perfectionism challenges. However, I built a façade between how my friends see me and how I see myself. I have relationship OCD, which for me, is the belief that if I am not perfect, then my friends will not love me. It’s because of that thought I hid my fears from the world and always showed a goofy and fun disposition. One of the hardest things was to tell my friends and family about it. My biggest fear was that they would think I didn’t trust them to tell them sooner. The fact is, I was so scared of losing my friends if they found out I’m not who they think I am.
1 year after undergoing ERP treatment, I finally began to tell my friends. I think because I didn’t want to hide this anymore and wanted people to see the real me. Thankfully, my friends have been nothing but supportive. My family recognizes that I have seen improvement, but we don’t really discuss it that much and while it hurts, I do know the response could have been worse.
What has really helped in my recovery was improving my self-compassion. What I didn’t realize until undergoing ERP was that I talk so viciously to myself. I say things to myself I would never say to another human being. In my mind, I was the worst person to ever exist in this world. It makes sense why my brain is fixated on my initial intrusive thoughts. I can’t exaggerate enough how little I was giving self-compassion to myself. This has been the biggest aspect of growth for me in the last 2 years. Giving myself compassion for going through ERP, which can be mentally draining some days, has been an amazing learning experience and I can thank NOCD and my therapist along with many books and resources for teaching me this.
Advice to others
One key tactic I learned in ERP was to live your values. These past few years really put me in an identity crisis and made me forget who I really was as a human being. During the ERP sessions, I am often reminded to move toward my values even when uncertainty strikes. I started to think about what I like to do and how I like to live my life. Bit by bit I learn more about myself and my desires in this world.
Finally, and this is the biggest lesson of all, please give yourself the time to heal. I went through 30 years of living with untreated OCD. It doesn’t make sense for me to believe it will heal in a year or so. It takes time, it takes moving forward on the bad days and it takes a good support team. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the time to learn, grow, heal, accept, and most of all love who you are.