What it means to be “woke” has changed over the years, been attacked and defended by many groups, and been subject to increasing amounts of political scrutiny. The roots of the word may actually trace back to the early 20th century and once again became popular again in 2008 thanks to an Erykah Badu song and became a rallying cry for Black activism, according to NPR. Nowadays, discourse across the political spectrum has turned the term on its head, and it’s frequently used as an insult.
Today, if you’re concerned with social justice, treating others with respect, and examining and challenging your own biases, you may worry that you’re not saying, thinking, or doing the “right” thing—and if you err, that there could be grave, life-altering consequences.
But when is this worry legitimate, warranted, or helpful, and when might it not actually serve your own values? Could it even become an obsession that’s indicative of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? Is there any way for you to loosen the grip of these fears and allow yourself to pursue your values and morals in a more healthy way? Read on for how to spot potential signs in yourself, and what you can do.
Is Social Justice or “Wokeness” OCD a Real Thing?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic mental health disorder defined by two things, says the National Institute of Mental Health:
- Obsessions: Repeated thoughts, urges, sensations, or images that cause anxiety.
- Compulsions: Repetitive, uncontrollable behaviors performed to neutralize the obsession, such as counting, seeking reassurance, or checking.
What’s interesting about OCD is that it latches onto things that are important to you—and uses them as fuel for fear and anxiety. Because of that, there are many different subtypes of OCD, such as contamination, harm, hoarding, perinatal/postpartum, relationship, scrupulosity, and more. Nothing is off limits for the worry, doubt, and distress caused by OCD; and that’s where social justice or “wokeness” OCD can come in.
It’s worth saying that your intentions here are not misplaced. “We should be very conscious of our language and the things we do,” says licensed clinical psychologist Mia Nuñez, PhD, Regional Clinical Director at NOCD. “Whether or not you choose to call it being ‘woke,’ wanting to strive to be better for all people in your interactions, words, and what you put out into the world is a worthy goal,” she says.
That said, you can’t be sure with 100% certainty that you will do it exactly right all the time. “That’s where OCD can take hold,” says Nuñez. Remember how OCD will latch onto what you value? Well, here it is in practice. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to do your best, but with OCD there’s little or no tolerance for the idea that you might get it wrong—and what might happen as a result,” she explains.
This not only factors into your actions today—but those of your past, too. It’s normal for anyone to doubt their own memory. “Memories are reconstructive—they are not perfect, and we do forget things,” says Nuñez. If you have OCD, that reality does not sit well with you—and, in many ways, it’s something you cannot accept, which is why you go to great lengths with your compulsions to prove to yourself, for example, that you are have never had a racist thought, or have not said anything offensive about the LGBTQIA+ community.
As such, you may get stuck trying to dive into your past memories, says Nuñez. (False memory OCD can have you question what you’ve done or said in the past in ways that are time-consuming and distressing.) “You might question if you ever wrote something terrible online or were ever exposed to friendships where these attitudes were the norm,” she explains. Examining your past thoughts and behaviors can be a really good, healthy thing—especially when it comes to advocating for social justice and your desire to be an ally for others—but when OCD takes hold, these compulsions never really bring you answers or peace. “You always have that bit of doubt—and we can’t be 100% certain that we always did the right thing. OCD tells you that you can’t be okay with that,” says Nuñez.
Symptoms of Social Justice OCD
Do you have social justice OCD? Here’s what it might look like on a day-to-day basis, says Nuñez:
- You’re frequently preoccupied throughout the day thinking about whether the things you’re thinking, doing, or saying are socially just. (This is evidence of an obsession.)
- You’re taking actions to try to ensure with certainty that those thoughts or actions are indeed appropriate and you’re not messing up. (This is evidence of a compulsion.)
- Some of those thoughts and actions may include:
- Apologizing to others (Some examples might include apologizing to others “just in case” they might have a negative opinion of you)
- Ruminating on possible mistakes you’ve made or thoughts you’ve had
- Frequently confessing your doubts or thoughts to others
- Asking others for reassurance that you haven’t thought or done anything wrong
- Scouring your social media accounts repeatedly to make sure you did not write something wrong in your past
- Obsessive research about social justice issues or others’ consequences (Research is a good thing, says Nuñez, but this is research that takes up hours of your day or gets in the way of your day-to-day life)
- Rehearsing things before you say them, “in ways that affect your life and ability to communicate,” as Nuñez explains
- Trying to replay or recreate events in your head to prove to yourself that you did not say something wrong
- Some of those thoughts and actions may include:
Doing things like these in response to your doubts or worries may temporarily relieve anxiety, which is why you may continually apologize or explain one thing over and over or to multiple people. Keep in mind that the compulsions rise above and beyond what would be typically expected. For example, an apology may, in fact, be warranted if you did or said something harmful. However, in OCD, you may apologize multiple times, even after someone has assured you that they don’t believe you did anything wrong, which can then become very burdensome for the person you’re apologizing to.
Are You a Bad Person if You Have Thoughts That Are Not “Woke”?
It depends! Honestly, that’s not for us—or anyone else—to decide. However, if you are having thoughts that are prejudicial or discriminatory on the basis of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, or anything else, or are acting accordingly (either consciously or unconsciously), then it’s time to take a step back and examine why. Is it because you believe these things? If so, there are a number of resources, from books to podcasts and people to follow on social media, available to you to challenge and change these thoughts and behaviors.
However, it’s also quite possible for someone to have intrusive thoughts about these things. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, unexpected, and ego-dystonic, meaning that they are not reflective of a person’s identity, beliefs or values. In fact, obsessions in OCD often come in the form of intrusive thoughts, and the fact that you experience them as intrusive (and therefore wrong or disturbing) suggests something else is going on. If you find these thoughts trigger distress because they don’t align with your beliefs, values, and how you want to be, then it’s important to remember that one’s thoughts don’t necessarily say anything at all about who they are as a person.
This is an example of “moral thought-action fusion,” or “the belief that thinking about an action or behavior is morally equivalent to actually performing that behavior,” research says. Remember: not all thoughts are indicative of your character or values, and thoughts are not the same as actions. Certainly, your actions, intentional thoughts, and the way you treat others are testaments to your character; intrusive thoughts that do not align with your intentions or beliefs, however, are not.
Why OCD Might Cause a Fear of “Cancel Culture”
Cancel culture refers to removing support from someone when they’ve acted in a socially objectionable way, per the definition from Merriam-Webster. For instance, if they were a celebrity, a common “cancel-culture” reaction would be to unfollow them on social media, boycott their work, or advocate for others to do the same. “Canceling” also happens to regular people when social pressure is used to ostracize them from communities due to unacceptable behavior.
This fear of being canceled can occur within the subtype of Responsibility OCD if you constantly feel as if you’re at risk of public humiliation and shame—and are thus vulnerable to extreme consequences to your job, family, or reputation that stem from being canceled. Because this legitimately happens to people who act in bigoted ways, you may fear that if you accidentally do something or may have something in your past, you may, too, be canceled. A fear of being canceled can also be accompanied by compulsions, such as rumination, avoidance, and seeking reassurance that you haven’t done anything “cancel-worthy.”
How to Manage a Fear of Falling Short of Your Social Justice Values
If social justice movements have taught us anything, it’s that many of us have a lot to learn and unpack regarding our implicit biases and privileges—no one is perfect. That awareness can be an important part of creating needed change within yourself. However, if you suspect that OCD is taking this to extreme places and affecting your ability to function personally or socially and/or maintain relationships with others, then it’s important to seek help.
The gold standard treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP. During ERP, a qualified therapist will trigger your obsessions, which will, in turn, cause a wave of distress or anxiety. Rather than perform a compulsion like reassurance-seeking to neutralize those feelings, you will instead sit with the discomfort. Over time, your body and brain will learn that the discomfort is not an emergency and you can live with it, decreasing the intensity and frequency of your obsessions.
It’s necessary to take special care during ERP for these themes, says Nuñez. “We’re cognizant of the idea that ERP, even if helpful for an individual, could also reinforce problematic beliefs or actions,” she says. For example, if you are afraid that you will say something racist, a specialized therapist would not ask you to say something racist to learn that there’s nothing to fear. Because you should not be saying anything prejudiced in the first place, and according to your own values, you should feel anxious after doing so. That process would not be an effective treatment, and it’s one that could bring harm to yourself and others.
That’s why Justice-Based ERP is so critical here, says Nuñez. “We try to address the underlying fears someone has in a way that’s not harmful or marginalizing to any group,” she explains. What this looks like will be individualized, but it will target the core of your concerns.
One example: You fear that you’re going to write something inappropriate on social media, so now you avoid the internet altogether. The problem is that you need to use a computer and the internet in order to do your job, so your career is really suffering. The exposure exercise done here would be using the internet normally—perhaps even visiting the Wikipedia page of a figure whose beliefs you strongly disagree with—and sitting with the anxiety that comes with that, says Nuñez.
Treatment may also involve prosocial exposure. For instance, if you’re avoiding members of an underrepresented group in real life, you might be instructed to read through posts on a social justice forum for educational purposes. You might also be motivated to become part of a cause. “This is true prosocial, justice-based ERP. We don’t need to ask people to behave in harmful ways—this can become an opportunity to do good, too,” says Nuñez.
NOCD offers live face-to-face virtual ERP sessions with licensed therapists specializing in ERP. To learn if ERP could help you, schedule a free 15-minute call today.