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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of being a bad person

Fear of being a bad person

7 min read
Melanie Dideriksen, LPC, CAADC

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Some people who struggle with OCD may have a fear of being a bad person. This core fear could be part of many OCD subtypes, including Scrupulosity OCD, Responsibility OCD, Pedophilia OCD, and Harm OCD. These subtypes are not an exhaustive list, and the fear of being a bad person could be present in nearly any subtype of OCD involving morals, ethics, and one’s responsibility towards others.

Fears about being a bad person in OCD

Some people with OCD may experience persistent fears about being a bad person. This fear may be central to OCD themes like Responsibility OCD and Scrupulosity OCD, or may be involved in other themes of OCD, exacerbating symptoms and fears related to other topics. According to the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, “OCD-related maladaptive beliefs such as threat overestimation, importance of thoughts and their control, inflated responsibility, intolerance of uncertainty and perfectionism increase the likelihood of catastrophic appraisals of common intrusive experiences.”

What this means is that people who fear being a bad person may catastrophize their OCD symptoms, fearing that their obsessions mean something about their values and morals. If a person has Harm OCD, they may have intrusive thoughts about harming someone with a knife. Then, in response, they may take this as a sign that they are “inherently evil” or “bad” because only someone with flawed morals or values would have these thoughts. In reality, OCD causes their obsessions to latch onto these themes precisely because they are so far from a person’s actual values.

Let’s examine an example:

David is 12 years old and goes to confession every Saturday per his parent’s rules. He rides his bike to church, prepared to confess that he has sworn behind his father’s back, thought mean thoughts about his sister, and fantasized about an older girl on his block. David’s priest knows him quite well and sees that he is a good kid. He chuckles to himself each week when David comes looking his best prepared to talk about his worst 12-year-old sins. After David confesses his sins, he leaves feeling good.

Unfortunately, as David is kneeling in the pew doing his penance he has the intrusive thought “I hate God.” David immediately starts to sweat, and feels like now his confession is no good. He knocks on the confessional door and asks the priest if he can add another confession. The priest obliges. He doesn’t know that allowing David to confess again is only making his OCD cycle stronger. David again kneels in the pew saying his prayers. As he is walking out of the church, David gets another intrusive thought, this time sexual in nature. David thinks he must be evil or bad to be having these thoughts. He knows he can’t go back to the confessional again. He begins his bike ride home, saying frantic prayers the entire time to feel better. He hopes that if he prays enough, God will forgive him and he can feel certain that he is a good person once again. 

Fear of being a bad person does not have to deal with religious beliefs, but involves any fears about being bad or evil. A person who has Harm OCD or Pedophilia OCD, for example, may find that the OCD cycle is made worse by fears that they are a bad person due to their intrusive thoughts. 

  • Thinking that only a person who is “bad” would have their intrusive thoughts
  • Intrusive thoughts that oppose their religion
  • “How could anyone forgive me for my thoughts?”
  • “I don’t do enough for other people”
  • “I am selfish”
  • Thoughts involving harm to others
  • “I might say something inappropriate or harmful”

Common triggers

People with OCD focused on fears of being a bad person may be triggered by situations involving morality, scrupulosity, political discussions, memories of past events, physical sensations that feel inappropriate, and anything else that causes a person to believe that they are bad or evil. 

Common triggers for people with fear of being a bad person themes in OCD include:

  • Going to church and listening to a sermon on morality
  • Seeing friends who volunteer of spend their time helping people
  • Other OCD intrusive thoughts around harm, sex, and violence 
  • Reading a story about someone who is considered “bad” 
  • Seeing a violent act reported in the media
  • Receiving criticism from others
  • Making a choice one interprets as “selfish”

Do these situations sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

As an OCD specialist, and someone who’s struggled with OCD myself, I fully understand how difficult it is to feel like obsessions and fears could be triggered at any moment. You’re not on your own, and you can work with a trained professional to get on the road to recovery.

Learn more

How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD, rather than just healthy self-reflection? 

Somebody who struggles with a fear of being a bad person can consider specific criteria to help determine if they have OCD. 

One can ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are you experiencing obsessions, or intrusive and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images related to the fear of being a bad person?
  • Do you feel a strong urge to engage in compulsions, or mental or physical behaviors in an attempt to escape, reduce, eliminate, avoid, or neutralize your anxiety or uncertainty about being a bad person?
  • Do these obsessions and compulsions cause a significant amount of distress? 
  • How much time do the obsessions and compulsions take? Do your obsessions and compulsions take more than one hour per day? 
  • Do your repeated obsessions and compulsions interfere in your daily functioning?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you may be struggling with OCD, and it’s important to speak with a qualified OCD therapist for a proper diagnosis. 

Common compulsions

When people with OCD centered on fear of being a bad person experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions. Compulsions are Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to the rules that must be applied rigidly. 

Common compulsions due to fears of being a bad person:

  • Excessive prayer
  • Seeking reassurance from loved ones or others about being good or bad 
  • Ruminating on what constitutes a “good” or “bad” person
  • Comparing oneself to other people who are “bad”
  • Avoidance of going to church or other triggers
  • Excessive confession about “bad” or “evil” thoughts to others

How to overcome fear of being a bad person

OCD centered on a fear of being a bad person can be debilitating, but like any theme of OCD it is highly treatable. 

By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained therapist, people can find lasting relief from the distress that comes from any theme of OCD. ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and has been shown to be highly effective over decades of clinical research. A therapist with specialty training in OCD will work with you to build a hierarchy of your fears, then build exercises called exposures to target these fears. The exposure hierarchy allows for graduated exposure to fear and anxiety, all while resisting the urge to engage in compulsions for relief. 

A therapist with specialty training in OCD will never ask you to do anything that goes against your values, but rather encourage you to accept uncertainty about being a “bad” person or being seen as one. Remember that in all exposure exercises, the goal is to provide opportunities to resist engaging in compulsions that make OCD worse over time, such as seeking reassurance or ruminating on worries.

Where you can go for help

If you think you might have OCD and are interested in learning how it’s treated with ERP, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to OCD treatment. As an OCD specialist myself—and as someone who’s struggled with OCD for years and learned to manage it through treatment—I truly understand how important it is to speak with a professional who has the right kinds of training and qualifications.

Feeling accepted, heard, and welcomed by others who truly understand what you’re going through and won’t judge you can be absolutely crucial to recovery—especially for OCD themes that may be particularly difficult to open up about.

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Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."