Intense or persistent fears about doing something wrong may be a sign of OCD, falling under the OCD subtype of Responsibility OCD. These fears can encompass a wide range of topics, as someone can fear doing something wrong in any area of their life: at home, at work, in school, and nearly any other setting.
What is the fear of doing something wrong?
|Fear of doing something wrong involves fears about making mistakes or errors in any area of life. These fears can show up in any part of our daily lives from our home life or our working environment to interactions with friends and family.
Naturally, no one welcomes mistakes, and everyone takes measures to avoid making errors. However, people with OCD exhibit a heightened emotional response to any possibility of having made a mistake in the past, or the uncertainty they feel about making a mistake in the future. They also engage in persistent behaviors in an attempt to feel certain about not making mistakes or to avert unwanted consequences in the future. In OCD, these make fears worse over time, as they provide short-term relief from anxiety, without addressing a real threat.
For people with OCD, it can be difficult to distinguish fears that are related to OCD from fears that are normal or helpful. The confusion is no different with this subtype of OCD; it can be quite difficult to separate obsessional fears—that is, one that is out of proportion to real threats and leads to compulsive responses—from fears that actually address threats or negative consequences in a reasonable way. This is where the help of a trained therapist comes in handy.
Obsessions experienced by people with a fear of failing in OCD may deal with any number of themes in their lives, from their relationships to their career. Generally, if one feels highly responsible for a situation, person, or outcome, their fear of failing may be strongest.
Common obsessions experienced by people with fear of failing in OCD include:
Worrying about making a mistake in a conversation with someone
- Did I call them by the wrong name?
- Is this person mad at me because I said the wrong thing?
- What if I can’t remember their name?
Fearing a mistake was made at work
- I’m afraid that there’s a mistake in my report and I can’t find it.
- What if I call my boss by the wrong name?
- Could there be a typo in the work email I just sent?
Worrisome thoughts about making mistakes at home
- Did I remember to take my vitamins this morning?
- Why does my spouse seem upset? I need to do something—it’s my fault.
- What if I leave the stove on and the house burns down?
People with OCD involving a fear of doing something wrong may be triggered by a wide variety of situations. An individual might be triggered by having a homework assignment they must complete, fearing they could answer a question wrong. Another person might be triggered by being asked to present in front of colleagues, terrified they might slip up and get fired. Someone could obsessively fear that they will forget their significant other’s birthday, checking and rechecking multiple notes to ensure that they remember.
Triggers for people with Responsibility OCD with a focus on fear of doing something wrong include:
- Filling out paperwork
- Having an important conversation
- Sending an email
- Completing homework
- Presenting at a meeting or conference
- Interacting with authorities or superiors
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD centered on a fear of doing something wrong, and not a healthy degree of worry and caution?
One difference between someone with OCD, specifically with the fear of doing something wrong, versus someone without OCD who is worried about making a mistake, is that the person with OCD has a severely heightened negative emotional reaction to the possibility of making a mistake (such as fear, anxiety, or panic), experiences persistent obsessions and fears about making mistakes, and engages in compulsions in response to their emotional reactions, even if their behaviors do little to actually avoid mistakes.
People without OCD are unlikely to engage in compulsive behaviors in response to their worry. Often, the worry passes over and fades with time, or they check for mistakes once and are satisfied with the confidence they gain. People with OCD, on the other hand, feel like they are unable to cope with their anxiety without engaging in compulsions to feel perfectly safe or 100% certain. Sometimes people with OCD are able to recognize that their response “sounds crazy” or “might be excessive,” but they feel compelled to do it anyway.
When people with Responsibility OCD centered around a fear of doing something wrong experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions to eliminate uncertainty, alleviate their anxiety, or prevent a feared outcome. This individual may feel like they “have to” engage in this mental act or behavior. Compulsions do not bring lasting satisfaction, but provide temporary relief and reinforce the OCD cycle, teaching the brain that the person was successfully kept from making mistakes by engaging in compulsions.
Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with a fear of doing something wrong resulting from OCD include:
- Checking and rechecking emails, homework, projects
- Mentally reviewing past situations to assess for if they did something wrong
- Asking others for reassurance that they didn’t do something wrong
- Telling themselves over and over again that they didn’t make a mistake
- Compulsively confessing mistakes they fear were made
- Repeatedly apologizing for minor mistakes
- Repeatedly asking for clarification on minor details
How to overcome the fear of doing something wrong
OCD involving persistent fears of doing something wrong can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained therapist, you can find freedom from your fears, spending less valuable time with obsessions and compulsions.
ERP disrupts the vicious cycle of OCD by reducing one’s reliance on compulsions, which only make OCD worse over time. By doing ERP therapy, one learns to resist compulsions through repeated exposure to feared situations that trigger their obsessions and anxiety. ERP also leads to a reduction in anxiety and distress in response to triggers, and improves one’s ability to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat Responsibility OCD focused on a fear of doing something wrong include:
- Purposely doing something wrong without correcting it
- Sending an email with a typo in it
- Not proofreading something repeatedly before sending it
- Writing about the worst-case scenario of doing something wrong
If you’re struggling with OCD and are interested in learning about ERP, As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD Care Team to find out how treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many of them have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is.