Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fear of making mistakes

Dec 29, 20228 minute read

No one wants to make mistakes. Of course we’d all like for everything we do to match up perfectly with our intentions. But there’s no avoiding them—mistakes are a part of life, and everyone has their own way of coping with this fact.

But for some people in particular, a fear of making even the most minor mistakes can becoming overwhelming, even debilitating—and this comes at a great cost to their mental health overall. As a therapist who specialized in providing treatment for OCD, I understand this all too well, as such fears are extremely common in the people I work with.

But I also know from firsthand experience that these intense fears are highly treatable. If your fear of making mistakes is keeping you from living a happy, confident life, you can get better. First, let’s look at what these fears might sound like, and why they happen in the first place.

OCD and the fear of making mistakes

A persistent fear of making mistakes can be a sign of a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called Responsibility OCD. People with OCD often have an inflated sense of responsibility, meaning that they feel responsible for things that are not within their control.

Fears about making mistakes in OCD involve obsessions about making any type of mistake, either by negligence, error, or random chance, and causing a negative impact on one’s life or the lives of others. 

People experiencing these fears do not want to make mistakes. In fact, they are most often hyper-aware of their actions in order to ensure that they do not make any mistakes. They worry that they could make a mistake, agonizing over uncertainty and the potential for making mistakes. They may worry about the implications of making mistakes and what the consequences might be, often focusing on worst-case scenarios. They may worry that they will be perceived as bad, lazy, or inconsiderate due to their mistake. In OCD, these repetitive worries and fears are called obsessions

Due to their acute awareness and self-introspection, it is unlikely that someone with this theme of OCD would make a harmful mistake through negligence or carelessness, but they are nevertheless extremely distressed by the possibility that they could. In an effort to rid themselves of this distress, people with OCD often will perform compulsions. Compulsions are actions, either mental or physical, that serve to neutralize uncertainty and anxiety or prevent a feared outcome. 

People with this theme of OCD may frequently avoid things that present an opportunity to make a mistake, even avoiding risk altogether. They may act perfectionistic and be extremely cautious. They may seek frequent reassurance from others that they are doing things correctly. They are likely to try to anticipate every potential way in which they could make a mistake, and then attempt to neutralize these fears or go to extreme lengths to avoid negative outcomes. This may include fears surrounding work-related fears: losing their job as a result of their mistake, being seen in a negative light by co-workers, and so on.

Some other examples of common thoughts associated with this theme are fears of driving and making a mistake that causes harm, fears about saying the wrong thing, and fears about being offensive unintentionally. Other fears may involve legal mistakes, such as putting incorrect information on a tax form accidentally. 

Common obsessions experienced by people with a fear of making mistakes in Responsibility OCD may include:

  • What if I make a mistake at work and am fired?
  • What if I make a mistake in front of people and they draw attention to it or see me in a negative light?
  • What if I accidentally say or act in an inappropriate way?
  • What if I accidentally give the wrong information to someone?
  • What if I am driving and make a mistake and someone gets hurt?
  • What if I made a mistake on a test and I fail as a result?
  • What if I didn’t understand the directions and did something wrong?
  • What if I don’t follow a contract accurately?
  • What if I go to jail as a result of my mistake?
  • What if I make a mistake and my relationship suffers?

Common triggers

People with Responsibility OCD with a focus on a fear of making mistakes may be triggered by situations involving individual responsibility, risk, or anything they feel may have negative social repercussions. They may be triggered when hearing about others making mistakes and experiencing negative consequences. They may be triggered by any social setting in which they feel they are being scrutinized or in which they feel they need to behave in a certain manner.

Example

Mia is shopping with friends when she receives a phone call explaining to her that a mutual friend of the group was in an accident. Mia hangs up and retells the story to her friends. She then becomes distraught with panic, wondering if she made a mistake and shouldn’t have said anything. What if that friend intended that to be personal and not to be shared? What if no one trusts her ever again and she is no longer invited to social gatherings? She continually ruminates on these questions, racked with doubt. Even when the friend who called reassures Mia that she did the right thing, her fears return again and again, and she is unable to feel certain about the appropriateness of her actions.

How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD focused on a fear of making mistakes, and not exhibiting healthy levels of concern and caution?

This is an excellent question. To know if you may be suffering from OCD, you need to learn to recognize the OCD cycle.

The OCD cycle is composed of: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions performed to relieve the distress and anxiety brought on by the intrusive thoughts, images or urges or prevent a feared outcome. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other conditions. Something to keep in mind is that if you are feeling an intense urgency to know something immediately and with certainty, that is a red flag that OCD may be at work.

Intrusive thoughts can and do happen to everyone, and no one enjoys the prospect of making mistakes. Most people who don’t have OCD are able to live in relative comfort with their knowledge and intentions and accept everyday risks, but people with OCD struggle to do this. They often believe that they aren’t able to tolerate the slightest feeling of risk or uncertainty about making mistakes. Intrusive thoughts and worries that occur with OCD are ego-dystonic, meaning that they go against the values, intents, or goals of the person with OCD, and as such, it can be difficult to accept uncertainty about them.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD focused on a fear of making mistakes experience obsessions that cause distress, they may perform compulsions to neutralize or get rid of the anxiety or distress that they feel. Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts that one does to alleviate the distress and discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts or prevent a feared outcome. Compulsions may provide the sufferer with temporary relief, but do nothing to keep obsessions from returning again and again. Performing compulsions actually inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, reinforcing the idea that obsessions posed an actual threat or danger. 

Common compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with a fear of making mistakes in Responsibility OCD may include:

  • Seeking reassurance from others that they didn’t make a mistake or that it won’t lead to a negative outcome
  • Self-reassurance
  • Confessing perceived mistakes that may or may not have occurred
  • Paying excessive attention to details/legalities/researching excessively
  • Avoiding responsibility or risk
  • Mentally reviewing past scenarios
  • Ruminating on possible mistakes

How to treat a fear of making mistakes

Responsibility OCD with a focus on fear of making mistakes can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, you can find freedom from the OCD cycle. 

ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders. It is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness and shows promising results within 12-25 sessions on average. With ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that you are able to tolerate uncertainty about making mistakes, and you will be able to live with confidence in your own knowledge and choices.

In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to feelings of discomfort and anxiety with compulsions. By doing this over time, you will learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety, experience decreased anxiety and distress in response to OCD triggers, and feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort about making mistakes.

Examples of possible exposures done to treat Responsibility OCD with a focus on fear of making mistakes may include: 

  • Purposefully make a mistake, like spelling a word wrong in an email
  • Bake something “wrong” by not using an exact amount
  • Fold the laundry incorrectly
  • Write messily
  • Put the toilet roll the opposite way
  • Wear your clothes inside out

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 learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

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