“What if I say the wrong thing?”
Communication is important. Whether at work, in school, or during important conversations with family and friends, we all want to speak in a way that reflects well on ourselves—being misunderstood can even have serious consequences.
That being said, most people are able to accept, more or less, that they’ll never have perfect control over the things they say. Sometimes, despite the best intentions and care, we’ll slip up. It’s a part of life.
For some people, however—perhaps you can relate—fears about saying the wrong thing can become completely overwhelming, especially in certain situations where they feel like they’re under pressure. If this is familiar to you, please know that you’re not alone. As an experienced therapist who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I have worked with many others who share these worries—and I’ve helped them live with greater confidence. Here’s what you should know.
How are these fears related to OCD?
|Repetitive fear about saying the wrong thing can be an OCD-related fear, involving concerns about saying something that is inappropriate, embarrassing, or hurtful. This OCD-related fear is often part of the larger subtype of Harm OCD. In Harm OCD, a person fears being responsible for harm or other things that impact themself or others negatively. |
In OCD focused on fears about saying the wrong thing, one’s intrusive thoughts revolve around a fear of harm or something negative happening due to saying something that was offensive toward another person or group of people. This fear can be about present, past, and future conversations and can create a lot of guilt due to feelings of responsibility for causing emotional harm to others.
It is also common for this fear to include “magical thinking,” where a person will retroactively assume that a negative outcome for someone else was due to them “saying the wrong thing,” or even that others can hear their inappropriate thoughts. For example, a person may observe their neighbor looking upset and assume this is because they accidentally said something offensive to the neighbor.
Someone with these fears in OCD may fixate on conversations, specific words, and how their words seem to be received. In a conversation, a person with this fear may engage in compulsive over-explanation in an attempt to minimize the likelihood of accidentally offending others or being misunderstood. They may also retroactively review conversations to detect unintentional mistakes and harm to others, or ask for reassurance from others about things they have said.
Fear of saying the wrong thing – Common obsessions
Obsessions—the “O” in OCD—are the intrusive thoughts, images, urges, or doubts that tend to focus on certain themes. They can be triggered by specific circumstances or strike out of the blue, and they cause significant distress, fear, or anxiety as a result.
For people who experience persistent fears about saying the wrong thing, obsessions may take the form of intrusive thoughts of bad or inappropriate words they could say, worries about the potential consequences of slipping up while speaking, or a hyper-fixation on how people are responding to them while they’re talking. Here are some specific examples:
Obsessions related to saying the wrong thing:
- Did I say something offensive?
- What if I lost control and yelled a derogatory word right now?
- What if I use the wrong word in this email, and I get fired?
- Does the word I just used make sense?
- If I say something wrong they might not understand me.
- I could be responsible for someone getting hurt if I use the wrong word to describe something.
- Have I been using the wrong phrase all along?
- Did I call them the wrong name?
People experiencing OCD with a pronounced fear of saying the wrong thing may be triggered by situations or environments where they have to communicate with other people—such as important text conversations or exciting first dates. They may also be triggered by reminders of past conversations, potential misunderstandings within those conversations, and harm or negative outcomes that could occur after a conversation.
Triggers for fears about saying the wrong thing:
- Writing emails
- Public speaking
- Offering constructive feedback
- Talking about sensitive topics
- Intrusive thoughts to yell derogatory or bad words
- Asking someone for help
- Communicating expectations
- Taking tests
- Meeting new people
- First dates
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD-related fears of saying the wrong thing, and not just being appropriately cautious or sensitive?
This is a great question. Let’s consider an example: When people are cautious when sending work emails, they might review the email for spelling or grammatical errors, but rarely would someone without OCD proofread an email to ensure they won’t be responsible for something bad happening because they used an inappropriate word or phrase.
People with OCD focused on the fear of saying the wrong thing are not necessarily worried about their specific wording or word choice, but about how they could be responsible for some negative outcome as a result of making a mistake that inadvertently causes harm to someone else. Thus, the compulsive searching for the “right thing to say” is more about preventing negative outcomes than it is about being articulate.
Lastly, when considering when someone’s fear of saying the wrong thing is a serious OCD-related problem or not, we have to ask this: is our behavior or fear exceeding what those in similar situations might exhibit? If the answer is “yes,” then you may be experiencing OCD.
When people with a significant OCD-related fear of saying the wrong thing experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in a variety of compulsions done in order to feel certain about the things they say or to reduce, avoid, or prevent the negative outcome they fear they could be responsible for. It is important to remember that these behaviors are done excessively and repetitively, and they often cause major disruptions in one’s lifestyle.
Common compulsions related to fears of saying the wrong thing:
- Excessively checking emails before sending them
- Mentally checking the things they say or write
- Seeking reassurance by asking questions like “does that make sense?”
- Mentally reviewing of the words/phrases they used
- Analyzing past situations where they may have possibly said something inappropriate
- Excessively asking people if they are mad or offended
- Constantly correcting themselves while talking to ensure the right thing is being said
- Excessively apologizing when they are concerned they have said the wrong thing
- Ruminating on past conversations
- Planning conversations in advance
How to treat fear of saying the wrong thing
OCD-related fears of “saying the wrong thing” can be debilitating for people who struggle with them, but they are highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a specialized clinician, a person who struggles with excessive fear of saying the wrong thing can confront their fear and tackle it head on in targeted, gradual therapy exercises. ERP treating fears of saying the wrong thing might involve directly confronting the feared outcome by using “wrong” words and resisting the compulsion to fix them, or by drafting a message and sending it before re-reading.
Here are some examples of exposures for fears of “saying the wrong thing”
- Purposely using a “wrong” word in an email
- Sending a text message without re-reading it
- Explaining a task to someone using the wrong information
- Purposely giving someone wrong directions
- Using a “wrong” word in a conversation as many times as possible
- Writing a script about the worst-case scenario of using the wrong word
You can work with people who understand
If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today 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.
We look forward to working with you.