Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD
What is OCDOCD SubtypesFears about saying the wrong thing

Fears about saying the wrong thing

5 min read
Aaron Hensley, MSW, LCSW

By Aaron Hensley, MSW, LCSW

Reviewed by Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D

Nov 8, 2022

Possibly related to:

What if I say the wrong thing?

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.” 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.

OCD fear of saying the wrong thing – Common obsessions

  • 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?
  • What if I use the wrong word, and it causes someone to get hurt?
  • 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? 
  • What if I forget their name?

Common triggers

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. 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 people with OCD focused on a fear saying the wrong thing include:

  • Writing emails
  • Public Speaking
  • Trying to explain something
  • Offering constructive feedback
  • Talking about sensitive topics
  • Intrusive thoughts to yell derogatory or bad words
  • Asking someone for help
  • Communicating expectations
  • Situations where harm could occur if they are misunderstood
  • Taking tests
  • Meeting new people

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 saying the wrong thing 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.

Common compulsions

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.

  • 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
  • Constantly correcting themselves while talking to ensure the right thing is being said
  • Excessively asking people if they are mad or offended
  • Excessively apologizing when they are concerned they have said the wrong thing
  • Ruminating on past conversations
  • Planning out 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 exercises known as exposures. 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

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.

Learn more about ERP
Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D

Nicholas R. Farrell, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the Regional Clinical Director at NOCD where he provides clinical leadership and direction for our teletherapy services. In this role, he works closely with our clinical leadership team to provide a high-quality training and developmental experience for all of our therapists with the aim of maximizing treatment effectiveness and improving our members’ experience. Dr. Farrell received his master's and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wyoming (Laramie, WY, USA). He served as a graduate research assistant in the Anxiety Disorders Research Laboratory at the University of Wyoming from 2010 to 2015 and completed his predoctoral internship training as a psychology resident at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (Ontario, Canada).