Dealing With Real-Event OCD (part 3)

This article is part 3 of a four part series on Real-Event OCD.
To read part 1, click here
To read part 2, click here

To read part 4, click here

Real-Life OCD, Guilt, or Shame?

So, is Real-Event OCD just another way of saying someone is feeling guilty or shameful for things they did?

Yes and no. While there is a lot of overlap between Real-Event OCD, guilt, and shame, the feeling that you cannot move forward until you figure it all out, the inability to shake the thought or memory, and the pervasiveness of the obsession seeping into every moment are some important differences that sets the experience and pattern of Real-Event OCD apart.

Man looking hard in the mirror in shame. Real-Event OCD
Real-Event OCD can be experienced as overwhelming guilt and shame about a past event.

To be certain, someone with Real-Life OCD feels terribly about the event and their actions. But, it goes well beyond the simple experience of guilt and shame.

Guilt is the bad feeling you get when you have done something “bad.” This “bad” thing can be an act that goes against your personal values or moral code, or even violating a social norm that causes some harm to someone. In many ways, experiencing guilt can be adaptive and good thing! That uncomfortable feeling serves as an alarm that you have done something wrong and need to do something to make it right. Also, that feeling helps create a lasting memory of the mistake so that you are not likely to repeat your mistake again in the future.

Shame is that bad feeling you get when you are “bad.” Notice the deep, personal character implications of this. The feeling of shame speaks to a core flaw or brokenness that influences all past, current, and future actions that inherently leads to interpersonal destruction and isolation. Shame is maladaptive as it does not lead to change or reconciliation because the error is intrinsic and pervasive, not behavioral and momentary.

Real-Event OCD contains elements of both shame and guilt, but the added compulsive cycle makes this, and all other OCD subtypes, so disastrous. As discussed earlier in this series, the compulsions are done in order to regain a sense of peace or certainty, eliminate some potential catastrophic future event, or develop some full understanding that will prove or disprove something. However, compulsions can never provide absolute, unquestioned certainty because we can always think of another aspect, caveat, or component that throws the reassurance out the window and forces you back to compulsive reassurance seeking.

Real-Life OCD and Cancel Culture

Real-Life OCD has taken on a life of its own recently with the advent and practice of “Cancel Culture.” Cancel Culture is the institutional or social effort to de-platform, remove, fire, boycott, or otherwise ensure that some individual or group is punished for their actual or perceived infractions. In the case of Cancel Culture, this punishment goes well beyond holding someone to account for their actions, but serves as a long lasting and seemingly irredeemable place of social and professional banishment.

For someone with Real-Life OCD, seeing the Cancel Culture enacted on celebrities and organizations across social media platforms and in the news can incite fear and pour proverbial gasoline on an already raging obsessional fire. Someone with Real-Life OCD will acknowledge that they did do something regrettable, so the urgency to get certainty that they have already been forgiven, have not committed a harm that was that bad, or will not suffer the pain of cancellation become as important as life-and-death.

Woman looking rejected standing alone. Real Event OCD and Cancel Culture
Suffering with Real-Event OCD can make someone feel rejected and alone despite any evidence of being rejected.

I do not typically share my opinion in these articles, but I will take the risk to share one here. I am firmly against Cancel Culture as it does not allow for the process of accountability, growth, and atonement. The existence of Cancel Culture threatens everyone of any race, gender, or belief system and prevents people from being open to mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and more often causes people to seek isolation rather than community. People suffering with Real-Life OCD will have to learn to accept their past actions while giving themselves permission to move forward in life with lessons learned to influence more personally meaningful actions in-line with their values.

False Memory OCD vs Real-Event OCD

False Memory OCD is yet another manifestation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder about an event that did not actually happen but the sufferer believes did happen, or an event that did happen but its detail remain unclear. In both circumstances, the sufferer fears that they have a memory of an event that could lead to unfortunate circumstances or be a sign of something worse. For example, someone may have a thought that they ran someone over on a previous drive. Their memory of that day may be hazy, so they are unsure about whether that thought they have is truly a memory of running someone over, or whether it is just a fabrication of their mind.

Memory is a troubling thing because the vast majority of us do not have a mind like a steel trap. For most of us, it’s more like a porous strainer. While it catches the majority of big events and some of the details, it tends to forget a lot of the boring, routine details. This is fertile ground for an obsession as your brain takes it upon itself to fill in memory gaps with potential actions or inactions.

In all cases, the solution to these false memories is acceptance of the uncertainty over the event and trusting in the probability of your normal, expected, and likely behaviors. Seeking 100% certainty and assurance about the event may simply be impossible, much less impractical. Therefore, noting what you are trying to do to recover the memory and give you certainty that you’re ok again is a great start. In other words, identify your compulsions and do your best to resist and eliminate them.

For example, are you mentally reviewing the event? Trying to retrace your steps, or investigate by looking for clues that can confirm or disconfirm the memory? Are you checking with friends who were there to see if they remember too? If you are, make the decision to stop this endless cycle and come to terms that you may not get an answer.

To read more about Real-Event OCD:

Click here to read part 1

Click here to read Part 2

Click here to read Part 4

To listen to the FearCast Podcast episode on Real-Event OCD, please click here

If you would like to learn more about treatment for Real-Event OCD and how CalOCD can help you start your recovery, please reach out to us through the contact page. We are seeing clients in-person through the Fullerton office, and through online therapy.

This article was written by Kevin Foss, MFT, director of the California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center

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