Dealing With Real-Event OCD (part 4)
Accepting Imperfection of Character
At the core of this obsession, at least for many people, is a question about morality and character. Naturally, we all want to believe that we are good people and that we more often than not do good things. So, when we become aware of something we did that puts this into question, the average person will jump through some impressive hoops to restore their confidence in themselves. But, someone with OCD often gets stuck in this cycle and they are more willing to sacrifice time and effort to regain this, not to mention the OCD brain’s tendency toward doubt.
None of us are perfect. While you might not call it perfectionism, OCD might call it “trying to do your best” or “if you can be better, why not do it.” There is no winning with OCD. No matter how good you try to be, or how close to your ideal you get, your anxiety will always say you can do more. Emotionally speaking, at some point we all must say that we are enough, and only you can give that gift to yourself.
Turing Shame Into Guilt Into Self-Compassion
A good place to start with Real-Event OCD is to shift any shame-based language to guilt-based language. This means gently observing how you talk to and about yourself in relationship to the event or events in question. As mentioned above, shame is a poor motivator to change and often causes people to experience more isolation, depression, and negative self-criticism. People get stuck in their shame because people believe there is nothing they can do to change or improve their intrinsic faults or failings. Notice if you are saying things like:
- “I’m just a terrible person”
- “No one can understand or accept me because I’m a monster”
- “I always screw things up”
Guilt language focuses on the actions you took and the decision you made. Research shows that people who gravitate toward using guilt language are able to handle these mistakes and lapses of judgement better than those who lean toward shame language. Simply put, given the same or similar situation, you can change your actions and how you’d respond, but if you are who you are then you are doomed to do the same thing because that’s just what you do. Shifting shame to guilt language acknowledges your actions and sets it apart from your character. In the following examples, notice the shift away from judgements about one’s character to a focus on the actions.
- “I feel terrible for making that joke.”
- “I should have never done that because it could have put people in danger.”
- “I can’t believe I used to think that or think that was ok.”
Turning Guilt Into Self-Compassion
I’m going to take a quick side step and talk about what it means to be human. You may have heard the saying “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Within this simple phrase, said by Alexander Pope in 1711, is a central component to treatment for Real-Life OCD. As a human, you are going to do and say a lot of things. Some of those things will be done out of necessity and survival. Some decisions and actions will be made in the spirit of trying on a new personality or character. Sometimes we try to impress people in a short sighted and misguided way. Some decisions will be made out of ignorance. Still others out of selfishness and greed. If you have been living long enough, you will have done something that you regret and would do differently if you could. In retrospect, we would call these mistakes. They are errors.
We (I’m included here too) will make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes happen once, and sometimes you make a pattern of them. And, in retrospect you feel guilty (that bad feeling when we did something bad) and upset with the decisions and actions. You may feel like you have to punish yourself for it. However, taking responsibility and heaping condemnation on yourself are not the same thing because we can take responsibility for our actions, make personal and behavioral changes, and move into a life that integrates this change into a forward-facing trajectory.
To allow for this forgiveness, you will need actively let yourself off the hook for your past mis-deeds. Of course, this does not mean pretending like it didn’t happen, or saying that it was OK that it happened. It means intentionally resisting that urge to continuously rake yourself over the coals. It can also mean resisting the urge to get certainty about the details of the event to OCD’s standards. This can be incredibly difficult for someone with Real-Event OCD because your anxiety is screaming at you to constantly hold yourself to account, pay for what you did, and feel the full weight of the mistakes or else! On the other hand, sometimes it screams that you have to figure out what happened so you can know that there is nothing more to do! Regardless of the mental and emotional gymnastics, this only keeps someone tied to the past in unhealthy ways.
Instead, offer yourself some compassion for being imperfect, making mistakes, and being a person who is constantly learning and progressing. This can come in many forms and not all will be appropriate for everyone. For example:
- Read daily affirmations about your worthiness and humanity
- Allow yourself to feel love, joy, peace, and pleasure
- Reach out to others to make positive social and emotional connection
- Continue to seek work advancement
- Seek or maintain a spiritual or religious life
- Show yourself kindness through positive self-talk and kind, loving actions
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle through a healthy diet, exercise, sleep habits, and work-life balance
To read more about Real-Event OCD:
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