A Therapist's Response to: "I'm So OCD"
"I'm So OCD." This statement seems to have become the go-to way of describing someone who is organized, neat, and clean. Maybe they have bedroom closets that look like they came out of a show room, or have their desks organized with books lined up by height in descending order. Or perhaps they have an elaborate color-coated system for their planners, or like their yogurt labels facing the same direction in the fridge; but OCD is not about being organized and clean. Where this misnomer got started, I'm actually not quite sure; but what I do know, is that these three words carry the power to undermine the agonizing experiences of those truly battling OCD, perpetuate the spread of false information, and further isolate those who are struggling.
As a therapist working specifically with the OCD population, I know first-hand the difficulties these individuals face. They do not go around flaunting their diagnosis, or hashtagging it on Instagram. In fact, it is probably one of the most private aspects of their lives, in which they often feel embarrassed, isolated, and ashamed. Their daily functioning is negatively affected, and without treatment, can lead lives where nearly every move is dictated by an obsession. I work with students who have taken semesters off from college, adults who cannot hold a job (or do so with much distress), and those who have completely isolated from friends. There are individuals who miss out on their children's upbringing because they cannot bare to go to the community park - Instead of seeing smiles, laughter, and picture-worthy moments, they see germs, danger, or the risk of sexually molesting a child. Opportunities are missed, families struggle, and individuals question how they can possibly get through another day.
When I meet an individual with OCD for the first time, nearly every client begins describing their symptoms by saying, "I feel so embarrassed to even share this..." and "If only someone could hear what I'm about to say, they'd think I'm crazy!" I see tears, sadness, and pain. I see cries for help, desperation, and worlds that have become so small. I see individuals ask if they'll ever be able to enjoy their life, and if they can ever be free from their red, raw, and painful hands from washing. Others question whether they could ever hold their child again, drive a car, or walk down their neighborhood street, without feeling plagued by thoughts about causing harm and losing control. Some wish they can enjoy a romantic relationship without questioning their feelings, and there are students who beg to one day be able to read without it taking over a half hour to get through one page, making sure they fully understood every word.
These are not the individuals who casually toss around "I'm So OCD."
As I mentioned, being neat and organized is not at the core of OCD. There are many individuals diagnosed with OCD who would be the first to admit they are the messiest ones in their family. At the core of OCD is one's poor tolerance for uncertainty; and while yes, we may all have those moments where we wish we could be more certain, we do not engage in frustrating, time-consuming compulsions in an effort to find relief. We've all double-checked our car doors to make sure they're locked, and occasionally looked to make sure our hair-straightener is turned off; but these do not meet diagnostic criteria for time-consuming rituals. We may double-check, find relief, then continue about our day. For someone with OCD, this can occur all day long, include multiple checks, and for a variety of items - and even then, they do not feel 100% certain. They may question their memory, if they truly saw the plug, or heard the car door lock, and feel the need to do this over and over again. Some may be late to work, late picking up their children from school, or in more severe cases, fear even leaving the house.
What's important for the general public to also realize, is that many individuals with OCD can experience obsessions without any overt rituals. You will not see these individuals washing, cleaning, tapping, and checking. Their rituals exist purely in the mind, and are just as time-consuming and frustrating. Mental rituals can include counting, repeating phrases or prayers, providing self-reassurance, and monitoring their physical sensations for signs that will confirm or disprove their obsessive thoughts. These compulsions take them out of the present moment, are distracting, and impact their overall quality of life. They, too, are not the ones jokingly stating, "I'm So OCD."
Now, there are some individuals with OCD who happen to be overly organized, neat, and have a home that shines from being freshly cleaned; but what is important to know, is that if these organizational behaviors are a result of their OCD, these individuals do not enjoy the time and effort it takes to maintain those behaviors. The organization that you see is a response to unwanted, intrusive, and distressing thoughts, not out of pleasure; and if they could be messy without being plagued by frightening thoughts or extreme discomfort, they would take it in a heart beat! I have yet to meet an individual with OCD who feels proud of their compulsions. They do not enjoy organizing. They do not enjoy ritualizing. They do not enjoy any of it; and they most certainty are not seen smiling when talking about it. (If someone typically likes paying attention to detail, and being preoccupied with order and the need for perfection, they may be experiencing what's called OCPD, and not OCD. See here for a further explanation of their differences).
So when you hear a friend, family member, or stranger on the street or internet, use the words "I'm So OCD," keep in mind the insensitive nature of those three words. Here is a small sample of real presentations of OCD - all of which are rarely talked about, and go far beyond the common misconception that all individuals with OCD are simply "neat." With treatment, individuals can, and do, go on to lead meaningful and productive lives, but even then, they are not heard joking about OCD. There is no cure, and while they are thankful to have moved past some of the most upsetting years of their lives, they will always be working to maintain their recovery.
So yes, we're all a little neat, we're all a little clean, and yes, we all sometimes go back to check if we locked the front door; but no, we're not all a little OCD.
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website.