Do you have a life event you are obsessed with, horrified by and spend excessive amounts of time on? I bet you’ve worried that you actually have something wrong with you and in your case, it’s not OCD. I have received many emails from people explaining that they have a real event in their past that makes them exempt from having OCD. They are concerned they must really be evil, depraved, diseased, or otherwise not who they thought they were or wish to be. They write to me with stories of how their situation is unique and they have never seen a similar example in OCD literature. Here are some examples of real life events that at face value may be regarded as non-OCD issues:
“I really did kiss a same sex person.” You’ve always identified as straight, but kissed someone of the same sex and worry this makes you gay. Someone who wasn’t gay wouldn’t do this, right? You’ve read that people with OCD don’t actually act out their fears; they just worry that they might. You now spend all day every day doing Google searches about what constitutes homosexuality and reading blogs about homosexual OCD (HOCD). You don’t find any stories like yours on the OCD blogs and when you posted your story people said you were gay.
“I really played doctor with my neighbor when I was a child.” When you were a child you asked your neighbor to pull down his pants and when he did you touched his genitals. In OCD books you’ve read about people who fear they may one day touch a child, but you’ve actually done it. You have replayed that day a billion times in the past 5 years. You are not sure why you started worrying about it recently. You’re not 100% certain you didn’t do even more. People tell you to ‘let it go’ because it was normal childhood play, but you believe they are lying about how bad they truly think it is.
“I really drove drunk and got into an accident.” Nobody discovered you were drinking and driving because after you hit the street sign you drove home. This happened 10 years ago but in the last 2 years it has begun to haunt you. You obsess about whether you remember the situation correctly. You wonder if you hit and killed a person but didn’t check carefully enough for the body. This must be something serious since you can’t get it out of your mind.
“I really masturbated holding my sister’s panties as a preteen.” You used a personal item of your sisters for sexual pleasure. It really happened. You want to ask someone how bad it was but you are too ashamed. You spend time every day telling yourself how sick of a person you are. Every time you see your sister you have an unwanted sexual thought, so you try to avoid your sister as much as possible.
“I really cheated on my wife.” You broke your marriage vows 4 years ago. She found out and has forgiven you, but you still obsess about it all day long. You ask her daily for reassurance about your wrongdoing. You need to know how bad it was. When you see a beautiful woman in public, you panic and call your wife to confess you may have looked at her. Even your wife wants you to move on, but you feel you are a cheater and must pay the price.
“I really had sex with a reluctant person.” Freshman year you talked a girl into having sex. It was your idea and you sensed she was initially reluctant, but eventually decided to go through with it. “Was that rape?” you wonder on a daily basis. You spend hours reading articles about date rape and panic when you learn that rape doesn’t have to be violent and forcible. You won’t allow yourself to have normal romantic relationships because you feel you don’t deserve it until you solve the questions of your past. You often check her Facebook page to make sure you haven’t damaged her for life. You have even considered turning yourself into the police.
“I really said mean things to people in middle school.” You can’t stop thinking of the kid you bullied in school. If you are still uncomfortable about the memory then it must be true and it was really bad. His mom died and you can’t remember if you made fun of him for that, but you need to know for sure before you can move on. You replay the memories daily. You’re concerned that your actions have affected his life forever. What if he attempted suicide or is a drug addict because of you?
Why are you contacting an OCD specialist?
Now, why would someone who experienced these real life events contact an OCD specialist for help? And if you are convinced that your situation is dire because of the real life misstep you have taken, how is it that you have come to find this article and are reading it right now? For these individuals to be contacting me with their concerns there must be some insight that the level to which they are stuck is not normal. This is true even despite the perceived severity of their real life actions. At the same time you are horrified by your actions, there must be a tiny glimmer somewhere inside that tells you that the way this concern repeats incessantly like a broken record is excessive even considering the life event.
You can have OCD about real life events
Yes, it’s true. OCD can decide to latch itself onto anything you value. A lot of obsessions begin with a kernel of truth, and this is one reason they are so alluring and grab your attention so easily. We have all done things we are not proud of, remember and cringe. Even people who have done worst things than you are generally able put the life experience to rest and don’t appear to experience incessant suffering. This doesn’t mean that non-OCD sufferers don’t feel guilt or regret when they think about the life event. The memory may pop into their consciousness at varying levels of frequency and intensity throughout their lives.
But it is a different brand of suffering when it is OCD. One of the big differences with real event OCD is that there is an extreme sense of urgency that something needs attended to and the sufferer is locked into the task. Your OCD gives you the job to trek through the maze, the piles of disorganized files in your brain to find that one piece of information that will set you free. And there is a deadline and you are already behind. OCD involves the kind of intrusive and threatening memories that drill into your brain and urge you to act immediately or suffer the consequences. It is the ‘my plane is about to crash’ experience. And the feared consequences if you fail to act may involve finding out you’re a sick person, being ostracized by your family, going to jail or suffering a life never knowing for sure the severity of your actions.
Distorting the life event
OCD sufferers engage in cognitive distortions, where the human mind frames life situations in irrational and exaggerated ways. ‘All or nothing thinking’ is a form of perfectionism where a person views situations in two extremes rather than on a continuum. The problem with this form of thinking is that you must be perfect or you are unacceptable. Even a small mistake puts you in a ‘bad’ category with killers, rapists and pedophiles. Without recognition of the ‘all or nothing’ distortion, an OCD sufferer will engage in mental and physical compulsions to ensure they are a good person and experience an urgent need to disprove they are bad.
Since most things in life fall somewhere in the gray area, this certainty seeking will keep you on the hamster wheel to nowhere. Imagine one of the real life scenarios above or insert your own real life event. It is hard to accept something was not the most shining moment of your life, but it also likely not the worst thing that can happen. OCD convinces you that you need to know for sure how bad something was in order to be deemed a good person, but it’s not black and white. Something can be sort of bad on one day and doesn’t fundamentally change who you are as a person. In session, I will sometimes have clients rate their transgression on a continuum for some helpful imagery that reveals their ‘all or nothing’ fallacy:
Ghandi You Jeffrey Dahmer
‘Emotional reasoning’ is another common cognitive distortion in OCD. This occurs when someone regards emotions as facts, rather than using concrete evidence. If you feel guilt, shame or anxiety about your life event you may mistakenly believe this is proof that your actions were especially bad. This is so common in OCD because thoughts and feelings persist in super human ways in the OCD brain. It is easy to fall for the idea that OCD thoughts and feelings are important because they are so powerful and sticky. Remind yourself it is not necessary to compulsively examine your historical event just because it still feels bad. Labeling emotional reasoning helps reduce the urge to ritualize, reminds you it is okay to experience your difficult emotions and ultimately weakens the hold OCD has on you.
‘Magnification’ is a distortion that occurs when you believe the life event was more important than it actually was. When you stop to take a closer look you probably realize that you are likely not the only person that has ever had this life experience. You may also be more willing to accept this behavior in someone else sooner than you would in yourself. The problem is distortions take over automatically in the absence of rational thought. They are the voice of OCD. It is important to take a moment to look at the intrusive thought or memory to recognize if it is distorted, if it is OCD in sheep’s clothing. Recognition of the cognitive traps you may encounter is helpful to resist performing damaging compulsive behaviors.
If you have OCD about a real life event you may feel you have a faulty memory. You likely wish you could remember the event more clearly but try as you may, the details seem murky. You are probably doing mental rituals to gain certainty about the situation just to find it becomes more twisted and convoluted. People are terribly unreliable eye witnesses. If you witness a crime and are asked to describe the perpetrator, it is common to falsely remember details such as the man wearing a hat or having a beard.
Memories are reconstructed, not played back as an exact replica of what was witnessed. For this reason, the more you review a single situation the more varying ways the memory can be skewed and false details added. You may remember seeing the beautiful woman on the street, but did you look back at her? Did you smile at her? Your OCD might even make you wonder if you asked for her number.
The OCD will capitalize on present fears and construct memories that confirm your theories about the expected behavior of a former cheater. The more the situation is reviewed the more additional false details may be added to the memory and the more material for your OCD to use against you. The more you try to gain certainty the more you will mistrust your memory.
It’s not technically about self-forgiveness. Forgiveness implies that you have done some unforgiveable act and need to work towards reparation for it. This process usually requires time spent discussing and processing the event. You may believe if you find a way to forgive yourself then you can stop obsessing about it. People in your life may have even encouraged you to work on it. With OCD, discussing and analyzing the event is not the approach we want to take. In fact, I’m sure you have already spent excessive amounts of time evaluating the situation and all its many angles, yet getting nowhere.
Now, I’m not saying this is an event you are proud of. What I am saying is that it’s not the event that is the problem; it is the OCD that is the problem. There is a chance you would have moved on from the event if the OCD hadn’t grabbed onto it. And we don’t treat OCD with self-forgiveness because OCD exaggerates and distorts life events. Imagine that being stuck on this may not be due to lack of self-forgiveness but the way OCD traps you. OCD has taken over the life event, twisted it and has convinced you into believing it is a critical problem that requires forgiveness or punishment.
Compulsions in real event OCD
Compulsions are physical or mental behaviors that OCD sufferers engage in to gain certainty about a fear or to feel less anxiety, guilt and shame. ‘Reassurance-seeking’ is one of the most common types of compulsive behaviors that occur in response to OCD about real life events, that is, if you are brave enough to ask someone. This normally comes in the form of asking for reassurance about how bad your actions were.
With ‘reassurance seeking,’ the OCD sufferer will have an urgent need to know for sure how others perceive the incident in hopes they can let it go. You may ask the same person a million different ways until they are about to kill you or you may survey 100 of your dearest friends and compare results. You may find yourself doing extensive Internet research looking for reassurance that ultimately leads you into a bigger hole of despair.
Mental rituals are compulsions performed mentally to gain certainty about the level of terribleness of your actions. Probably the most common type of mental ritual in real life event OCD is ‘mental review.’ You will find yourself replaying the life situation and what likely happened, what should have happened, and what a ‘good’ person would have done. You may say things like, “What would I have done if this one factor changed?” and “How would others view what I have done?”
‘Self-punishment’ is another typical mental ritual that serves to absolve some of the massive guilt the sufferer is experiencing about the incident. If you feel you have done something awful, it may make you feel better to punish yourself as uncomfortable as this process may be. You don’t want to feel as if you got away with the horrible event. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, however. Ask yourself if your incident calls for a life sentence.
Read about more Compulsions in OCD here.
What if someone really killed, raped or molested?
I am going to answer this right here because I know it is what you are thinking. When should a person draw the line and decide their actions were unacceptable and ‘should’ be punished? OCD suffering about a real life event is different than run-of-the mill feelings about a real life event. And I haven’t had anyone come to me with OCD about anything that could put them in jail for life. I suppose this is because OCD likes to attach itself to things that hover around the middle ground, in that elusive gray area that is hard to prove or disprove.
With real life event OCD I usually see situations that occur somewhere at that halfway point, where half of the population would say, “So what, move on” and half of the population would say “Why did you do that?” This is exactly why it is a good target for OCD because you will have trouble proving with 100% certainty how bad it was. Label the ‘all or nothing’ thinking here so you don’t get panicked that not everyone agrees your actions weren’t bad, it doesn’t make you Jeffrey Dahmer. In addition, if you can accept that not everyone has to agree with your actions and you can still be a good person, than you will be more likely to refrain from compulsions that strengthen the problem.
It is really not the life event that is the problem. It is also not the thoughts or feelings about the life event that is the problem. The problem is your reaction to the thoughts and feelings about the life event. Particularly because you are tracing this back to a real life event, it is even more important to practice acceptance. It is a good practice to witness the thoughts and feelings that arise and decide to stay with them instead of trying to escape them.
It is okay to have these unwanted memories, anxiety and guilt about something you did. Observe the thoughts, images, memories and feelings as they enter the room and allow them to leave on their own when they choose to. You do not have control of these internal experiences and you cannot stop them. The idea of mindfulness is to allow them to happen organically while you watch. This practice will result in a more agreeable relationship with the real life event and related thoughts and feelings.
Read more about Mindfulness and OCD here.
Exposure and Response Prevention
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a form of behavioral therapy that is used to assist OCD sufferers to face thoughts and feelings about the real life event while preventing compulsions that reinforce obsessions. Since those with real event OCD are triggered by thoughts about the event, a process called ‘imaginal exposure scripting’ should be one of the primary components of ERP.
An OCD specialist will help you develop scripts for exposure therapy that target your OCD, based on your specific fears. Examples that might be included in the script are: You have harmed someone permanently with your actions, You are indeed a horrible person, You will never know the exact details with certainty and you will obsess about the event forever. It may also include feared consequences such getting away with a crime, social rejection, or losing everything you love in life.
I promise if someone asks you to do this they are not crazy. They are suggesting you intentionally spike your OCD fears until you habituate to them and no longer have extreme levels of anxiety when you have thoughts and memories about the event. It is a process that is used to un-pair your thoughts from anxiety and guilt by intentionally exposing yourself to them. You will not feel particularly good about the life event but you will be able to experience the thought without an extreme emotional reaction. You will end up with a conventional relationship with your life event, like all the rest of us have. “Not my favorite moment, but oh well.”
How do I know mine is OCD?
You don’t get to know for sure if yours is really OCD and not something really terrible. One of the symptoms of OCD is that you are in a persistent state of doubt about whether your obsession is something that needs attended to. One of the most important parts of OCD treatment is learning to sit with uncertainty and choosing to resist doing compulsions despite it. It kind of doesn’t matter anyway. It is important to find a way to create a life worth living for yourself.
Ask yourself if you should waste your life trying to figure out the past, when you can focus on bringing what you want into your present and future. I know you don’t feel you deserve it. The main tenets of behavior therapy are: We cannot control our thoughts and feelings but we can control our behavior. If you change your behavior, your thoughts and feelings will follow. Take the actions of deserving it first and the feelings of deserving it will follow. Take active steps towards life improvement even before you feel deserving of good things. Don’t wait to feel deserving of good things in order to move towards life improvement when your OCD thoughts and feelings go away. Living a life in service of what you value will assist in undermining OCD thoughts and feelings about real life events.
Be angry at the OCD, not the life event. Let the emotional energy be used to target the real problem which is the fact that your brain is stuck on a real life event that the OCD is making you think is still important. The response to the event is exaggerated because of the faulty brain messaging due to OCD. The event may not be ideal or what you would have wished to happen in your life, but don’t we all have those? Consider that the stickiness level of the memories is through the roof, much more than anyone without OCD would be experiencing. And finally, be very kind and compassionate with yourself as you learn to weave in this life event and conceptualize the way OCD has hijacked it.