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3 Things to do Before Telling Someone about Your Intrusive Thoughts

Not everyone will be empathetic and understanding of your symptoms

Written by Lauren Gumpert

01 Lauren recently opened up to a friend about her intrusive thoughts. Rather than being compassionate, this friend second guessed what she was dealing with, and triggered a downward spiral.

02 Lauren encourages people to prepare for similar conversations with loved ones. Think about why you're opening up to someone, what you hope to gain from doing so, and how you'll spark the conversation.

03 Many people are misinformed when it comes to mental illness. If someone is unsupportive of your story or symptoms, try not to take it personally. Your experiences are still valid.

I recently told a friend about my OCD and it did not go well. She asked triggering questions like “Are you being honest with yourself?” which brought on a slew of intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions.   

When disclosing OCD to someone, especially intrusive thoughts, you have to be careful. Depending on how the conversation goes, their response could make your OCD worse or damage your relationship with that person.  

Here are 3 things you can do before telling someone about your OCD to facilitate a smooth and productive conversation:

Set your intention

Before disclosing your OCD to anyone, it’s important to know your intention — the reason or purpose you’re choosing to open up to them. 

When you think you want to tell someone, ask yourself:

Why are you disclosing?

What are you hoping to gain from this conversation?

What outcome are you anticipating? 

Clarifying your intention is vital. It’s easy to fall into the trap of reassurance-seeking when talking to someone about your intrusive thoughts. Remember: seeking reassurance is, in fact, a compulsion. So before you tell a person about these intrusive thoughts, check-in with your motive. Are you secretly hoping that they will reassure you? Do you want them to respond by saying “No, Lauren, you really aren’t ________________ (violent, gay, a pedophile, etc.)?”

If you’re desiring a specific reaction from this person, it’s probably best NOT to tell them, because it might make the intrusive thoughts worse.  

Check your expectations

Before you share your OCD with anyone, you have to be aware of your expectations. Are you expecting this person to respond a certain way?

When I told my friend about my OCD, I expected that she would react with compassion and understanding. I thought that she would reach across the table, grab my hand and tell me that she was sorry that I was struggling with this.

Instead, she responded with surprise and inquisitiveness, which caught me off guard. She didn’t understand the mechanism behind the intrusive thoughts, and she began asking questions that sent me on a downward spiral. 

Before you tell someone about your OCD, know upfront that they may not understand. It’s not your job to educate them either, unless they ask and you feel comfortable and confident teaching them. But also remember, attempting to educate someone about the OCD could lead you down the rabbit hole of reassurance-seeking, researching, and information-gathering. You might get stuck in a thought loop. For example: 

“Do they believe me?” 

“Are they just pretending to understand?” 

“They probably think I’m lying to myself.”

“What if they think that I really am ________ (violent, gay, a pedophile, etc.)?” 

Once you’ve decided to tell someone about your OCD, do not expect a certain reaction. Be ready for any reaction. Everyone will respond differently based on their own thoughts, beliefs, opinions, ideas and experiences. It’s difficult to predict how a person will react, even if you know this person well.   

Prepare 

Where, when and how will you disclose your OCD? 

Intrusive thoughts are difficult to talk about. They bring on feelings of guilt, shame, anger, sadness, confusion and fear. Having a plan is important because it can mitigate some of these feelings.

Do your best to plan out the details of the conversation that are within your control. Pick a private place where you won’t have eavesdroppers.  Choose an appropriate time when you aren’t tired or emotionally drained.  

Consider how you will disclose this information. Reference your intention: what do you want from this conversation? Do you even want it to be a conversation? Are you going to invite a dialogue, or do you simply want this person to be aware?

You may need to deliver your message in a different manner contingent upon your needs. 

For example, maybe you are talking to a coworker to give her some insight as to why you are struggling at work. You might preface the interaction by saying: “I want to tell you something personal, but I am still processing it myself, so please just listen and don’t try to offer advice. I have sought treatment and am handling it in the best way that I can.”  

The bottom line is, this is your life and your struggle.  You are sharing sensitive information, and you get to orchestrate this conversation. While you can’t control how the other person responds, you DO have control over how you deliver the message. You can use your language to steer the conversation in the direction that you want it to go, and you can set healthy boundaries. 

Lastly, be wary of who you choose to share this information with. It’s best to disclose in the context of a loving and trusting relationship with a person that you know well. Talking about intrusive thoughts can put strain on a relationship, especially if it’s a new one.  Keep these things in mind before you decide to tell someone.

About the author

Lauren is a writer, yoga teacher, and Speech-Language Therapist who struggles with anxiety, depression, and OCD. She shares about her healing journey and offers encouragement and inspiration on her blog, www.fullwellself.com. You can also connect with her on twitter and instagram @fullwellself.

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