Lessons OCD Has Taught Me
By confronting my disorder, I uncovered new truths about myself.
Written by Heather Nelson
01 Heather is a writer, runner and dog lover, who’s learning to cope with OCD through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, healthy eating and endorphins.
02 Sufferers learn a lot during OCD treatment. Often times, they learn things they don't expect to. In this article, Heather shares a few of those unanticipated learnings.
03 In particular, she discusses perfectionism (which commonly accompanies OCD), being present, and recognizing her strength.
The beginning of the OCD journey is scary. Many sufferers have lived with the disorder for so long, that it’s obscured their view of reality. It becomes hard to imagine what life looks like on the other side of recovery, and even harder to imagine how we’ll get there.
I was fortunate enough to start ERP soon after my OCD began. However, that didn’t make therapy any less difficult. It took months of grueling work to tackle my disorder, but along the way, I learned a lot about myself. I truly believe that my recovery has made me a better person. In fact, confronting my OCD helped me see the extent of my anxiety issues and the opportunities I had to improve my overall mental health. ERP and ACT gave me the tools to address these challenges head on.
One of my first “Aha” moments came when I told my therapist that I felt incredibly down for not progressing as quickly as I’d hoped. I felt like I was doing ERP wrong. I couldn’t figure out how to accept my thoughts, I couldn’t figure out how to stop the reassurances, and of course, I couldn’t figure out if my obsessions were real or OCD. She helped me see that these perfectionistic tendencies were the real thing holding me back.
The Search for Perfection
Perfectionism often goes hand-in-hand with OCD. It makes sense. We try to have perfect thoughts, we try to perform perfect rituals, and we try to pursue perfect recovery. But this rigidity - for me - was not just related to my OCD. It had seized most of the important aspects of my life. I felt like I had to overachieve at work and at home. I had to always act a certain way and follow the rules. And I had to hold others to those standards too. When I couldn’t guarantee that something would turn out perfectly — like my writing — it would paralyze me.
My perfectionism was feeding my OCD. For example, when my husband didn’t do something exactly as I’d hoped, it triggered my relationship obsessions. As I became more aware of this, I got better at performing reality checks.
Am I upset because I expected something else? If so, I accept the feeling of disappointment and the distressing thoughts. Am I procrastinating because I don’t think I can do it perfectly? I accept my worries and carry on with my task.
This lesson paired well with some new-found self-compassion. I felt so guilty for not being perfect. That, in combination with my intrusive thoughts, made me feel like a horrible person. I realized that the harsh criticisms and admonishments swirling around in my mind were not productive. So I decided that even though I didn’t feel like I deserved kindness, I would give myself some. That allowed me to pick myself up when I hit a bump, let go of judgements and continue making progress.
Looking Back on Past Anxieties
ERP combined with meditation made me consider my mind in new and different ways. As I paid more attention to how my obsessive thoughts worked, I realized that I’d always been prone to obsessional thinking. Even before I developed OCD, I was an excessive worrier who ruminated endlessly on thoughts and scenarios.
At this time, I was planning our wedding. I found that I had difficulty being fully present at work, on a walk, or trying to fall asleep because I was constantly attempting to anticipate problems with our plans. And in fact, I’d always had trouble falling asleep because my mind was searching for problems to solve. This revelation made it clear to me that I was destined to develop OCD. By noticing this, I learned to pull myself back from the edge before I fell into a downwards spiral.
By this point, I was several months into ERP and I’d started to feel my OCD anxiety receding. As I spent less time on my obsessions, I had more time to worry about regular problems. And as those normal problems came back to me, I started to experience old anxieties again. I’m not good enough. I will fail. I will feel stuck forever.
But I also saw that these long-held fears had stopped me from taking risks and achieving my potential. I had manifested my fears by worrying about them and letting them hold me back. ERP taught me that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. In fact, accepting fear is the only way to grow. With that mentality and new-found self-awareness, I started to free myself from my deep insecurities. I know it will take a lot of work to truly conquer them, but I finally know how to do it.
While all of these lessons were important, nothing compared to the biggest lesson OCD taught me: I am stronger than I know. Anyone who suffers from OCD is an incredibly resilient individual. Most people will never have to withstand what we do. We are forced to live our deepest fears on a daily basis. To recover from them, we have to confront these fears head-on. When you come out on the other side, I hope you too have learned how brave and capable you are. I hope that you feel like you can take on any obstacle in your way. I hope that you build a life of value, meaning and purpose. I hope to do it with you.
Heather is a writer, runner and dog lover, who's learning to cope with OCD through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, healthy eating and endorphins.