One of the biggest problems that people with OCD face is being plagued with never-ending doubts and “what-ifs?” These are usually focused on the fear about their obsessional themes coming true. Because of these doubts they usually give into compulsions with the goal of “preventing” perceived obsessional threats and relieving anxiety. Unfortunately, compulsions do not work because they negatively reinforce the problem.
So if compulsions don’t eliminate doubts, what does?
This blog offers a solution, which has you questioning whether living with uncertainty is the better option; or worrying forever about something that might never happen.
Living with uncertainty
First, neither doubt nor certainty can be removed from one or the other as an absolute. In other words you can be swayed towards certain beliefs, but you can never have perfect certainty about those beliefs. One dictionary definition describes the word “perfect” as making something as good as or as safe as possible. Another one describes the same word as without faults, errors or flaws. So if you were to ask me which definition is right I would reply by saying “I have doubts about that”, meaning my belief about something being perfectly safe or good isn’t clear one way or the other.
Where is this leading?
The point about this is that even though a person might have conviction in their beliefs, these are not set in stone; similarly, while you might think that compulsions are the solution for squeezing doubts and crushing the anxiety that comes with those doubts, you might ask yourself “are my experiences showing me otherwise?” Or put another way, in all the time you have striven to combat doubt and grab hold of certainty by doing compulsions, has this helped you?
So what kind of doubts do I mean?
These can range from worrying that you might harm yourself or someone else; that you might become ill if you touch something perceived to be dirty, or feel tainted forever. Having blasphemous or immoral thoughts might make you think you’ll be punished by god. Or you might have doubts that you could be a paedophile or gay, and if gay you might have an obsession that you could be heterosexual. Perhaps you have intolerance to asymmetry and live under the threat that if you cannot find “perfect” symmetry something bad might happen, or that your day will be ruined because your mind cannot agree with what you see. You may be tossing a coin to decide which choice to make about something and still feel like you made the wrong choice. Some people have intrusive thoughts that they might go insane or that sudden death will occur – the list of obsessional fears is endless.
In trying to grab hold of certainty as to whether these things haven’t already occurred, or to “prevent” them from occurring is usually when the corresponding compulsions take over. These include seeking reassurance, checking, washing, ruminating, praying, avoidance or escape, counting, undoing, aligning, swapping a bad image for a good one, or using a string of words to counter an intrusive threat, and so on.
What can you do about this?
Well, if “perfect” suggests something can only be as good/safe as possible or on the other hand without faults, errors or flaws (where neither can be proved one way or the other) then this indicates that it would be better to live with uncertainty in a perfect or imperfect world. Basically an ambiguous response could work better than one that is not ambiguous, because as noted, nothing is definite. Your search for certainty will always be fruitless, and mine. Compulsions are unsuccessful attempts for satisfying doubts and relieving anxiety for a short while; thus proving that these are a useless pursuit, because no one can say what has, is or will happen. It makes sense therefore that compulsions feed fears and doubts thus strengthening the obsession.
Does this mean that living with uncertainty begins to weaken the obsession?
Yes, because once you decide to live with uncertainty, you put yourself in a position to determine what you do next. This means that when you’re faced with an obsession and doubt creeps in and you are desperate to be sure about whether your fear has or will materialise, or that you have made a right decision about something, you can choose to drop the hopeless route – that is, by resisting whatever compulsions you do. Not yielding to the compulsions teaches you that you are capable of building distress tolerance. Whatever your obsession is, it contradicts what your true values are. If for example you are faced with a harming obsession where you have thoughts of hurting the person next to you, yet in your values you are a calm and caring natured person who hates violence, then the thoughts are paradoxical. This tells you that obsessions are biologically generated unwanted thoughts that force themselves into your mind. In a nutshell, intrusive thoughts produce and misfire the wrong statements about you and what you fear.
You might ask, but what if you’re wrong about everything you’ve just said?
In this case, I would reply by saying, I could be wrong… yet, I could also be right. By learning to accept that you will have doubts, you can then choose whether to live with uncertainty and reach recovery; or worry forever about something that might never happen.
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