For years, one of my biggest compulsions was seeking reassurance.
Do you think I’m going to heaven? Do you think it was wrong I did such-and-such? Do you think I hurt so-and-so’s feelings? Do you think yadda yadda yadda …
My obsessions were like burns, and when someone would reassure me that things were okay, it was like sticking my burned fingertip under cold running water. The relief felt real … but it was temporary.
Ten minutes later, I’d want to ask again.
(And quite often I would … sometimes to where I would frustrate my family and friends. They would sigh deeply and look at me with these terribly sad eyes and repeat, “Jackie, no.”)
It functioned just like all compulsions– it provided a temporary relief from my obsession, but then it gets out of control. I didn’t realize it at the time (and neither did my friends), but all they were doing was enabling my OCD.
What would have been better (although much, much harder for both the OC and the friend) is to say, “Look, there are a lot of things we can’t know with certainty. What you’re afraid of is POSSIBLE … but it’s not LIKELY. Let’s look at the available evidence.” Of course, no obsessive-compulsive wants to hear even an ounce of uncertainty … uncertainty doesn’t soothe the burn like cold water.
At least, not immediately.
But as you introduce the idea of uncertainty into your life, and you learn to embrace it, what happens is that you start to heal. It is hard for EVERYONE, but it is BETTER. Reassurance only leads to seeking more reassurance. Uncertainty leads to acceptance and healing and a new life.
Now, of course this is difficult. Who wants to say to a crying child, “Something bad MIGHT happen if you don’t organize your locker”? Or to a terror-stricken young adult, “It’s POSSIBLE you could catch a life-threatening disease if you don’t wash your hands right now”? Or to someone who is weak with guilt, “We can’t KNOW for SURE that God didn’t heal your mother because of something you did”? It’s agony all around.
But it is better. Healthier.
And then you can follow things up with, “What evidence do we have available to help us make decisions? Other students have messy lockers, and they usually go about their day just fine. Even if you did get sick today, it probably wouldn’t kill anyone– in fact, lots of people have been sick at your workplace in the last year and no one has died. It’s more likely that your mom died due to her illness than to your actions that aren’t connected.” Obviously, these are hard. They don’t erase uncertainty. And that is the point.
Remember, uncertainty is the key to healing!! That is why obsessive-compulsives need to surround themselves with cheerleaders not enablers, people who are willing to do the hard business of tough love, even in the face of tears and terror. It means anxiety in the short term– but joy in the long term!