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Flip the Script on OCD

A new CBT approach that moves from Kafka to Keats.

Key points

  • Flipping the script on OCD begins with embracing your expansive mind and open heart.
  • Owning the fullness of your experience can counteract OCD's tendency to limit you.
  • Embracing negative capability is a new, effective way of doing exposure-response prevention.
Nick Youngson/Pix4Free
Source: Nick Youngson/Pix4Free

OCD can be torturous, transforming what seems like an ordinary day into a harrowing struggle to hold on to ourselves and reality. Not unlike Gregor Samsa in Kafka's classic novella The Metamorphosis, intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges can take possession of us, as if we, too, have become bugs in a sadistic nightmare.

Hope for a New Way

But what happens when we flip the script on OCD? We turn a Kafkaesque trap into a Keatsian space of poetic possibility. Inspired by one of the most famous and treasured Romantic poets, this new approach will energize you to deal with the best and the worst of living with OCD.

Exposure-response prevention (ERP) teaches the importance of tolerating uncertainty and embracing ambiguity, but for many this can be extremely difficult. Here's a new way to do ERP while holding on to yourself and seeing beauty and meaning in the world. No longer do you have to feel like you're giving up on the unique creativity and sensitivity that OCD tries to co-opt with its diabolical, Kafkaesque torture.

How to Flip the Script

Reclaim your solidity by owning the hidden positives most people with OCD forget about in the throes of all the terrible stuff OCD hurls at you.

A Worldview of Complexity and Dimension

OCD expert Jonathan Grayson highlights two of these positive traits. First, OCD sufferers use their above-average intelligence to view the world with complexity and nuance rather than in simple certainties and absolutes.

Many view this as a problem, leading only to uncertainty and doubt, but it's also a hidden virtue, driving a capacity for recognising multiple perspectives and dimensions—more Keats than Kafka.

An Expansive and Imaginative Mind

People with OCD are often "incredibly creative" because they have a constant interest in answering the question "what if?" Again, most focus only on the negatives because when OCD takes over, it co-opts this wonderfully expansive and imaginative mind.

What-ifs easily plummet you down rabbit holes of doubt, rumination, and fear. This is "creativity used to make us miserable," Grayson says, the kind governed by fear, anxiety, and criticism. But it is equally possible for "what if" creativity to connect us to the muse and to inspire generative solutions.

An Open, Generous Heart

People with OCD have big and generous hearts. Recent research shows they have heightened empathy compared to both normal and anxious controls. This sensitivity leads them to experience and anticipate the pain and harm of others, but it also makes them among the most generous, loving, and attuned people around.

The Challenge of Having an Expansive Mind and an Open Heart

It doesn't feel like a gift when your extraordinarily sensitive heart allies with an expansive mind to conjure up the worst-case scenarios of doing harm to the ones you love or, worse yet, the world doing you and your loved ones in. It comes right back to that Kafkaesque nightmare where you lose all sense of agency, control, and hope.

It's extraordinarily difficult to hold on to safety and solidity when you are so open to complexity, nuance, and feeling. It's overwhelming to trust the process of exposure-response prevention that asks us to embrace and even court this uncertainty too.

I've come up with a new way to integrate this solidity of self with your openness to the world. Best of all, it will keep you safe and secure while honoring your rich appreciation of all the world has to offer.

Step 1: Own Your Unique and Solid Voice

OCD attempts, in quite twisted ways, to help us assert our own voice and solidity, though it so often makes us doubt just about everything. It's a bully that scares us away from being fully in touch with all that we experience.

The good news is that your voice cannot be lost even though it might temporarily feel so when OCD tries to take you out. It's just like the stars are still shining brightly even in the light of day.

As Harvard graduate student in neuroscience and OCD researcher Zoe Beatty says: "When OCD hits, it's best to ask the question, what am I trying to distance myself from?" This is how we flip our OCD.

Let's see how you can learn to distance yourself from your OCD and dig in deeper to your full experience with the case of Alexandra.

Losing and Finding Yourself

Alexandra was excited about a research project she was spearheading that was bringing together totally new insights in her field. When she shared her findings with her mentor, he was suspicious of how she interpreted the data and had a completely different take.

Almost immediately, Alexandra spiraled into malignant OCD doubts that her project was a total waste of time and that she was a failure. All of the excitement quickly devolved into a barrage of intrusive thoughts questioning everything she knew.

Like Kafka's character Gregor, she felt like a bug on her back who couldn't get out of bed, trapped in the neverending labyrinth of her obsessional mind. Soon enough, she was compulsively checking the internet for ways to reclaim herself. The more she searched, the more she lost herself.

Flip the Script on OCD Before It Flips You Out

OCD had flipped the script on her but soon enough she flipped it right back. Alexandra dug into her feelings to find her way again.

Locate Your Own Full Feelings First

First, she allowed herself to feel her strong desire to have the approval and support of her mentor and her anger and disappointment in his not backing her ideas with more encouragement. Alexandra also remembered how quickly and easily she empathized with others and took on their positions even at the expense of her own.

This step enabled her to reclaim her solidity by keeping track of the fullness of her own perspective. Alexandra began to empathize with herself more. She could witness the understandable conflict she had about needing and respecting her advisor while also wanting a solid connection to her own voice irrespective of him.

As soon as Alexandra made these connections, the intrusive thoughts vanished, and she felt back to her solid self. Even better, now that she was grounded again, she could have constructive responses to her advisor's critiques and even find creative ways of incorporating them into her own new insights. She could take advantage of her receptivity to the complex perspective of others and creatively integrate it with her own.

Reclaiming the Best of Both Worlds

Instead of losing herself totally or feeling like the world itself was vanishing away, Alexandra could hold on to both. Instead of the sadistic, impersonal critic that OCD tried to induce, she tapped into the creative power of all those positive traits Jonathan Grayson noted above.

Emotionally, OCD tries to censor aspects of difficult, often conflicted feelings and convince us that the solution is really to keep tinkering with OCD's sideshow. Instead, if we lend that big heart of empathy to ourselves instead of using it to rescue the other or save the whole world, we'll find our footing and solidity again.

Flipping the Script by Embracing the Reverse Side

Stephen Dunn's poem The Reverse Side beautifully illustrates the process of holding on to ourselves while being open to new ideas and emotions that further complexity and mystery.

As the speaker tells one seemingly absolute truth, he quickly feels a fool, "as if a deck inside us has been shuffled/and there it is—the opposite/of what we said." So slippery and humbling is this process, he wonders if it's why as we fall in love, we are already falling out of it too.

This is a great description of how OCD makes us feel. One moment, we might be feeling totally fine and self-assured, and the next, it is like our whole sense of the world and our very existence are in question.

For those with OCD, there is a quickness to see the problematic, negative, and maddening sides of this openness to multiple perspectives. But Dunn redeems it as a noble and beautiful human gift, all the while commiserating that it isn't easy to maintain our bearings.

Dunn says this is why "the terrified and simple/latch onto one story/just one version of the great mystery." Similarly, ERP can be so difficult because we are constantly trying to just hold on to one version of the great mystery, the one that proves our worst fears of OCD as totally right.

Step 2: Embrace Your Negative Capability

OCD can strike as a cruel and sadistic Kafkaesque torturer but it can lead us to what poet John Keats called negative capability: the capacity to accept and embrace the complexities, mysteries, and beauty of what is not fully understood by logic alone. Dunn acknowledges the difficulty and challenge of negative capability, writing "How do we not go crazy/we who have found ourselves compelled/to live with the circle, the ellipsis, the word/not yet written."

This second step of flipping the script on OCD involves cultivating the richness of negative capability. This is an aesthetic and creative extension of the ERP premise of tolerating uncertainty. It reanimates the world and accepts and embraces its beauty, meaning, and order even with its ambiguous moments that throw us off balance.

When we integrate these two sides—an enormously imaginative, active, and roving mind with an open, searching, and tender heart—we have flipped the script on OCD. Like Dunn's speaker, we have found a way to live with the circle and the ellipsis, and paradoxically, we also find a straight line back to the center of ourselves.

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