The Best TED Talks for People with OCD: Part 2

Put your shoulders back and "act as though"

Posted Sep 06, 2018

For the second blog post in this series about the best TED Talks for people with OCD, I'm going to take an excerpt from my memoir, Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My LifeIn it, I share how watching Dr. Amy Cuddy's TED Talk, "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are," resulted in one of the most important tools of my OCD recovery: an exposure tool I call "Shoulders Back." 

An Excerpt from Fred

“We watched a great TED Talk that I think you might find interesting,” my dad said, as we talked on the phone one evening in early 2014. “It’s called ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,’ and it’s given by a researcher out of Harvard named Amy Cuddy.”

My parents, voracious readers and consumers of educational programming, were always a fount of useful information. But neither my parents nor I knew how influential Dr. Cuddy’s talk would turn out to be for me.

What she proposed made sense. When people are feeling powerful, she said, they open up their stances, making themselves bigger. But when they aren’t feeling so mighty, they close in on themselves, hunching over. A person’s body language communicates how she is feeling. But more important is that the opposite is also true: people can influence how they think and feel by their choice of body language. Cuddy’s research has shown that if someone adopts a “high power pose” for two minutes, that changes levels of some key hormones, making the person feel more powerful.

As I finished her talk, my mind whirled with the beginnings of an idea. Wasn’t that one of OCD’s biggest moves, striking a power pose? After all, that’s exactly what it was doing when it changed into the Triad of Hell, right? Wasn’t it making itself bigger and scarier?

Couldn’t I do the same thing? 

© Can Stock Photo / nikitabuida
Source: © Can Stock Photo / nikitabuida

Deciding to try out my theory when OCD started to bellyache about my potentially having left the stove on at home after I arrived at my office one day, I stood up, threw my shoulders back, put my hands on my hips, and adopted the same haughty, arrogant tone that OCD used with me.

“I may or may not have left the stove on when I left the house this morning,” I said. “My house may be burning down right now. I may kill all my pets. But I want this anxiety and uncertainty because I want to get better.”

Huh, I thought. It was sort of funny, standing here like Wonder Woman while speaking imperiously at the wall. I said my script again, as forcefully and powerfully as I could.

“I may or may not have left the stove on. I may or may not be burning down the house and killing all my pets. But bring it on, OCD, BRING IT ON!”

I continued saying variations on my script for two minutes, throwing my shoulders back as far as I could. It was incredible. Standing tall and speaking powerfully did seem to make me feel more powerful. 

I started doing power poses every time I talked back to my OCD, to give myself that little boost of confidence, to make myself feel bigger and more powerful than my still somewhat ornery disorder.

It was working. I was on to something.

About a year later, Dr. Reid Wilson helped me understand why.

Shoulders Back

Looking at the people seated in a circle around him during a roundtable at the IOCDF conference, Reid said, “You need to act like the content is irrelevant. I’m not saying you’ll believe it is or that it will feel like it’s irrelevant, but I’m saying you need to act as though it is.”

Years earlier I’d learned from Reid that OCD’s content—all that mental garbage about rabies, AIDS, not pleasing people, and so on—was meaningless. Now he was adding a twist, one he would describe in detail a few years later in his book Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry. He was saying I needed to make a conscious effort to act as though what OCD was saying didn’t matter, a subtle but tectonic shift in how to approach my monster.

“If my OCD is worried I’ve offended someone and I throw my shoulders back, I’m acting as though I’m okay with not being in control of what that person thinks,” I said to myself as I walked down the casino-carpeted hall after Reid’s session, processing what he’d said. “If I give credibility to what OCD threatens, I’ll act scared, meek, as if I’ve done something wrong. But if I’m acting as though, I’m going to act confident. I’m going to throw my shoulders back and act like what OCD taunts me about doesn’t matter.”

I decided to try something new. Whenever my OCD bothered me, I would simply throw my shoulders back and go on with my day.

I could hardly believe the power of my new exposure strategy.

One small posture change brought my OCD to its knees.

After adopting this technique, I rarely needed to use my “may or may not” statements. They were required on those infrequent occasions when my OCD was able to trick me into getting lost in its storytelling and I mindlessly began the pas de deux of mental rituals. Once I started mentally dancing with my OCD for any length of time, I found it challenging to stop without saying “may or may not” statements out loud. Doing so was using OCD’s content against it, forcing it to face feared thoughts without the crutch of mental rituals, until it recognized that what it was worried about was indeed just uncertainty—uncertainty over which we had no control.

The majority of the time, however, when something triggered my OCD, the union of “shoulders back” with “acting as though” worked beautifully. Because in throwing my shoulders back, I was owning the uncertain truth of the “may or may not” statements without having to verbalize them or give any credence to the stories OCD was telling.

Excerpt Copyright © 2018 by Shala Nicely

Bringing OCD to its Knees

Sometimes I become complacent in using Shoulders Back. Preparing this blog post, however, reminded me it's the most powerful tool in my arsenal. I employed it every time OCD tried to strike in the past week, and I'm just amazed at how Shoulders Back shuts it down. My OCD is left speechless, because it knows that nothing it says will matter, because I'm not going to have any mental conversations with it, and I'm not going to anything it wants. As a result, my OCD has become a lot quieter in general. I'm envisioning that it's thinking, "Well, why bother? Shala's just going to do Shoulders Back, whatever I do. Might as well go back to my knitting and leave her alone."

The next time OCD strikes, put your shoulders back and act as though what OCD is saying doesn't matter. To quote Reid again, “You need to act like the content is irrelevant. I’m not saying you’ll believe it is or that it will feel like it’s irrelevant, but I’m saying you need to act as though it is.” Try out this powerful exposure technique, using the Shoulders Back playlist for inspiration, and see if it helps you, too, to bring your OCD to its knees. 

To learn more about how I use Shoulders Back, especially with obsessions and compulsions related to people pleasing, please see Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life.