Enjoying the Messy, Uncertain Process
Rushing to get to an outcome—and certainty—makes you miss much of life.
Posted Jan 13, 2021
As a person with OCD, my brain wants me to finish things. Completion equates to certainty, and there’s nothing OCD loves more than certainty. The process of achieving the outcome, whatever it may be, is to be “gotten through” as quickly as possible, because the process is one big messy and uncomfortable mass of uncertainty.
“Getting Through” Things
I’ve lived much of my life this way, “getting through” things so I can be at the end, breathe a sigh of relief for one minute or even one second at having achieved “completion,” and then do it all over again. As a result, I’ve also missed much of life.
When my horse, Lee, died in July of 2020, my biggest regret was that I didn’t savor every moment of my 16 years with him. I try to be self-compassionate about this because no one is fully present every minute of their lives. I had also untreated OCD for a number of our years together, meaning that more often than not, I was lost in the debilitating and relentless obsessive-compulsive cycle, even when I appeared completely fine on the outside.
The Time-Stealing Quest for Distraction, Perfection, and Absolution
But what further accelerated time speeding by, right before my eyes, was my workaholism, what I call my "Quest for perfection, distraction, and absolution" in Is Fred in the Refrigerator?: Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life. A maladaptive coping mechanism I developed to manage OCD, the Quest pushed me to always be focused on accomplishing tasks, as that activity would distract me from the pain of my OCD. If I could also create a perfect outcome while working on said task, people would then tell me what a good job I’d done, which I’d take as reassurance that I was a good person, and that would absolve me of my “wrongdoing.” Because in my mind I must have done something horribly wrong to feel as anxious and guilty as I often felt.
But of course, the Quest just reinforced the OCD cycle and stole more time from my life. I have known this for quite a while, but workaholism became a monster in its own right many years ago, and I still can find myself inadvertently setting out on Quests.
When Lee died, it reinforced what I already knew: that any Quest-driven accomplishments mean close to nothing in the grand scheme of life. That the relentless focus on “getting through" things, getting to completion, getting to some sort of validation or praise, causes us to lose the most valuable asset any of us have, the precious seconds and minutes and hours that make up our lives.
Again, I’m not beating myself up about the time I’ve lost, as I did the best I could with the challenges I had, as we all do. But I am making one big change in 2021. I am going to become better at slowing down and enjoying the messy, uncertain process of life.
Enjoying the Messy, Uncertain Process
What does “enjoying the messy, uncertain process” mean? Let me give you an example. I’ve working on my third book, a murder mystery called A Day to Die about the true price of secrets we keep from ourselves. It’s related to my therapy and advocacy work and my past books because one of the main characters has OCD. Enjoying the process of writing A Day to Die means:
I allow all the negative thoughts and feelings to be present as I write.
For instance, “Who do you think you are? You can’t write a mystery novel! It’s going to be terrible. It will never be published! People will think it’s stupid! Why are you wasting your precious time on something that will amount to nothing?” (Yes, my brain is an abusive jerk at times.) All these doomsday predictions cause fear and doubt.
But as a person in recovery for more than a decade from OCD, I have fear and doubt’s number, and I use my blackbelt exposure and response prevention (ERP) skills to both expect and welcome them along for the ride.
But I do not allow these thoughts and feelings to drive my decisions.
Because if fear and doubt are leading, I’m right back where I was: trying to get through things to achieve an outcome where hopefully fear and doubt will be pacified. And the big irony is … they never will be! It doesn’t matter how much you achieve or how perfect you are, fear and doubt are only going to want more.
Instead, I act as though the worries are irrelevant.
Therefore, my goal now is to use the underlying tenet of exposure therapy that I discuss in detail in Fred of putting my shoulders back and acting as though the worries and accompanying feelings aren’t relevant. If I act like the worries matter, I hem and haw over every word I write, discard my in-process manuscript for being “not good enough,” make endless changes to try to hit perfection, and never get the book written. If I put my shoulders back and act like all those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are irrelevant, then:
- I listen to and trust my characters as they guide me in revealing their stories,
- I allow my artistic side to flourish as I sketch compelling scenes that make the reader want to turn the page,
- I finish the book,
- And—perhaps most importantly—I’m present for more of my life, even though it sometimes feels messy and uncomfortable. But the best parts of life often are.
Many of us with OCD live our lives on a Quest to prove our worth and thereby eliminate fear and doubt. But the only thing you truly lose are the precious minutes that make up your life. Don’t let OCD or fear or doubt steal any more time. Join me in 2021 in learning how to slow down and enjoy the messy, uncertain process. After all, that's often where the real magic of life happens.
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