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OCD Is a Tug-of-War That You Win by Letting Go

Outsmart OCD by making peace with doubt.

Key points

  • OCD is like a tug-of-war that starts when you try to overpower doubt with reassurance.
  • Doubt always wins the tug-of-war in the long-run, because true certainty is unattainable.
  • The only winning strategy is to let go of the rope and allow doubt to tumble under its own force.

We all love a good underdog story. We are enthralled by tales of unlikely triumph over adversity. Perhaps it’s because we feel like underdogs ourselves, and these stories tell us that it’s possible to overcome life’s challenges. David, Rocky, and Forest Gump all start out with the cards stacked against them but emerge from their conflicts as heroes. It is gratifying to think that maybe we can do the same.

A more recent example of a triumphant underdog comes from the Korean TV show The Squid Game. If you’ve seen the show, then you will likely recall the tug-of-war scene, where the protagonist and his motley crew of infirm allies outwit a more powerful group of competitors to win the tug-of-war.

The scene offers an important lesson for suffers of OCD who sometimes feel powerless in their battle with the “doubting disease.” It shows that you don’t need force to overpower a stronger foe. You can win by using clever strategy instead. The critical moment in the scene occurs when the weaker team suddenly stops resisting: they leap forward towards their opponent instead of pulling away, causing their rivals to collapse backward under their own forces.

You can learn to do the same and emerge as the hero in your battle with OCD.

Let’s set the stage

The OCD tug-of-war is waged between two characters: there’s you, the protagonist, and there’s the force of doubt, the antagonist. Every scene of OCD begins with an invitation to wrestle with doubt. Your instinct will likely be to pull the rope as hard as you can to try to beat doubt: seeking reassurance, analyzing your thoughts, checking, et cetera. The other option is to let go of the rope by accepting doubt. To see why acceptance is the only winning strategy, let’s take a deeper look.

The nature of doubt in OCD

Very little in life is guaranteed. There is no guarantee, for instance, that you will keep your job, maintain good health, or find love and fulfillment in life. Some people feel secure with the unknowable because they recognize that it’s a normal, unavoidable part of life. They may see negative outcomes as improbable. And otherwise find comfort in believing that they can problem-solve their way through an unanticipated crisis, or adapt to the consequences.

In OCD however, uncertainty about an obsession is often experienced as catastrophic and interminable. The story goes: If X is not guaranteed, then the opposite of X is true.

If I can’t guarantee that my hands are clean, then they are contaminated.

If I can’t guarantee that I am safe, then I am in danger.

If I can’t guarantee that I won’t do something bad, then I likely will.

OCD tries to persuade you that uncertainty is a problem. It tells you that you’re in danger because you can’t prove that you are not, and goads you into a tug-of-war with doubt. It says: You think you are clean? Safe? Innocent? Normal? Good? In love? Then prove it!

Desperate to alleviate the anxiety that this triggers, you accept the challenge.

Enter the force of reassurance

Something inside of you steps up, picks up the rope, and wraps it around your hand. If uncertainty is a problem, it declares, then let’s eliminate the uncertainty.

Let’s clean until every conceivable contaminant, visible or not, is washed away.

Let’s check and double-check and make sure there’s no possibility that some unwanted catastrophe could transpire.

Let’s make sure to never think anything wrong, harmful, or bad.

Let’s get all the information that exists on a topic so that we can have a guarantee against unwanted possibilities.

The goal here is to overpower uncertainty with absolutes—to tug back forcefully against doubt, and to find relief by performing reassuring rituals.

You are now locked into the tug-of-war

Doubt pulls you towards fear and discomfort, and you pull back towards reassurance and relief. This push-and-pull consumes you, and you give all your energy to finding assurances and guarantees—washing, checking, researching, analyzing, et cetera. Sometimes, you gain an edge, and you find some relief, but the reassurance always seems short-lived. Inevitably, doubt muscles its way back into the tug-of-war and pulls you yet again towards the terrifying unknown.

Why does doubt inevitably regain the edge?

Because true certainty, absolute guarantees, do not exist. Risk, relativity, and imperfection are baked into life from the start. In the OCD tug-of-war, doubt enjoys a major field advantage because it is aligned with the actual state of the world.

You can’t, in fact, guarantee that your hands are clean.

You can’t guarantee absolute safety.

You can’t prevent all unwanted outcomes.

You can’t prove that you’ll never harm someone.

You can’t prove that your relationship will last forever.

You can’t prove that you are perfectly pure of thought and intention.

This may be quite discouraging. If none of these assurances are attainable, won’t everything I fear come true?

Of course not. Why?

Because doubt and assurance are states of knowledge, not states of the world

Uncertainty describes what you know, not what will happen. Having doubt means you lack total knowledge or proof, not that you are in danger. When I sit at my breakfast table, I cannot predict what will happen on my commute to work. The permutations are innumerable. But that doesn’t forebode a car accident. Because my lack of knowledge does not entail a lack of safety.

Sure, knowledge and preparedness are often correlated. Having knowledge can help mitigate risk. But knowledge can never be absolute. There will always be a measure of doubt. And one’s mental database will always amount to a mere fraction of the full range of possibilities.

The real problem isn’t doubt; it’s wrestling with doubt

OCD is not defined by having doubts. Rather, OCD is defined by the unrelenting search for absolutes in an uncertain life. When you begin to tangle with doubt, you start a battle that you cannot win. The suffering lies in the pursuit of the unattainable, and the tension that’s created by pulling away from what is natural and true: that life comes without guarantees.

Like the team of feeble contenders in The Squid Game, your battle with doubt is hopeless unless you change your strategy. Fortunately, there is another way.

How can you outsmart the powerful doubts that drive OCD?

Choose to see doubt as natural. Accept it instead of fighting it. What happens in a tug-of-war when you suddenly let go of the rope? All of the force your opponent is using against you betrays them, and they buckle under their own forces. Likewise, instead of seeking unattainable reassurances, recognize and accept that your OCD-related questions do not have absolute answers. When you accept the unknown, you disempower the OCD, because doubt can never win a tug-of-war without your resistance.

OCD recovery occurs when you let go consistently

Instead of pulling away from doubt, you must move towards it. Pulling away creates tension. Moving towards doubt decreases it. When one opponent approaches the other in a tug-of-war, the rope loosens up. The trick to overcoming OCD is to accept doubt every time you are invited to tangle with it so that there is rarely any tension in the rope.

Everything we know about effective OCD therapies typifies this goal. Exposure and response prevention (ERP)—the front-line treatment for OCD—helps people make peace with what they fear. And it helps them develop a sense of safety and comfort with the unknown. In our tug-of-war analogy, exposure helps a person move towards doubt, to willingly go into feared situations without a guarantee. And response prevention helps a person let go of the rope, the rituals designed to provide a sense of certainty and control. When a sufferer begins to reverse the direction of force and embrace uncertainty instead of resisting it, they begin to develop a sense of safety in not knowing and soon emerge triumphant over the doubting disease.

How will your tug-of-war end?

In The Squid Game, the team of seemingly ineffectual misfits changes their fate when they stop pulling away from their opponents and shift towards them instead. But before they make that choice, the scene is tense. They are unsure the strategy will work, and some of the team members are skeptical. It seems like a risky play. Why willingly give up the little power that you have against a stronger foe? But as their rivals continue to outmuscle them, they realize there is no other way. The sweaty protagonist implores his teammates, “We might as well try!” A sense of resignation washes over the squad. “Okkkaaaayy!” they shout back in the agony of their overexertion. With everyone on the same page, the leader starts the countdown. “Three, two, one!” On cue and in perfect unison, they all take a daring leap forward.

It works! The rope loosens up, their rivals tumble backwards, and the frail motley crew of underdogs emerges victorious.

Perhaps you are currently living through a version of this scene. How will your tug-of-war ensue? Will you try to pull back forcefully against insurmountable doubt? Or will you take a daring leap forward and become the hero of your underdog story?