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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

5 Things Everyone Needs to Understand About OCD

1. No, it's not the same as perfectionism.

Key points

  • There are many myths and misconceptions about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • OCD involves intrusive, distressing thoughts and repetitive, ritualistic habits that attempt to resolve the anxiety of those thoughts.
  • A few misconceptions about OCD are that the disorder is synonymous with perfectionism and that everyone with OCD is neat or afraid of germs.

There are few psychological disorders that appear to be as misunderstood as OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. For many people, it has made its way into everyday slang, frequently used to describe simple perfectionistic tendencies or a persnickety personality type. For all the social media memes that pretend to diagnose OCD just by virtue of bothering you with uneven stacks of books or paintings that are slightly off-kilter, the real truth is much more serious: OCD can be debilitating.

So, what is OCD, really? Recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it involves a struggle with intrusive, distressing thoughts—those are the obsessions—and also repetitive, ritualistic habits that attempt to resolve the anxiety of those thoughts. Those ritualistic patterns of behavior are the compulsions. Though not everyone with OCD has both, most do, and by definition, these vicious cycles of thoughts and behaviors cause intense distress and significant disruption to daily life. Thankfully, there is hope, and there are several effective treatment options.

For more clarity on the vast differences between how our culture uses the word "OCD" and what the psychological disorder itself is truly like, read on.

Myth 1: OCD means you’re a perfectionist.

No. In our lexicon, "OCD" may seem synonymous with "anal," but that is a misperception that often has no basis in reality. People with OCD often feel out of control, lost in the cycle of obsessions and compulsions, and may feel like perfection is nowhere to be found.

It's not about wanting things exactly right. It's about a continual struggle to quiet the itchy thoughts that keep intruding, and the compulsions that are desperate attempts to scratch those itches.

Myth 2: OCD means you’re extremely neat or afraid of germs.

Also no. Though some individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder may have specific obsessions involving fears of contamination, and compulsions that have to do with hand-washing, many don't. The obsessive thoughts can be about anything distressing under the sun, and contamination fears—though on the upswing since COVID—are just one subtype. And many people who hoard items to the point of unsafe living conditions are actually suffering from obsessive-compulsive symptomology. (Hoarding disorder is closely related.)

Myth 3: OCD is just a personality type.

It’s not. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a genuine psychological disorder that can cause immense upset and challenges, and people of many different personalities may suffer from it.

Contributing to the confusion is that there is also a personality disorder that bears the name of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, but those folks may not have obsessions or compulsions at all. (Confusing indeed!)

Myth 4: People with OCD just need to relax.

Again—nope. A person with OCD most definitely is struggling with anxiety, but it stems from the continual intrusion of obsessive, upsetting thought cycles, and patterns of habits that they feel may be taking over their lives. People with OCD often feel like their brains are their worst enemies. Telling a person with OCD to relax is about as helpful as telling a depressed person to “just be happy.” (Don’t do it!)

Myth 5: OCD is just the way you are, and can’t be helped.

Thankfully, this one is just as wrong as the others. When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder, even severe cases, there are plenty of reasons for hope. Particular types of cognitive-behavioral therapy like ERP (exposure and response prevention) have shown very promising levels of efficacy, and various medications—including SSRI anti-depressants—have shown positive effects as well. If you are suffering from OCD, please don't stay silent. Reach out to a reputable mental health specialist soon—you are not alone.

To find a therapist to treat OCD, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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