- Empathy can be a hidden strength for people with OCD.
- Without support and harnessing, the strength can become a burden.
- Validating and tracking the sensitivity enables people to reclaim OCD's hidden gifts.
Wait, don’t most people with OCD want to get rid of the magical thinking that torments them? Of course, they do! But there’s another magic hidden underneath OCD that hasn’t been spotlighted.
A Sensibility of Sensitivity
If you have OCD, you’re probably well aware of it. It’s the sixth sense of compassion and empathy that makes it easy to deeply feel and imagine the pain and suffering of others. You quickly notice the sadness, fear, or worry in others right now or even have the uncanny capacity to detect feelings from years past, the intergenerational trauma that Galit Atlas refers to as our emotional inheritance. You’re so tuned in that you respond as if such feelings and experiences are your very own.
Research is confirming this hidden strength. A July 2021 study from Germany found that individuals with OCD show higher empathy levels compared to healthy controls. They shared the suffering of others in both their self-reports and in a naturalistic task designed to test empathy in real time. OCD sufferers also reported more distress over the heightened empathy than healthy controls.
Another review of studies showed that those with OCD report being more emotionally responsive and more likely to feel in tune with others in comparison to healthy controls. Such responsiveness is at the heart of what makes therapists so effective, and yet for those with OCD, it is missing one crucial piece: the needed self-empathy to provide balance and stability.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
The gift of heightened empathy comes with its own heartache. Your keen powers of reading others and absorbing their emotions can take a toll. It can be confusing, exhausting, and lonely to take in all that information. Like Peter Parker’s sensitivity to his neighbor Mary Jane’s pain at the hands of an abusive father and insensitive boyfriend, not to mention his attunement to the rest of New York’s residents as Spiderman, it’s challenging to be burdened with this hidden strength. It’s easy to push your own feelings aside because you are frequently compelled to respond to what’s around you first.
Another shadow side of heightened empathy is the a perpetual fear of loss, harm, and death. Most people recognize the common adage that the more one is capable of love, the more one is in touch with grief. Here is a clue to the profound sensitivity to loss and existential concerns that so often plague individuals with OCD.
Like introversion and high sensitivity, OCD might be the result of a temperament viewed from the wrong angle. What if OCD were not a deficit but the inability to tap into, support, and harness the magic and power of OCD’s naturally well-developed empathy? What if we could improve the progress and pride of those with OCD by celebrating this strength? And what if we could support it with equal measures of self-compassion and self-interest?
Here’s how to start.
1. Notice and Validate Your Innate Sensitivity.
Notice your own quickness to tap into and sense the emotions of others around you, and witness it as your first step.
During the winter of the pandemic, the basement became a bunker from which my 2-year-old son and I could pretend that life was going on as usual. One day, while we were in the midst of some new exploits, him telling me where his pretend tire and bagel stores were located and running around from place to place, I found him exploring some boxes by himself.
My eyes wandered to my old piano bench, and straight out of the D.H. Lawrence poem Piano I suddenly recalled both the joyful memories of my mother nurturing my playing and my profound sadness that she never had the chance to meet my son. In a nanosecond, my son asked me, “Dada, why are you sad?”
It was both a surprise and a confirmation. The surprise was how uncannily and quickly he noticed the inner microshift in my emotional weather and how accurate he was at labeling the core of it. He really had no reason to know or sense that I was sad; it was completely internal. Even in a moment of just being together and him not really playing with me directly, he noticed a subtle energy shift. The confirmation came in recognizing his typical empathic perceptiveness, the sort of sensitivity that, if not tended to and noticed, easily degenerates into OCD.
2. Find Confirmation in What Is Not Yours.
Get clarity on what is not yours so you don't get caught up in others' emotional storms.
I told my son that he was right; for a moment, I was sad because I was thinking of somebody who I missed and loved very much. As quickly as his observation of my mood shift occurred, he resumed his own flow. Even before I told him the conclusion that I was fine and that it’s OK to miss people you love, he was already back to his own preoccupations.
By confirming the reality and validity of his sensitivity and his ability to deeply connect, I gave my son the capacity to draw on his power of deep empathy and not let it become a confusing, overwhelming experience for him. Imagine how different it might be if I told him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, buddy. Everything is fine! Let’s keep playing,” or worse, “There you go being silly again with your worries; that's just nonsense.”
3. Track How Your Feelings Morph into Doubts and Moral Judgments.
If you or others don't validate such issues, be mindful of how quickly they can degenerate into obsessional doubts and moral judgments.
Any kind of denial or minimization would lead my son to doubt his own perceptions and become self-critical and guilty for making me feel bad. OCD often has us take on moral responsibility for what isn’t fully in our control. The underlying moral judgments might be a way of packaging the confusing feelings to provide more control and punishing himself instead of vice versa. He might also have a lack of closure on his compelling lead and be ever searching to make it, like a bunch of unresolved chords, resolve. It might not truly feel “right” until he got something on the other end to help him do that.
He might even start to conjure a feeling of worry and fear over his magical capacity to negatively affect me, not realizing that he wasn’t truly the source of that emotion in the first place. He would feel overly responsible for something that wasn’t his but that was clearly present. As with Spiderman, without harnessing his great power, it becomes too much responsibility.
Reclaim OCD’s Gift
What if OCD starts out as a profound sensitivity that, when untended to, undersupported, or unaccompanied, becomes a problem rather than a gift? Research is on to something that many with OCD have felt and experienced but have hardly put into words. They’ve certainly not had many people—even well-intentioned and compassionate therapists and loved ones—who’ve looked at OCD from such an angle.
Maybe we can start now and begin a revolution in how we see and treat OCD. And even better, maybe we can harness the empathy so that those with OCD can take better care of themselves and use that empathy to transform the world. Wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?
Aron, E. (2020). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the World Overwhelms You. Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp.
Atlas, G. (2022). Emotional inheritance: Moving beyond the legacy of trauma. Short Books.
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. Broadway Paperbacks.
Jansen, M., Overgaauw, S., & De Bruijn, E. R. (2020). Social Cognition and obsessive-compulsive disorder: A review of subdomains of social functioning. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00118
Salazar Kämpf, M., Kanske, P., Kleiman, A., Haberkamp, A., Glombiewski, J., & Exner, C. (2021). Empathy, compassion, and theory of mind in obsessive‐compulsive disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 95(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/papt.12358