What’s OCD and What Isn’t

To help people understand OCD a little better, here are some simple OCD and non-OCD examples.

Not OCD = washing your hands frequently.

OCD = washing your hands because you looked at a bottle of poison, and worry that poison particles might have floated onto your hands.

Not OCD = keeping a clean house, and being tidy to a fault.

OCD = cleaning your house even though you don’t want to, because of an object that touched something that touched something that touched something else that might have touched something dirty months ago that has since been cleaned, and now all of these objects are probably contaminated.

Not OCD = being conscious and careful about germs.

OCD = worrying that germs can travel in ways they actually don’t, or believing that certain numbers or colors are associated with the spread of germs (i.e. “If I looked at something blue/the number X, I’ll probably get sick”).

Not OCD = enjoying routines and following rules.

OCD = following routines and rules that you hate because you feel like if you don’t, something bad will happen.

Not OCD = keeping objects straight and neat.

OCD = readjusting an object even though you know it probably is straight, because it just doesn’t feel right.

It’s impossible to diagnose OCD based on one symptom alone and as you can see, the problem has less to do with being clean or orderly and more to do with being unable to tolerate even a small amount of uncertainty. People with OCD are more aware and afraid of uncertainty than other people. We obsess over something that might happen as though it probably will, or already has happened. We do this not because we’re uptight or even generally excessive worriers, but because our brains tell us something is wrong. It’s the same feeling we get when something actually is wrong, like when we get injured or make a serious mistake, so it’s the most difficult feeling in the world to ignore — but we must learn to ignore it. That’s why beating OCD is so difficult.

OCD isn’t something that inspires us to be cleaner, neater, and more efficient in our lives; it’s something that holds us back, because it means our brains are telling us we have to deal with problems that don’t even exist. Certainly, people with OCD can be more detail-oriented, good at focusing, and observant — and if so, we can learn to use those powers to our advantage. But those things are not the essence of OCD, and not the core of our problem.

19 thoughts on “What’s OCD and What Isn’t

  1. Tintod says:

    Thanks for writing this. I’m so tired of the “I’m so OCD” throwaway comments. I attempted to address this as well: http://www.junkfed.com/ocd-cool

  2. whenwemumble says:

    I have OCD as well, I’ve found it’s extremely hard to explain to others!

    • willitbeok says:

      Yep, it’s really hard for other people to understand. And I think that may be because of a simple human fault — we tend to assume that others think/feel like we do in a given situation. So when we behave in a certain way, others, not knowing what OCD feels like, assume we must be doing it for the same reason THEY would be doing it, IF they did it, which results in them getting the reasons all wrong (thinking we are just uptight, controlling, worry too much, etc.) It is about worrying of course, but it’s more complicated than that…

      • PurplesShade says:

        A friend introduced me to a phrase to describe that phenomena a while ago. “cloning the monkey”

        Where in a person assumes that what others would think or do will be the same thing or at least similar to what they themselves would think or do.

  3. britney7714 says:

    I’m really happy to see this. I have Tourette syndrome and one common thing that comes hand in hand with it is OCD and sooo many people go around saying that they are OCD because they like things to be clean and that’s not all it is. I’m glad someone pointed all of this out.

  4. Oh I just love this post because you give excellent examples of what OCD is and is not. So easy to understand. Great job!

  5. PurplesShade says:

    Thank you for writing this quick guide, I’ll definitely point people at it if I see someone playing fast and loose with the term.

    Though of course OCD is complicated and messy, leaving room for a third option, when it’s both. Someone who has an ordering or cleaning OCD might possibly also enjoy keeping a well maintained house, but in that case the enjoyment masks the fact that sometimes they feel like there is no choice, like it HAS to be clean, and not just clean, it’s got to be “just so”.

    • willitbeok says:

      Yep; there is OCPD as well, where the person *is* excessively orderly in general. And while I actually keep a pretty messy house, I am a generally orderly person in many other ways, who enjoys following rules and routines. But those routines that I enjoy I consider separate from my OCD routines which are more like a prison I’m being kept in.

      • PurplesShade says:

        Indeed! Sometimes I wonder if my sister (who is my real-life example of a fastidious person who is also OCD) might have OCPD on top of her OCD. <.<

        Makes sense to me; it's not like we can't have separate likes or wants for our space that aren't to do with OCD. 🙂

        OCD could even be in conflict with how you want to keep your space, mine was.
        I like having a neat and clean space, whereas my OCD wanted every smooth surface smothered in clothes and junk, lest who-knows-what might happen.
        That compulsion caused a very bitter battle in my brain whilst I had it.

  6. maximusaurus says:

    Well said! Like depression, OCD is trivialized because people use it in such a throwaway context. For those of us living with it, it only makes it harder for people to understand our experience.

  7. Thank you!! especially for that last paragraph. i seem to meet a lot of people who think ocd is something useful. you summed up exactly why it is not.

    • willitbeok says:

      Well, I do like to try and stay positive, so I do also try to find the “silver lining” of my OCD sometimes. I’m sure it does come along with some benefits if we look closely enough, but those are side effects, and it’s important for people to recognize how OCD is a debilitating disorder. I was sitting down at Starbucks yesterday worrying about having my cup seam aligned with the lid and java jacket “just right” and thinking about how much I might enjoy life more if I didn’t have thoughts like that causing me anxiety all the time. It’s not that I wanted my cup to be a certain way, but that I couldn’t focus on anything else until it was, even though I’d rather not think about it. Sometimes I feel like there is a whole world passing me by while I stay in my little bubble of obsessional worrying.

  8. Matt Marinello says:

    Awesome post. OCPD is often confused with OCD. They do occur alongside each other often. I finally found a med that helps decrease the obsessions. Zoloft. There is a good ocd forum called stuck in the doorway i think. I’m hoping I’ll be able to eventually plan out my days someday. I don’t know if its ocd or ocpd but I have a lot of doubt when making plans, and I’m very detailed about everything. I plan out everything. Like when I should listen to music and take a break from studying. exactly how much time to spend on each subject. etcetera. In a way ocpd maybe ocd…. just expressed differently. I mean i really worry too much about having a perfect daily plan like if i don’t then the world will end. so it could be ocd.

    • willitbeok says:

      I’m glad you found Zoloft helps with the obsessions! I will look for that “Stuck in the Doorway” forum. I don’t know about planning out my days; I actually feel better when I limit my planning because planning too much increases my stress, and I tend to focus negatively on the things I failed to do rather than the things I successfully accomplished. But every person is different in that way. You are right that OCPD and OCD can be very similar and overlapping. It could be OCD if you feel like something bad will happen if you don’t plan.

      • Matt Marinello says:

        I don’t think my OCPD is at the clinical level anymore, but it was pretty bad between 2004-2006. I just grew out of it a little bit and used the mantra “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” which helped.

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