I have worked with many individuals diagnosed with OCD. The reason they come to me is not because I am an expert specialist in OCD, but because of the heightened levels of anxiety that inspire compulsive behaviors they use to quell that anxiety.
See, OCD is about control. That is why I am not writing this article about OCD. I am writing it about anxiety and control.
Everyone with OCD has their own set of behavioral responses to anxiety and a perceived lack of control over themselves or the events of their lives. Common behaviors are ritualistic, like aggressively washing one's hands a certain number of times before they can be considered clean, or counting steps on stairs to make sure they are mounted in a certain order. Others are more obsessive, such as overwhelmingly ruminative thoughts about how an activity, such as going to the grocery store or going out on a date, is going to go. These obsessive thoughts focus hard on the potential outcome - likely of it going poorly - that the individual talks themselves out of doing it at all because the idea of the event now seems utterly terrifying or even life-threatening.
In any of these cases, the individual undergoes a process of experiencing anxiety and then seeking to ease the stress response with obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors in hopes of taking back control of their feeling state and forcing a renewed homeostasis.
I see this same process occurring a lot for almost anybody, entrepreneurs all the way to married couples, many of whom do not come anywhere close to meeting diagnostic criteria for OCD. When I see it in my own clients, I dig deeper into what they are trying to control. The normal answer is: "my anxiety, duh..."
That is not true, though. Anxiety is another response to something.
Anxiety occurs when your regular expectation of daily events is disrupted - uncertainty about a crush calling you back or suddenly being told that you have to give a speech in front of coworkers - or when you believe that you have either lost or will lose something. Both scenarios present a lack of control.
Real Life Example
One of my clients was afraid that he would somehow lose or forget his ability to handle stressful situations when in a stressful situation, and that fear added to his anxiety about whatever the stressful situation was. In his case, his ability to deal with stressful situations was a cool combination of his creativity and independence, both of which he regularly used to be successful in his work as well.
Because of this, he mentally held on to this combo of skills so tightly because he did not want to lose them when stress came along. The problem was that he unknowingly created more anxiety and tension by holding on so tightly in his mind, which was an attempt to prevent future stress.
He held on so tightly to a shield in defense of a threat that was not there yet.
In doing so, he was unable to be present at work or in his relationship.
He was not trying to control his anxiety. He was trying to control his creativity and independence in order to fight the anxiety, but he ended up causing more.
Use Your Imagination
One day I guided that client through a meditative visualization to address his excessive focus on control. He described his creativity / independence combo as a little gremlin that he had on a leash but which was bouncing all over the place, growling, and fighting against the leash all the time. This created tension and stress in my client because the attempt at control felt like a constant battle.
In the visualization, I asked my client to imagine what the positive, opposite version of the gremlin would look like or behave like.
My client imagined a pudgy french bulldog...which was amazing.
After we discussed the characteristics of the cute pudgy bulldog, I asked my client to reach down and take the leash off of the dog and throw the leash in a nearby garbage can. After he did so, I asked how the dog behaved.
My client reported that the dog sniffed around, got a little far ahead on the sidewalk, scoped out a park real quick, even stepped into the street, but then wandered back to walk next to my client. In fact, any time it went out to explore, it always came back without being asked. There was no more battling. In its place there was trust between my client and the powerful parts of him that he wanted to make sure were not going to run away and be gone forever. Furthermore, the visualization proceeded to demonstrate that my client knew the bulldog would be safe even when it ran out into the street.
What It All Means
Though this is an imaginative metaphor of transforming a gremlin into a bulldog, the fact remains that you cannot actually lose the characteristic about yourself or your life that you so wish to protect. It will not die unless you choose to change it. As a result, there is no need to hold on to a leash for dear life and miss out on enjoying all of the parts of your day during which you currently feel unnecessarily stressed.
What about yourself are you trying to hold on to and protect?
What fun image comes to mind of what it looks like for you?
It does not have to be a bulldog, or an animal at all.
No matter what your imagination transforms your characteristic into, you must trust that it will be there for you at all times even if you are not holding on to it all the time.
For those of you more literal than imaginative out there, think about this: THIS IS ALL HAPPENING INSIDE YOUR MIND, WHICH IS LITERALLY CONTAINED INSIDE OF YOUR SKULL. That means that this trait that you want to protect is actually already naturally protected and kept within reach inside you already.
So relax, and throw away that leash.