OCD and Guilt: Your Get Out of Jail Free Card

Breaking free from OCD can be quite troublesome when the obsession is accompanied with guilt or shame.

Hold on though…Not all guilt is bad. Right? Guilt causes people to fall in line and properly behave. We’re socialized to feel guilt so that we learn to control our behavior and emotions. If people feel guilt or shame they’ll be less likely to do anything wrong.

We’ve all experienced real or appropriate guilt.

Today at the grocery store I was using the self check-out. I’m proud to say I’ve memorized lots of produce codes. I entered the code 4011 for regular bananas. I was submitting my payment when it suddenly occurred to me that the bananas were organic and therefore I hadn’t paid enough.

I was in a hurry and shrugged, “Oh who cares. It’s 20 cents. Just go.” But then I thought, “No, if you don’t confess to your underpayment, you’ll get in a car accident.”

This is an example of how guilt stabilizes a society and prevents its citizens from wrongful behavior. If you do something bad then there will be a consequence.

Real or appropriate guilt happens when you’ve mis-behaved.  Guilt is the emotional penalty of misconduct.

The problem with OCD is that it generates inappropriate guilt. Nothing bad has to occur in order for you to be overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt adds a whole other dimension to OCD. 

When Should You Feel Guilt or Shame?

It’d be so much easier to break free from OCD if you weren’t dealing with so much inappropriate guilt.

When it comes to OCD, you’ve got to become defiant. OCD will tell you what rules to follow. These rules are not reasonable and will take you down the rabbit hole. You must disobey OCD.

To do that, it helps to have your own set of rules to follow no matter what OCD says.

To make it easier, what if there was a Code of Conduct for you to follow? No matter what OCD says, if you follow this Code of Conduct, you don’t pay the emotional penalty of guilt. Maybe it would be something like this:

(Draft Copy) Code of Conduct:
  • Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
  • Don’t destroy the environment upon which all life depends.
  • Don’t do to yourself what you wouldn’t do to others.
  • Don’t make decisions for people who can make their own.
  • Don’t manipulate and control others.
  • Don’t take care of others when they can take care of themselves.
  • Do to others what you would like them to do to you.
  • Do practice gratitude and express thankfulness.
  • Do put the oxygen mask on yourself first; your mental health must come first.
  • Do help this needy world through acts of kindness, not fear.
  • Do respect a person’s right to self-determination. (A person controls their own life.)
What do you notice about this Code of Conduct
  • Is there a common theme?
  • Is there anything missing? Something you think people should pay the penalty of guilt for, but not mentioned here?
  • Is there something that doesn’t belong?
  • What do you notice about the transfer of responsibility? What are you essentially responsible for? What are other people responsible for?
  • If you stick to these rules would it be appropriate or necessary to still pay the emotional penalty of guilt or shame?

Please leave your answers, questions, and comments. As always I will post them anonymously.  

This publication is part of a series of posts about OCD and guilt. The next post will be “Guilt Beyond Circumstance: A Different Kind of Guilt.”

If you want me to address a certain question about guilt, be sure to leave me a message.

In addition to your other comments, please share what you hope this series of posts about guilt will accomplish.
Thank you for your comments. They mean so much to me and also help others!

2 thoughts on “OCD and Guilt: Your Get Out of Jail Free Card”

  1. Thanks Tammy for this post. I look forward to the series. I would say as a parent of someone with OCD, many of these rang true for me and hopefully our family member with OCD. Thankfully, we have had your guidance, Tammy. But it still is not easy – work in progress. As a parent you want to take control, make it better, take all the untidiness of OCD away. You want it now. But it doesn’t work that way and then parental guilt can be challenging when we don’t perform the way our family member needs us to for their progress. At some point, I recently recognized that obviously this isn’t working and will never work – for anyone in our family. Just let it go. What will be will be. It will all work out eventually. And its ok if it is not perfect. I’m still a parent when I need to be to give that nudge or reminder, but trying to be less judgmental. Who really needs more judging anyway? Gratitude for what is and what is developing. Enjoy the moment and make plans for fun. In the end, these are the things really matter for everyone’s well being in our family.

  2. Well, to start off on a bit of a tangent – I never looked as guilt as “paying a penalty.” I’ve always looked at it as my own moral responsibility. If I intentionally say something hurtful to someone, I may feel guilty a little while later (or even right after). I can remedy the situation, however, by talking to that person again and being sincerely apologetic that I said what I said. I can’t make the other person accept my apology, but I can make an attempt. Another person may say the same thing to someone else and not feel guilty – they may rationalize. “Oh, that person has said hurtful things to me before, so I have no need to feel any guilt about saying something hurtful to him/her.”

    I think an issue with OCD is that it can take guilt, shame, AND a sense of responsibility to an extreme level and it can be difficult to determine what the “right” thing to do is. As an example, this past weekend we had a pretty significant snowstorm, which meant that snowplows would be going through our neighborhood to take care of the roads. Additionally, Monday is garbage collection day, so people will generally leave out their garbage cans on Sunday night, followed by bringing them back in after they get home from work on Monday evening.

    On Monday afternoon, I saw one of my neighbor’s garbage cans in the road. What I guessed was that the bins had been emptied, then when the plow came through it had knocked the can into the road. (Obviously I couldn’t be certain – there are a variety of ways that bin could have gotten into the road…) A thought immediately came into my head: “What if a car comes around the turn on the road and hits that garbage can? Shouldn’t I move it? If I can prevent this (possible) problem from happening, shouldn’t I?” Those obsessive thoughts were going over and over in my head, until eventually I moved the can back to where it should have been, compulsively, and felt better afterwards. Did I perform that act out of kindness or fear? I’d like to think kindness, but it was probably a bit of both. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to determine what the “right” thing to do is, but I’ve found that I always err on the side of caution. Was it my RESPONSIBILITY to move that can? It probably wasn’t. Would I have felt guilty if I had not moved it, even if nothing bad had happened? I probably would, but SHOULD I?

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