Compulsions: Once You Start It’s Hard to Stop

Compulsions Feed OCD

Compulsions might help you avoid discomfort but the price you pay is enormous. Every single compulsion feeds OCD. Anything you feed gets stronger. 

Resist compulsions
The One You Feed

One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “Son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. 

One is troubled. It is worry, anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inadequacy, lies, self-loathing, and fear.

The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, vulnerability, humility, kindness, gratitude, empathy, generosity, truth, self-compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, the one that you feed.” (click for podcast)

Compulsions feed the troubled wolf…the OCD. So of course in order to beat OCD, compulsions must stop.

resist compulsions
If it’s hard to do is it worth pursuing?

Inevitably the client says “I’ll try but that’s easier said than done.”

I respond, “It’s supposed to be hard! Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

The relief from a compulsion is only temporary!

Yes, compulsions can provide relief. But, for how long? It’s similar to the relief an addict gets from drugs. It’s a vicious cycle. You just end up needing more. It might initially feel good but on the other hand, it makes you feel powerless and stuck in a hamster wheel.

The relief you get from a compulsion is temporary but the effect is long-lasting. What is the effect? Think about it. You started compulsions to:

  • get rid of doubt and now you’re more doubtful than ever
  • feel in control and now you feel out of control most of the time
  • avoid discomfort and now you’re more uncomfortable than before
  • improve the way you feel and now you feel worse
  • feel “just right” and now you always feel “just wrong”

What If Resisting Compulsions Makes Me Feel Worse?

As an OCD therapist, I can’t give reassurance. I have to shrug and say, “Maybe things will get worse.” 

However, for educational purposes, I say this one time to every new client: “If you provoke your OCD with exposures and resist the urge to do a compulsion, your chances of getting strong and healthy is very high.”

resist compulsions
Compulsions help you to avoid. Avoiding is costly.

Besides, ask yourself if compulsions are sustainable. Is this truly something you want to do for the rest of your life? Once you start it’s hard to stop. 

You get good at what you practice. Are you sure you want to keep practicing compulsions? All compulsions help you do is avoid. Are you sure you want to get good at avoiding?

The Risks Outweigh the Benefits

In what way do you benefit from doing compulsions? If your answers are the ones below, hopefully, you know this is nothing more than trickery.

Are these the reasons you think you benefit from compulsions?

  • My compulsions are protective and keep bad things from happening. You’d be rich and famous if that were true.
  • This compulsion keeps me from feeling gross. No, actually it keeps you from feeling anxious. Gross is just another word for anxious.
  • The only way I can feel “just right” is by doing this compulsion. How many people stop and think, “I can’t leave my house until I feel just right?” To be concerned with feeling “just right” is exactly what drives you to feel “just wrong.” People who don’t think about feeling “just right” typically feel..just right!
  • Until the compulsion is completed I won’t be able to sleep. This just means you’ll have to do compulsions every night for the rest of your life in order to sleep. Is that really what you want?

You’ll discover the only benefit to a compulsion is temporary relief from anxiety. That’s it. There is no other benefit. And is that really a benefit–to avoid anxiety for brief moments of the day? Wouldn’t it make better sense to learn how to experience the anxiety?

Every Compulsion Feeds OCD

The only reason you’re performing compulsions is that you don’t <<yet>> know how to experience anxiety. Any other reason is just a story that your very creative brain has made-up.

A question I get asked often:

I’m prescribed drugs to help me feel better, so why can’t I use a compulsion to feel better?

I’m not a chemical warfare expert but there’s a huge difference between the purpose of taking a medication and performing a compulsive behavior. Prescribed medications like Prozac or Luvox help you to experience your anxiety. Compulsions help you avoid anxiety.

If you are having trouble being with your anxiety talk to the person prescribing your medication. Resisting compulsions might initially make you feel panicky, but if it continues and you’re not having much success saying no to OCD, a medication adjustment might help.

Another question often asked:

It seems like I get rid of one compulsion only to develop a new one. How can I make sure I don’t start a new compulsion?

The answer to this question is twofold. 1.) Evaluate the way you are talking to OCD when you’re resisting compulsions. 2.) Consider the possibility that you haven’t come to terms with your lack of control over what actually happens in life.

Evaluate the Way You Talk to OCD

If new compulsions are popping up, perhaps you haven’t really confronted your core fear. You’ve resisted a compulsion which is the “B” of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). You’ve changed a behavior. But without the “C” of CBT, you haven’t grabbed the bull by the horns. 

When you’re resisting compulsions it’s important to talk tough to OCD. No rationalizing or answering any of OCD’s questions. OCD is trying to convince you that a compulsion will prevent something bad from happening. “If you do this compulsion there will be no harm” or “If you do this you won’t end up abandoned.”

Your response must sound like this, “Yup. You might be right OCD. That might happen. Time will tell.” Just nod your head in agreement and resist the compulsion. You might not feel in agreement with what you’re saying. You’re telling OCD you don’t care but you probably really do. 

It’s okay. Keep talking tough. Answer none of OCD’s questions. Shrug at OCD and say, “whatever.” Sound like a broken record and just keep repeating your “I don’t care” act. Fake it ’til you become it. This is a mental Kung Fu game you must play with OCD. 

Do You Practice Radical Acceptance?

The answer seems to always come back to whether or not you are willing to see what happens next. Be curious to see what happens in this very moment. The only other choice is to try and control what happens. We know where that gets you. It’s better to accept whatever happens happens.

If in this moment you are experiencing anxiety, be curious about it but not analytical. Curiosity is the opposite of fear.

Now is the time to challenge the dysfunctional belief that you have control over what happens in life. This is not true. Practice radical acceptance, “Whatever happens happens. It is what it is.”

If nobody else has to do these compulsive behaviors neither do you.

Stopping compulsions isn’t just about halting the repetitive behavior. Another compulsion will just pop up. OCD morphs into all kinds of things until you finally start to accept the anxiety. First of all, your obsession is just noise. What really needs your attention is your anxiety.

Most importantly, every time you are in the process of performing a compulsion acknowledge the repetitive behavior is just your way of avoiding anxiety. The only time the details of your thoughts and beliefs is of any interest is when you’re trying to figure out how to provoke your anxiety.

Provoke your thoughts. Don’t argue with them. Shrug and say, “time will tell” or “maybe, maybe not.” Step toward the threat and embrace the anxiety. Build an ERP hierarchy and move forward.

Notice the anxiety and be with it. You don’t have to like the anxiety. But be grateful for the opportunity to practice your skills

Today’s Best Advice On How to Resist Compulsions:

Finishing a compulsion might feel good. But, it’s temporary. The anxiety returns. In no time at all, another compulsion is needed. Practice radical acceptance. Whatever happens happens.  Otherwise more compulsions are likely to pop-up like a whack-a-mole.

Resisting compulsions
Everything you ever wanted to know about how to resist compulsions

 

When Resisting Compulsions Backfires: Find Out Why 

Resisting compulsions
Questions? I can help!

If you have questions about how to resist compulsions be sure to add them to the comment section of this post. I’ll be sure to address your questions and give you…The Best Advice On How to Resist Compulsions

5 thoughts on “Compulsions: Once You Start It’s Hard to Stop”

  1. What I am finding in practicing radical acceptance is that my compulsions are so habitual. I do it without even thinking. It’s so frustrating!

    1. I believe it! Sometimes when I ask the purpose of a compulsion a client will respond, “I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t remember why I started it. I do it out of habit.” This is where practicing mindfulness can help. Coloring, meditating and/or juggling would do wonders for you. Also, I think in one of the posts I talked about “recontaminating” when a compulsion just automatically happens. Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Thats a good way to visualize it. Feeding OCD makes it grow, strengthens it…good visual for when I am feeding the wrong wolf. We are taught to help others but the value of feeding our own soul is somehow lost in day to day life. A buddy of mine wisely said: taking time for yourself is not selfish, but when others impose on your time without asking – that is true selfishness. Compulsions, I think, qualify as “others which impose on our time”. They are selfish wolves who need to not have such full bellies.

    1. I’m so glad the series on resisting compulsions was helpful. I always love to hear from you. I love your idea about blog post topic. I’m on it!

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