Loving Someone with OCD

This is an open letter to those of you who are loving someone with OCD. 

I can’t imagine how frightened you were when your loved one was first hijacked by OCD. Everything was suddenly turned upside down. I’m sure you were terrified that things would never be the same.

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In the beginning, you tried to do whatever made your loved one less anxious. It hurt so much to see your child or family member in such agony. So you tried to end the horror as best you could.

Enabling and Reassuring Doesn’t Work

160_F_87314604_cXY7LMNX2XytR4PZrfpMnu823xukjMrCYou offered constant reassurance and tried over and over to use common sense and logic to get rid of your loved one’s fear and worry. But that part of the brain didn’t seem to be functioning properly. (There’s no logic in OCD!) So you ended up talking and talking until you were blue in the face.

You complied and met every OCD demand because it just seemed easier. You even joined in on some of the rituals like saying “I love you” five times or washing your hands when they weren’t even dirty.

160_F_76900683_xLdS4hkfytRXqf2KOLFEtKVyObB0sn7gYou kept the environment free of triggers and censored people’s words to keep them from triggering your child or family member. People stopped visiting because they didn’t want to make the situation worse.

You lost a lot of sleep and resorted to lecturing and giving the cold shoulder. You lost your cool many times. You thought, “This is so ridiculous. Just stop it!” 

I hope you know that you were coming from a place of love, not doubt, when you cried. And a place of fear, not hate, when you yelled or walked away in frustration. 

Your loved one has a problem with self-compassion. I don’t have to meet you to know you have the same problem. Maybe you weren’t always resourceful but you were always doing your best. Always.

In desperation or out of convenience, you kept enabling and reassuring. But, the relief was only temporary. OCD seemed to just get bigger and bigger. It robbed all of you of everyday pleasures and new experiences. The world got smaller with every passing day.160_F_101490863_zrPBrMmSdlxiWuDh94SwpgK0sRPut9ci

You thought all the reassurance would help ease the anxiety but it actually made it worse. The demands were getting more intense and frequent. Accommodating wasn’t helping anything other than providing one very brief moment of relief.

And then your prayers were answered. You found out that giving in was actually feeding OCD. 

Gradually Stop Accommodating

You knew that if you stopped feeding OCD your loved one would protest. Things were going to get worse before they got better. You worried: What if we’re biting off more than we can chew? 

160_F_111735791_JTouzhQEZie5tshllaRTtlFzFqSq38mDBut, you believed that in order to get a better outcome, the approach needed to change.

You stopped giving in and your loved one cried, “Don’t you love me? Why aren’t you helping me?” Talk about being stabbed in the heart—ouch.

You got tougher and your loved one accused you of not understanding, “You just don’t get it! I’m all alone now.” Ouch, that hurt too.

You stopped enabling but your loved one put you to the test, and said, “Fine, “I’ll go without.” Oh no! So afraid. What if things get worse now?

Support Your Loved One, Not OCD

You validated your loved one’s feelings, “I know this is hard. I can tell this is causing you a lot of pain.” Validate. Acknowledge. But, don’t take away the pain. Soften into the pain. It’s hard to be anxious when you want to be anxious.

160_F_88892850_k54dF5pbMxv6ZBXVl1U40GHXPK8Hh43HYou also showed how much faith you had in your loved one’s ability to overcome, “You’re stronger than you think. I know that you can do this. It’s hard, I know. You’ve done hard before. You’re not alone. I’m going to help you boss it back. I’m not going to feed OCD anymore, but I will help you defeat it.”

As time passed you remained patient. You stayed the course and your loved one began to understand there would be no more avoidance. Your message was loud and clear: THE FEAR HAD TO BE CONFRONTED.

Your loved one had no other way out—but in. No more avoiding.

  • OCD said, “Leave.” Nope, everybody stayed.
  • OCD said, “Don’t go.” Everybody left.
  • OCD said, “Avoid.” Everybody leaned in.
  • OCD asked, “What if?” Everybody shrugged and said, “Whatever.”
  • Your loved one sought reassurance, “Could this happen?” You put it back on them, “I don’t know.”
  • “Will it be okay?” You shrugged, “We’ll deal with it. Whatever happens, happens.”
  • OCD warned, “You’re getting too anxious. You can’t handle it. Do something.” You all said, “Good. We want that anxiety. We need to practice handling it.”

It wasn’t easy to Boss it Back. But feeding OCD wasn’t easy either. It was scary bossing it back, but feeding it was scary too. Both seemed like poison.

Boss it Back or Feed It
Boss it Back or Feed It

You picked the right poison. Which ended up being the antidote—the healing potion.

The catastrophes have ended. Life has returned. No more tiptoeing. Your loved one still has weird thoughts. But, they’re fewer and fewer.

There are still triggers but nothing a good shrug or “yup” can’t fix.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Honestly, I’m really happy today because I’ve learned that a number of kids, near and dear to me, have returned to school this week with nothing more than a tiny little hiccup. (I’m thankful for the hiccups because they will only build more skills and cause more mastery.)

What About Those Who Are Still Being Accommodated?

I’m thinking now of those who haven’t been set free. Family members who continue to accommodate and reassure. There’s not a lot of bossing it back going on but, there’s a lot of tension. It feels like a hostage situation, I know. 

Perhaps you have OCD and are reading this, realizing the ways YOU are being accommodated and enabled. Whether you’re requiring your family to accommodate you, or just passively allowing it—how’s it working out? Everything you want is on the other side of fear. Go get it!

If you are a family member who is enabling, write down all the ways you are doing this—feeding OCD. Rate each one in terms of which ones you think would have the least impact on your loved one’s life if you stopped doing it.

160_F_85393917_Ld7cw3wo904aefXzfIgDbj04rNRYBVjMDiscuss the list and your ratings with your loved one. Then ask him or her to rate the same list and to “feel free to add to the list” any missed accommodations. Compare the two lists and acknowledge all the difficulties your loved one faces.

The next step shouldn’t be done unless you’re prepared to follow through. I recommend you do this with the help of a therapist who specializes in OCD. An OCD therapist will tell you that accommodation has been tied to poor treatment outcomes. A nonOCD specialist is likely to get caught in the trap of reassuring your loved one a lot.

You can also find expert help and guidance in several books. There are numerous books to guide you through the process too. 

Loving Someone With OCD

There are some people with OCD who will threaten harm to self or others if they are not enabled. Do not be held hostage with this threat. If your loved one makes such a threat or goes on a hunger strike, take your loved one to the emergency room or call 911 immediately. Don’t mess around! 

But, in many cases, your loved one will (begrudgingly) go along with this plan. They don’t want to live like this either! A 25-year-old feeding OCD for almost 10 years now, was asked by someone else’s parent, “What do you wish your parents had done differently?” He answered, “Not accommodate me.” WOW!!! High Five!

Explain Why Things Have to Change

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Explain to your loved one the current method of accommodating isn’t working. “There’s only temporary relief and that’s not good enough! At this rate, we’re all just hamsters in a wheel.” Try to gain permission to stop the enabling. It can be done gradually by withdrawing some of the easier accommodations.

If you don’t get permission to stop, that’s okay. Your loved one will probably be overwhelmed by this conversation but in their heart, they know it’s what’s best.

You’ll be tested. Mean what you say, but don’t say it mean. Explain if they don’t want to participate in the planning you’ll be picking the accommodations that will be stopping yourself. Look at the calendar with your loved one and write down the day you are going to stop each accommodation.

An Example of An Accommodation

Let’s use the example of contamination fears. Are you opening doors for your loved one so that s/he can avoid germs? This is an example of YOU feeding OCD. It’s one thing if your loved one, unfortunately, chooses to feed OCD, but why are you? Your loved one might still feed OCD by using a Kleenex to open the door but at least you’re no longer reinforcing the fear! 

What If You’re the One with OCD?

If you’re the one with OCD being accommodated, do yourself a favor! Get your life back by telling people who love you to stop enabling you! With calendar in hand, sit down with your enablers and say, “This is the day you’re going to stop this accommodation. I’ll need your encouragement but please stop feeding my OCD.”

Accommodating someone with OCD and offering plenty of reassurance is usually the mistake everybody makes in the beginning. If you conduct a cost/benefit analysis on accommodating you’ll discover the costs outweigh the benefits.

Hopefully, you’ll continue to get more informed about how enabling someone with OCD is actually…disabling. Just start with gradual changes and you’ll make good progress.

Bonus: If you want a Quick Guide for 6 kind and gentle ways to stop accommodating your child, Click HERE. It’s great for the fridge! Once you click, just check your email.

By the way, the Quick Guide? It’s good advice for adults with OCD too. ac41290798310afdf52eccaaf1ba73af

As always, your comments are welcome and really make my day. But, in addition to commenting, if you know someone who’s coping with OCD share this post with them!

Nobody’s healed until everybody’s healed!

10 thoughts on “Loving Someone with OCD”

  1. Wow, thanks for that great letter to us, Tammy! It was like a walk down memory lane…and no it was definitely not easy and definitely not always obvious to us why our family member was not getting better. But now we get it (most of the time!), sometimes we stumble but we are kind to each other and forgive and move on. The main thing is we aren’t accommodating the OCD anymore…and actually it gets easier the more you do it and the better the responses from the OCD sufferer. “Happy Day” when it all starts to click! Everyone in our family is experiencing the success because we are all starting to live again – together and separately and having fun again. We are so wowed by our family member who is bossing it back….there is no stopping them now! Who doesn’t want that for their child? Is everything perfect, no – but that is part of this journey, learning that it doesn’t have to be to continue to enjoy life and each other – ultimately, over time, acceptance of each of our individuality. Listening more, talking less (that is a hard one). We know there might be more bumps in the road but we are learning how to ease through them and still enjoy the ride. We hope everyone will find the same success.

  2. I relate so much to this! With a lot of work I am seeing the fruits of my labor as I boss OCD back. But I still hear it and I still feel it. The thoughts are fewer but when they come on I find myself powering through the best I can instead of letting it defeat me. OCD is trying to play tricks on me. This was a very difficult time of year for me last year, OCD is trying to remind me of it… “what if” and “you’re getting anxious, you can’t handle it.” I remember the fear and how trapped I was. The weather even feels familiar, it gives me a pit in my stomach. So, what I am focusing on instead are the victories: how I am grateful for my loved ones seeing me through and how our relationships are so much more fruitful without OCD ruling them, taking moments to feel the wind and sunshine on my face, and holding my head a little higher knowing I’m fighting the fight. With my new tools and increased time spent on ME , I hope to look back on this season with positivity.

  3. I think one thing that caused a lot of difficulty with me was that I want to help others with OCD, but I never want to be cruel. When saying “This may happen, I don’t know. I don’t have the answers” it felt as if I was harming the person near me. However, thoughts and feelings don’t always matter, and especially not when dealing with OCD. Do I want to help others with their OCD, or do I want to make them feel better and stay stuck or get worse? The best compassion for another is often NOT giving in to the OCD. Without compulsions, there is no OCD. If we practice NOT doing compulsions, things will improve, because what we practice, we get good at. Practice compulsions and you’ll get very good at them, but the opposite is also true.

    A lot of times we with OCD can give others great advice, but have trouble with ourselves. I’ve found that it sometimes helps to take an outside view. What I mean by this is that I imagine that I am someone else (person number 2) and I am looking at me (person 1). I ask person number two what I think would be good for person number 1. As an example: “I just can’t be in the market alone because of (whatever reason).” If I ask myself what to do, I may have trouble. However, if I ask myself what I would tell someone ELSE to do, things become easier. “Well, you can take the easy way and let OCD win, or you can take the more challenging way and be in charge. Who cares what happens in that market? Whatever happens, it’s better than letting OCD keep you shackled. If something bad happens, so what? Why live your whole life in fear? Who’s the boss?”

    Just as a plant can’t grow without sunlight, air and water, I can’t grow without new experiences, courage, and determination. Each on its own is not sufficient: a plant with only sunlight will not grow, and if I have courage alone I will not grow. If you want to grow, mixing the right ingredients will almost certainly do it, even if you don’t notice it at the time.

    1. Not all hurt is bad, as you’ve discovered. Growing means “ouch!” It’s ok to say no because accommodating prevents growth! Your person #1 and #2 is a great demonstration of how to step outside of yourself to get a better perspective. Great advice! Love that you emphasized the need for all three: new experiences, courage and determination. YES!!!

  4. I’d love to get others’ thoughts on my situation. I’m a parent of a teen with OCD that significantly impacts his life, and I am guilty of accommodating his OCD. I have read a ton of books and blogs and I understand the rationale behind everything you say here about not accommodating my son’s OCD. I get it! And I’ve tried it. But in my experience, when I try to (gently) pull back on accommodations, my son gets angry and leans into the OCD and gets worse. For example, if I stop opening doors when we go out (contamination fears), he will stop going out. He has retreated before to the point where he is not going to school and at times barely eating. I have backed off of this tactic and now he’s doing much better. (I do at least try to minimize what I do, and not add new accommodations. But I’m still doing a lot.) In my opinion, even though I open the door, for instance, he still gets the experience and challenges of being out. He’ll fight the OCD on his own, but if I try to push it he seems to partner with the OCD and fight me. Sometimes I think he has allowed his compulsions to get more extreme because he’s angry that I’m pushing back and wants to show me how serious it is. Any advice for me? How can I best help my son? Thank you!

    1. I encourage parents to give the power to the child/teen to beat OCD. You can’t do it for them. When you stop doing something that is accommodating, it is more powerful if the child/teen has chosen what you will stop doing. “You can use a barrier (tissue) to open the door if you want to feed your OCD but, I don’t want to feed your OCD. I’m going to stop opening doors for you unless you can think of something else I could stop doing.”

      Use your leverage (if you have any) to guide the child’s decisions. Leverage? e.g., The Internet is a privilege, not a right. Getting online for a video game or watching youtube is a privilege. It should be earned by all children/teens in the house. How can screen time be earned? By completing schoolwork, chores and therapy assignments. If the child/teen doesn’t earn screen time for the day, it’s not your problem. It’s his or hers. “Sorry, you made the decision to not earn this privilege. Try tomorrow.”

      How do you determine therapy assignments? Ask the child/teen. “Here are 3 ways I am feeding your OCD. It’s not helping you to get better. Over time, I am going to stop accommodating you in these three ways. You can pick which one you want to work on first. OR, if you have a different idea, I’m willing to work with your idea. But, if you refuse to participate in choosing what we start with, I will pick. I’ll try to pick what I think will be the easiest for you, but it would be better if you told me and I didn’t have to guess.”

      A child who has been accommodated will test your resilience. Mean what you say but don’t say it mean. Ask, “How can I help you move forward?” You need the child/teen to participate. Make it be known that it would be better if they do. Otherwise, you might be choosing things that are too difficult.

      1. Thanks so much for your response. It’s helpful. I think that initially we came on too strong trying to use leverage like the internet to guide my son. We were trying to control too much so he shut down. We didn’t know what he was capable of yet. Now that we have backed off and (hopefully) earned his trust back, I’ll try some of this. I’d still love to hear from others if there is more advice for me. All perspectives are welcome and would help me gain insight.

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