“I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
One of the cruelest things about obsessive-compulsive disorder is the way your need to control things actually ends up controlling you. If we take a step back, this makes sense: there are way too many things in our lives that exist entirely outside of our control. Life isn’t a problem you can solve, but OCD will make you try. So you end up trying to climb a mountain that’s always shifting under you. You wear yourself out, without even getting to a good spot to take photos.
Without getting into any of the philosophical questions or parsing through every exception, we know there are some things we do have control over. You generally can’t control your thoughts; but you typically can control your behavior. And, while none of these strategies will cure you of OCD, a few small shifts in your behavior can snowball into lots of other meaningful changes. These can impact your mood, your thoughts, your habits, and so on.
The part to remember is that there is never one single right way to get better. You can try a million things with no progress, then make one more change and feel a lot better quickly. And so, as you might predict, the important thing is to keep trying different things all the time. Because life is constantly shifting, you’ll have to get good at shifting with it too.
For all the talk about strength in mental health– how strong someone is for coping with bipolar disorder or dealing with PTSD each day– we ought to be talking about flexibility just as much. OCD makes mental flexibility seem like a distant possibility, but you still have it in you. So let’s look at a few ways you can try to find it again.
1. Find a creative pursuit that you like, and pursue it
Although Bob Ross never said anything about having OCD, he did talk about painting as an alternative to all the angry tendencies he developed during his military career. His television series The Joy of Painting has been helpful to many people struggling in all sorts of different ways. There’s an effortlessness to his method, even if the results aren’t your favorite.
But the point wasn’t really to talk about Bob Ross– just to use painting as one example of a creative pursuit that might help you explore the world in a different way. First, creative work allows you to expand your thinking beyond the very narrow boundaries that OCD places around it. It also allows you to enjoy a limited degree of control over something while still facing risks like messing up or never being as good as someone else. Lastly, it gives you something to focus on and keep getting better at. Building a sense of mastery at something contributes positively to mood and overall wellbeing.
So whether it’s writing, art, music, dance, or something else, find a creative outlet you can dedicate some time and energy to. This way you can start to develop mental flexibility again. In case you’re wondering: no, you don’t have to be good at the thing you’re doing. You just have to be doing it.
2. Expose yourself to the absurdity, even the comedy, of your obsessions
Although most of your obsessions probably seem like the furthest thing from funny, they can usually be taken to a place where you’ll see that there’s a certain humor to them. That’s because they end up seeming a little bit ridiculous once we take them outside their usual patterns. Let’s think up a few examples:
Usual obsession 1: “I could probably be happier in another relationship. I might be wasting my time in the wrong relationship. I might be stuck in this forever. I’ll probably never be happy.”
Attempt at comedy 1: “I’m definitely in the wrong relationship. Everybody can see it. In fact, earlier when we were out to dinner everyone was thinking it. The waiter was so shocked by how bad our relationship is that he went home and told his girlfriend, who is much better than mine in every way. Even that dog we saw on our way out of the restaurant could tell that we’re in the worst relationship– that explains why it barked at me.”
Usual obsession 2: “I’m probably a pedophile. I’ve just been fooling everyone thus far. I’m definitely a pedophile deep down, and everyone knows it.”
Attempt at comedy 2: “I’m probably a pedophile. In fact I’m definitely a pedophile. I shouldn’t be allowed near a single kid the rest of my life. I should start telling everyone I know that they need to keep their children away from me. I might as well tell my family I’m going to be all over the news soon when I do something horrible, because I’m definitely going to, sooner or later.”
These don’t exactly make for side-splitting comedy, but there is something funny about them. The inability to accept uncertainty comes from the assumption that the worst case will always come true unless we’re making sure it doesn’t. But if you consciously follow through on your obsessions by taking them to ridiculous extremes, you start to see the holes in this way of thinking. Using techniques like this one to gently undermine the stuff your anxiety is telling you can help you start to open up some space between you and your obsessions.
You can do this in your mind, write it down, or record it on your phone. It’s similar to an exposure, and in certain cases can be an exposure. You might find that, for certain obsessions, things become more intensely dark than funny. That’s okay, too, as long as you’re moving toward your thoughts and “doing something with them” other than turning to compulsions. If you follow up on them and end up laughing at their absurdity, that’s great; if you chase them to their extreme and end up more anxious, that’s a good basis for exposure.
3. Get really interested in things
You know that annoying thing when someone talks about how looking up at the night sky puts things in perspective because it reminds them how small all of our problems are? It never made all that much sense to me, because you still have to find a way to deal with all the same problems, even if Jupiter is out there looking great. It’s not like you can choose to just worry about space instead, simply because it’s much vaster and more timeless.
But at the same time, there is something to be said for tapping into the ridiculous amount of incredible things about the world and learning as much as you can. I don’t think it’s about finding out how small our problems are, but rather about filling our minds with stuff that’s much more dynamic than the extremely narrow content of our obsessions and compulsions. And in doing so we might gently bring a bit of perspective to the obsessions.
The OCD symptoms will make it feel like there are only a few things that really matter. Find what you matters a lot to you and prove them wrong.
This is only the start of many posts on practical, non-theoretical, easy-to-use strategies. The most important part is getting out there and experiencing things, because only by breaking free of the obsessive-compulsive routine will you start to get that mental flexibility back again.
Please let us know in the comments how these are working, and what other strategies you’ve found helpful!
If you’re looking for a great way to treat OCD, take a look at the free nOCD app. It features treatment strategies from ERP, CBT, and ACT– the most clinically supported forms of therapy for this condition. It’s available now for iOS and coming soon to Android. Tell your friends, show your family, use it yourself, ask your clinician about it! And let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.