What Not to Say to Someone with OCD (and What to Say)
Having OCD can make the typical day feel like a mountain climb. Uncomfortable emotions like fear, guilt, and disgust are experienced in response to everyday tasks, and the extensive rituals performed to deal with these feelings can take over one's life. So it doesn't help matters when disclosing one's diagnosis to others becomes a struggle in itself. Unfortunately, this is often the case. Not only are people with OCD ashamed to share their symptoms with others, but they often receive unhelpful responses from others when they finally do share. So, here are some things to avoid saying when talking to someone you know with OCD.
"Just stop worrying about it." It's important to appreciate just how much our brains can control us. For someone experiencing the extreme discomfort of OCD, it is not possible to "just stop" worrying about it, any more than you can tell a mourning person to "just stop" being sad or a soldier returning from a warzone to "just stop" being freaked out by loud noises. There is a treatment, and it does work, but it takes time and it doesn't involve "just stopping" OCD. (other variations of this statement: "Just get over it," "Just stop doing that," "Just ignore it," "Just touch it.")
"I used to have OCD and I just got rid of it on my own." This is a common statement, particularly by family members, since OCD tends to run in families. However, it's important to be aware that with any illness there are variations in severity. A person recovering from a hairline fracture wouldn't go up to someone with a compound fracture and ask "Why aren't you better yet?" The same can be said of OCD. Individual cases vary by anxiety/discomfort level, ability to challenge or ignore the thoughts, and the road to recovery is different for everyone. (variations on this statement: "Just do what I did in my addiction treatment," "You just need to...")
"You don't have OCD. You're fine." This statement is usually based on a misunderstanding of OCD as something that always involves handwashing and ordering. In actuality, OCD is a severe mental health disorder that is often invisible to others. In some cases, individuals with OCD are able to hide it for years from others, resulting in extreme emotional distress and mental strain. When it finally catches up with the person, they often become highly disabled and are left with the task of sharing the diagnosis with others in order to get help. Loved ones may feel guilty and defensive for not catching OCD earlier, and may even express incredulity at the diagnosis. But keep in mind that there's a reason the person is sharing this information with you, and it's a problem that won't be going away any time soon. (variations on this statement: "OCD isn't real," "Everyone has a little OCD.")
So, let's look at a few more helpful ways of responding to someone who shares they have OCD...