OCD Misconceptions

One reason I don’t like telling people that I have OCD is that I frequently get this response: Oh my god me too!  I am such a neat freak!  I hate when my house gets cluttered!  My friends are always telling me that I’m OCD.

First off, no one is OCD.  People have OCD.  But that’s beside the point.

My point is that sometimes people think they have OCD just because they have a little quirk (like being a neat freak or liking things to be a certain way).  That isn’t OCD.  In some cases it could be OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder), but I’ll cover that in a future post.  For a quick overview of OCPD, here’s some info.

OCD is an anxiety disorder.  It’s a mental illness.  People with OCD perform rituals because they feel huge amounts of anxiety and their compulsions calm their anxiety.  OCD sets off alarms–very loud alarms–in a person’s head for irrational reasons.

The Difference: An Example

There are two people who keep their homes very neat, very clean.  One has OCD and one does not.  The person who does not have OCD keeps her home neat just because she likes her home to be neat.  It makes her happy or relaxes her.  She just like it that way.  It’s a preference.

The person with OCD keeps her home neat because she has to, because she gets extremely anxious if something is even a little bit out of place.  This anxiety is the kind of anxiety a normal person feel when his or her life is threatened.  Some describe it as an apocalyptic-type dread.  It’s a fear that something really, really horrible will happen if things aren’t done a certain way.

Of course there is a lot more to OCD than needing things to be neat.  There are so many other symptoms.  This is just one example.

The DSM’s Definition of OCD

Since I don’t have a degree in psychology, here’s how the DSM defines OCD (taken from emedicine):

“OCD is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) as an anxiety disorder.1 It is characterized by distressing intrusive obsessive thoughts and/or repetitive compulsive actions (which may be physical or mental acts) that are clinically significant. The specific DSM-IV-TR criteria for OCD are as follows:

The individual expresses either obsessions or compulsions. Obsessions are defined by the following 4 criteria.

  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images are experienced at some time during the disturbance as intrusive and inappropriate and cause marked anxiety and distress. Those with this disorder recognize the craziness of these unwanted thoughts (such as fears of hurting their children) and would not act on them, but the thoughts are very disturbing and difficult to tell others about.
  • The thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems.
  • The person attempts to suppress or ignore such thoughts, impulses, or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action.
  • The person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his/her own mind (not imposed from without, as in thought insertion).

Compulsions are defined by the following 2 criteria:

  • The person performs repetitive behaviors (eg, hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (eg, praying, counting, repeating words silently) in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.
  • The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are meant to neutralize or prevent or they are clearly excessive.

At some point during the course of the disorder, the person recognizes that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable. This does not apply to children.

The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress; are time consuming (take >1 h/d); or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

If another Axis I disorder is present, the content of the obsessions or compulsions is not restricted to it, such as preoccupation with food and weight in the presence of an eating disorder, hair pulling in the presence of trichotillomania, concern with appearance in body dysmorphic disorder, preoccupation with drugs in substance use disorder, preoccupation with having a serious illness in hypochondriasis, preoccupation with sexual urges in paraphilia, or guilty ruminations in the presence of major depressive disorder.

The disorder is not due to the direct physiologic effects of a substance or a general medical condition.

The additional specification of “with poor insight” is made if, for most of the current episode, the person does not recognize that the symptoms are excessive or unreasonable.”

Oh, OCD.  You drive me crazy!

So do you see why simply wanting things to be a certain way or being a little bit quirky does not mean a person has OCD?  I hope so.  I hope I was clear, but of course I have OCD so right now I am obsessing about whether or not I explained things clearly, whether or not I wrote at all coherently.  My mind won’t stop screaming that I didn’t get this just right, that if I post it, I’ll only screw everything up.  So because I’m supposed to be doing the opposite of what OCD wants, I’m going to post this even though it doesn’t feel “just right.”


Do you have any questions about OCD that you’d like answered?  I’m not an expert and I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I can promise to do my best to find answers.  I have been researching OCD for the past decade and have come across some great resources.  Plus I have a therapist and she is an expert.  She is more than used to me asking lots and lots of questions.


37 thoughts on “OCD Misconceptions

  1. I get sort of annoyed when people use OCD as an adjective too, b/c 9 out of 10 times, they don’t have OCD. I often skim through my writing making sure I didn’t write something terrible and unforgivable. On moderated blogs I’m afraid my comment will be tossed aside and considered offensive though I haven’t said anything bad. I think you did great describing OCD!

    1. I rewrite things so many times, from simple things like text messages and tweets to blog posts and emails to my PhD dissertation. I know when it’s “done” but it can take me an age to get there, if I ever do. If my husband’s there, I ask him if it’s ok, to which he normally just replies, “it’s fine; send it.” Sometimes I just have to put my foot down and say, “That’s enough. Send it,” like I’m going to have to do with this comment.

      Just to make it worse, I can’t skim read. I have to read every single word properly.

      1. I ask for assurance all the time. For instance, I get A’s on essays I write for school, but I get really stressed out when I don’t have someone to read over a paper before I turn it in. I spend so much time and energy worrying that it is horrible. It’s easier when someone can read it and tell me it’s fine.

        OCD loves for us to ask for assurance. It feeds the fear. I have been working on not asking for assurance lately and let me tell you, it’s tough! I’m not suggesting that you stop asking for assurance. It will probably be something you work on if/when you start therapy.

        The reason for this is that to fight OCD, you have to face your fears yourself. You can’t sit back with your hand over your eyes and ask someone else if everything looks ok. You have to face your fears head on for them to go away. It’s not something to just jump into. Like everything else when it comes to fighting OCD, it’s a process and a slow one at that.

        It’s good that sometimes you are able to put your foot down and make the decision to send on your own! At some point in the future, think about telling your husband not to read things for you before you post them (proofreading is fine, but reading for assurance is not).

      1. Though I am old, one of the common misconceptions a few years ago was that people who have OCD are dangerous. That their behaviors are a precursor to potential violent tendencies. Obviously, that is riduculous.

        Also, people may blame the person or the parents of folks who have OCD–that it is caused by laziness, poor parenting, or trauma. As you wrote about, OCD is a mental illness and not something cause by an individual who does not have enough will power.

        You are doing good work with your blog Elly–keep it up.

  2. What a great post. It is a pet peeve for me when people brag about how “OCD” they are. I am not OCD and in fact don’t know anyone close to me who is, but it just seems to trivialize a real medical condition.

    Oh by the way thanks for stopping by my blog – I am totally using your story with my children! Thanks for the help.

    1. It’s nice to hear that it bothers a non-OCDer, too! I know some people think it is harmless, but it really does trivialize something that is really serious.

  3. I think you did a very good job of describing OCD. I know a lot more about it than I did before. And I totally understand you on have an illness and not being it. I used to say “my depression.” No more: now I say I have clinical depression. Good for you for not letting your disorder define you!

    And now you are one view closer to hitting your 100! Yeah!

    1. Thanks for helping me reach my goal!

      It’s easy to define ourselves by what goes on inside our heads, but we have to remember there is much more to us than OCD, depression, etc. It is part of me, but it isn’t me.

  4. Very cool that you did this exposure and posted the description of ocd even if you weren’t sure you explained it clearly–for me that sums it up exactly.

  5. It totally drives me crazy, also, when people say “I am soooo OCD”. A) Because they don’t have OCD, for reasons you mentioned. And B), like you said, you HAVE OCD. A person HAS a disorder, they aren’t the disorder! Really, it’s not like people walk around saying “I am sooo anxiety” or “I am soooo depression”. Drives me nuts. Well-said.

  6. I never really realized the different between having a few obsessive tendencies and OCD. I honestly thought they were one and the same. Or varying degrees of the same thing, if that makes sense. Great article and important information!

  7. Stopping by from SITS Saturday Sharefest

    I think the post was written remarkably well and I actually do have a question for you. I have a co-worker at work who I think has OCD, even more so now after reading this post, but I’m just not sure on how to talk to her about getting help. The poor girl almost had a nervous breakdown because I accidentally put a purple scissor in the bin with the blue scissors.

    1. I’m not quite sure how to answer this. I have been thinking about it for a couple of hours. I’d love to have a simple answer, but I don’t. I don’t really know if you should talk to her. It would really depend on your relationship with her. If you’re a good friend of hers, then you might be able to bring it up, but otherwise, I don’t think you would be helping her at all. I’m just trying to put myself in that situation, to think how I would feel if a coworker said something like that to me. I think I would be offended and terrifically embarrassed.

      It’s not easy to come to terms with having a mental illness.

      If she does have it and isn’t ready to accept it, then she could end up with some pretty overwhelming emotions. The stress could make her symptoms worse. Or she might have it and know that she has it and just not want anyone else to know. People with OCD tend to be very secretive and private about it. We tend to feel very ashamed of our symptoms. Bringing attention to them could make her work harder to hide them and appear “normal”, which really wouldn’t be any good for her.

      If she doesn’t have it, well then that’s a huge can of worms you don’t want to open.

      Think about how you would feel if a coworker approached you and told you they thought you had OCD or depression or autism or some other mental illness.

      If it were me, I wouldn’t approach her about it. If it really affects you or bothers you, maybe you could talk to your boss or HR or something about it. Just remember that mental illness is a very sensitive subject for most people and bringing it up in the wrong way or at the wrong time could do a lot more harm than good.

  8. What a terrific post! And I agree with all of the differences between the two issues that you’ve pointed out. It’s just so difficult for someone who DOESN’T have OCD to even comprehend. Even with myself, I cannot imagine living with more severe issues than my own, which I know so many people do.

    I can definitely relate to the aggrevation that you feel when someone compares their own struggles to being the same as yours. Nothing is ever the same, and even when it is, everyone handles things differently. One of my personal struggles is an obsession to pick and pull at any flaw or bump in my skin. And once I start, I cannot stop. Some of the people close to me will make comments about the hundreds of tiny scabs I have all over my legs- that I just NEED to stop doing that. Do they truly think I want to be ripping at myself? I do it, because I cannot resist. Sigh.

    Many hugs. And congrats on the triumph of wearing a holey sock. :o)

    1. I have a problem with skin picking, too. I gross myself out. I always have scabs all over and I used to pick the skin around my fingernails raw. I was able to stop doing that when I started painting my nails regularly. As long as I have paint on my nails, I pick at it instead of my skin or nails. I recently learned that compulsive skin picking ‘s actually not OCD, but is an impulse control disorder known as dermatillomania. My therapist told me the to treat it, when you want to pick, you’re supposed to do some kind of opposite movement. I don’t really know what that means, but she told me to get a stress ball and when I want to pick, I should squeeze the stress ball instead. Apparently it’s supposed to retrain your mind to not do that or something. I haven’t tried it yet because I haven’t bothered getting a stress ball.

      But yeah, my family used to get really frustrated with me about picking. I went through so many band-aids trying to cover up my little injuries so that I wouldn’t pick at them. I’m not as bad as I was when I was a kid, but when I have acne, forget it. I can’t keep from picking at zits and it SUCKS because they’re on my face and then they end up all scabby and gross and everyone can see them. I put tons of neosporin on any scratch, zit or scab that I know I’d be tempted to pick in an attempt to get it to heal before I can do more damage.

      Thanks! Many hugs right back at you!

  9. you took the words right out of my mouth, I suffer from OCD too, and im actually writing a research paper on OCD that shows how being a neat freak doesnt necesssarily mean you have OCD

    1. I just recently finished a research paper about my own OCD as well. Out of the 11 page paper, I used 2 whole pages describing my different obsessions/compulsions. It was kind of embarrassing to turn in. And currently, I’m making a presentation about the different misconceptions.

      And I only realized after I started typing that this comment was from several months ago. My apologies for that.

  10. Hi.. I am wondering whether its possible to have an OCD to set things perfect – i.e. to tell people off when things are not done in order, for eg. shops closing at 859 versus 9 pm 🙂

    1. Yes, that can definitely be OCD-related. What decides it is whether things being unperfect cause you anxiety. Some people just like things to be a certain way. Some people are just clean and organized. This isn’t OCD. OCD causes serious anxiety when things are out of place, if that is a person’s symptom. It is a completely irrational fear, a feeling as if the world were about the end, a life-and-death type fear.

  11. I got to thinking after reading your blog, do you think we sort of grown on a particular fault and make it into OCD. For instance, if I do not have my desk clean it annoys me so I clean it but it doesn’t give me anxiety. However I now clean it 2 times a day, then 3 and am starting to get anxiety if I do not. Do you think there is a point where OCD can be stopped before it becomes so bad?

    1. First off, I’m really sorry I’m just now responding.

      OCD tends to start as seemingly harmless, but yes, it gets worse when anxiety enters the equation. The earlier you start behavior therapy, the easier it is to deal with.

  12. I can’t seem to find the answer to this question anywhere!
    Okay, I definitely have an anxiety issue, but I think I also might have -mild- OCD, but I’m not overly compulsive. I am incredibly obsessive (seriously disturbing thoughts, obsessing over others’ opinions, shopping, etc.) to the point where it interferes with my relationships and also my financial stability. I do some things which I think are compulsive… if I get really nervous/stressed/anxious I pick at my face/skin as if to pop a pimple, when there isn’t actually anything there. Usually I do this until I’m bleeding. I also have to eat certain things in twos/have the volume at a certain number/count my steps/generally just have to have everything at certain numbers, or i have a mild panic attack… but my clocks have to be, like, twenty minutes ahead or I get really nervous that I’ll be late (even though I set them). I struggle with bulimic/self-harm tendencies and ideations. I obsess over everything I write (like I’ve rewritten this simple message probably twenty times just to make sure… I’m not sure of what though…)

    I guess these activities probably fall under the “compulsive mental acts” category… But I guess since I habitually procrastinate and I’m not a “germ-aphobe” or “neat-freak” I don’t think I have OCD…
    ANYWAYS! I’m sorry for such a long and poorly written message but I was just looking for some advice because I’m having a really rough time:(

    1. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t diagnose you, obviously, but a lot of that sounds similar to what I’ve been through with OCD. OCD is different for everyone. So while I have a hard time with germs, lots of people with OCD don’t have that problem.

      What it boils down to is obsessions and compulsions which cause you anxiety and distress.

      As for the picking thing, I have that. It’s not OCD, but it very frequently appears with OCD. It’s called dermatillomania. I have a post about it: https://ocdjourney.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/dermatillomania/

      For some people, OCD is completely internal. Some people only have obsessive thoughts and don’t really have compulsions. There are just so many different ways OCD can pop up. If it’s interfering with your relationships and finances, think about seeing a therapist. The OCD Foundation (http://www.ocfoundation.org/) has fantastic resources for finding OCD and anxiety therapists in your area. If you do decide to go the therapy route—which I highly recommend, from experience—find someone who does behavior therapy. To beat OCD, you have to learn to behave differently. It’s a long process but can be very rewarding.

  13. I have a boss that says he “is horribly OCD” but only at home. At work he can easily ignore a mess or things not where they should be (and our back office space gets really cluttered sometimes) but he claims at home everything has to be perfect and he spends hours cleaning and organizing. Can the symptoms be that specific? I have a hard time believing that a person can be such a slob at the work place but still have OCD.

    1. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say he does or doesn’t have OCD, but for me, my OCD doesn’t turn off at work and turn back on at home. But that’s just me. I do know that some spaces, I was more protective of than others. For instance, people with OCD who are concerned with contamination tend to have a “clean zone.” For some, it’s their house—and his could be as well—for others, it’s just their room. For me, it was my bed. My bed had to be clean. It was the one place that I really needed to be clean. This meant showering before bed. I always showered at night to make sure I didn’t get my bed dirty. I didn’t have standards quite as high for other places in my home or outside my home. It could be that his home is his “clean zone,” and that he can deal with outside being a mess as long as his home is clean. It seems extreme, but who knows.

  14. Thank you so much for writing this post! I think it is extremely courageous to put yourself out there with that sort of transparency! I believe that any commentary that opens the door for a dialogue about mental illness is a step in the right direction!!! So again, THANK YOU! Keep writing, I will follow

    If you are interested in reading about my personal struggles with OCPD & mental illness please read and follow my blog!!!

    http://wp.me/p445Fd-Q <——-Perfectly Obsessed

    1. Thank you so much for the comment! I haven’t been able to keep up with my blog or the other OCD blogs I love lately, but I hope to get back to this once I finish school. I’ll put your blog on my list.

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