OCD Is a Fire to Be Harnessed
A new way to understand a troubling disorder.
Posted January 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Poet Robert Frost once quipped:
"Look! First I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person, and then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses—do all sorts of things."
Harnessing the Fire
We all need to harness the fire between ourselves and others in order to be creative in our personal lives and careers. The challenge for those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not being allowed or shown how to safely tap into their fire. Instead, it constantly threatens to burn them and those they love, leaving them feeling guilty, afraid, and malignantly doubtful.
Pulling at the other's nose seems troubling and scary. Dangerous. Almost unthinkable.
Tormented by Fire
Those with OCD are tormented rather than inspired by this fire. Freud once said that an OCD sufferer feels guilt at the level appropriate to the mass murderer when, in fact, they have behaved from childhood as "the most considerate and scrupulous member of society."
Despite their many doubts and self-recriminations, most clinicians will tell you that OCD sufferers are among the most intelligent, sensitive, perceptive, and creative people with whom to work. So how come those with OCD see themselves in such a distorted way? (In a follow-up post, I'll talk about the way out of OCD's Kafkaesque torment).
A New Slant on OCD
I view Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from a totally different angle than most other clinicians. I see it as a temperament issue, a sensitivity to feeling, morality, and power. It's also a relationship issue, learning how to balance profound and magically close connections with others while holding on to the self as a separate and differentiated individual.
Individuals with OCD are empaths—highly tuned in to the feelings of others—and this allows them to connect deeply, sometimes almost telepathically with others. Is it any surprise that they worry about the magic of their thoughts harming people or of others being able to read their minds, too?
This sensitivity is a blessing but also a challenge because it makes it easy to blur into others and lose sense of one's own shape. It also makes it easy to forget that you have the right to be separate and different, to be that person Frost alluded to.
Like the canary in the coal mine, individuals with OCD can also detect unexpressed emotions that are less conscious to others or even actively minimized or denied. I've known clients with OCD to be exquisitely tuned in to their parents' emotional and physical fragility, their unexpressed traumas, or simply the feelings and thoughts that can't or 'shouldn't' be spoken about. Without help putting this into language or validation of their reality, it's easy for these intuitions and instincts to morph into obsessional doubts and worries rather than blossom into creative contributions.
Being so aware of what is repressed or suppressed, they also feel excessive responsibility for doing something to make it better (or guilt for not doing something). Since they can perceive it, they should do something about it, even if only in their own minds. And this, understandably, leaves them in conflict.
It also presses them to make it right. And so they become especially concerned with being moral, good, and pure. In the process, they try to push down the normal fire of emotions, and attempt to transcend their own messy humanity by being especially conscientiousness in deed and thought.
It's not just that I shouldn't get too assertive or aggressive, but I also shouldn't have even contemplated it. If I do, it is all the more proof that I am wrong and guilty, goes the perfectionist inner script for the OCD sufferer.
Because they are sensitive to hurt, those with OCD are also keenly aware of the use and misuse of power, and see it again, like fire, as primarily a destructive tool. Instead of being able to mobilize this energy in the healthy services of themselves, aggressiveness boomerangs back on themselves in the form of intrusive thoughts of violence, sexually taboo material, or any other 'impure' rumination.
Many people who suffer from OCD can remember having obsessions from an early age about the fear of losing somebody they love, of fearing their illness, or even the terrifyingly violent thoughts in their own minds that could do them in.
Holding On to Oneself
OCD does the 'dirty work' of asserting the self. The irony is that OCD symptoms actually are the psyche's clever way of trying to help set boundaries. They do so in such a way as not to hurt another person and maintain a sense of inner control. For example, I once had a client who was being playfully pushed by a friend but it began to feel like it was becoming too much. Instead of asserting herself in the moment, her OCD symptom began to take over and tried to convince her that if this didn't stop she would soon get brain damage.
The OCD symptom becomes a way for the individual to maintain some healthy separation and have the 'excuse' of the compulsion: "You have to stop because if you don't my OCD tells me I'll get brain damage." It's not me that is demanding that you stop, it is my OCD. In other words, the fire that we all need to express and assert ourselves gets coopted by the OCD itself.
A similar example comes when a person has an OCD flare up and needs people to immediately wash their hands. Often in the background, there is a desire for more space or control, and the symptom rushes in to help negotiate that.
Individuals with OCD often do not feel entitled to their own space and opinions. Notice how quickly they doubt themselves and feel the need for reassurance from others to bolster or validate their views. Those with OCD often feel like they need to make sure others are okay in order for themselves to be okay. At the same time, this doesn't allow them to be that separate person that they need in order to be 'as interpersonal as they please.'
Reconnecting to the Creative Fire
I often tell my clients with OCD that our job is to remember that fire can be great as long as it is linked up correctly. Just look at a car. It is a sophisticated explosion device that has found a way to use its energy for momentum rather than destruction.
The goal of OCD treatment is to help reconnect the fire and move it from OCD thoughts and compulsion into creative momentum. In other words, it's about recognizing the underlying thoughts and feelings--even if they initially conjure up anxiety--and getting support with translating them into a better balance of respecting oneself and the people you love.
It's only then that we can see OCD not just as a nuisance, but as a messenger for linking up to our true creative purpose again.