Saturday, January 3, 2009

Better safe than sorry? No, sir.

Sometimes I wish I'd never learned the proverb "It's better to be safe than sorry," because it's become my enemy. It's pretty much the worst thing a person with OCD could ever be told.

Say I went to a party last night. I wake up this morning replaying the events of the whole party over in my head. Did that one comment I made about the host's home come out wrong? Were people offended? Did I look like I thought his house was a mess? I had better apologize when I see him because it's better to be safe than sorry.

Or what if I'm cooking dinner, and the thought occurs to me that maybe I didn't wash my hands after touching the raw chicken. Then I touch the outside of a bag of flour. To a healthy mind it's no big deal if I didn't because I'm not serving dinner yet and I'm really only touching the pan handle with my chicken hands. Well, just in case, I'd better wash my hands anyway. Better safe than sorry.

But Am I?
These tendencies to "re-check" and "re-do" are my rituals. I can check anything, depending on what I'm worried about. As a person with OCD these rituals are soothing, but I'm addicted to the relief of doubt they give me...until I doubt something else.

The more I check, the more doubt takes over and I fall victim to checking things repeatedly, or worse: fearing things that cannot be checked-away. Soon the snowball effect of anxiety and depression consumes me. Depending on what I'm worried about I might land myself in an emergency room, 10 pounds lighter (read: sicklier).

The Problem of the False Premise
While "Better safe than sorry" is a helpful rule for the healthy mind, it's poison to the obsessive-compulsive mind. Checking and rechecking everything is a misapplication of the rule to situations that don't warrant it. I can check that I've turned the stove off, but what is the liklihood that I wouldn't see its glowing coils when I turned off the kitchen light? Pretty unlikely. The axiom assumes that every situation is highly risky, when in most cases it isn't.

A Different Kind of Relief
As part of my constant recovery I am taught to go towards the anxiety. Going toward it means flat-out avoiding the tendency to recheck. It teaches me to accept doubt. Accepting doubt flies straight in the ugly face of the proverb and my perversion of it...but it feels great.

I take a look at my life from a wider angle: How is it better to let doubt control me? If I'm certain that my purpose is not to live in suffering, and I am not living my full potential if I am paralyzed by worry, then it would follow that being "better safe than sorry" is, in fact, a lie.

Whew, what a relief.


  1. I'm glad you found my blog and left me link to yours! It's always comforting to find someone out there who understands me because they have walked in shoes like mine.
    Keep posting! I look forward to reading.

  2. Re cooking the chicken and washing hands to be "safe"... I would also have had to wash the pan handle and wipe the outside of the bag of flour. :-

  3. I'm so glad for this post, and for this blog. I have OCD, but I'm not in a place where I can be open about it. I wish I could count how many times a day I hear myself say, "Better safe than sorry" in my mind when I go through a ridiculous amount of preventive measures because something feels contaminated.

    PS: I probably would have thrown the flour away. Not that anyone should have, but, well, you get the idea.

  4. Hi, StatMama.

    I'm glad you found it, too!

    You're right about the flour, but we'll never get better if we don't confront our fears. It's hard work, and scary, but we'll never avoid risks. Never. Knowing that, and working with that, has been my most effective treatment.

  5. "Better safe than sorry" is my dear OCD father's favorite saying. That and "Too soon old, too late smart." Unfortunately, he refuses to recognize that he has a problem and lives in a perpetual frenzy because of it. Not to mention that he drives away everyone who loves him and tries to help.

  6. this is a breath of fresh air for me.

  7. Hello, Isf. I'm glad you think so. I hope the rest of my blog can be a mighty wind of fresh air! Keep reading--I'll be getting back to my original schedule of posting shortly.