Thursday, June 17, 2010

OCD and Embracing the Grey Areas

I realized something this week about my OCD that I've never noticed before. I'm uncomfortable with grey areas.

It's true in so many ways: I fear that I've done something wrong, and strive to always do right. I'm obsessed with knowing; not knowing is bad, and knowing is good. I want to know that something either will never happen, because the only other option is that it absolutely will. (I'm over-simplifying in every example, but at the core of nearly every issue is tension between extremes.)

If, after assessing each issue in question I fall on the less-desirable side of the grey, I have to do whatever it takes to traverse the expanse. When I can't, I'm wracked by anxiety. If I've done something wrong, I have to apologize and try to make it right. Sometimes I even try to reverse what I've done. If I don't know something, I feel guilty out of some obligation to know. And we all know what happens when a person with OCD has trouble with the uncertainty that a worst fear may come true.

To further complicate things, I'm impatient. I can't wait to decide that something falls on one side of the grey area or the other.

This impatience comes out in the real world, too (vs. the world of fear inside). Say I'm waiting for a boss to make a decision. Is he going to decide that we're going to take this job, or not? If we are then I have to start working right away because the deadline is approaching. If not then I can do other work. I'm either all in, or I'm moving on.

There's a responsibility issue all wrapped up in this, too. Something is either all my fault, or I'm 100% in the clear. Say I'm driving to work. I see a man coming out of the woods. What if he just got done burying a body? If I don't say something then when the murder is uncovered, the death will be all my fault.

I thought about it wonderment and asked why this hasn't come to me sooner; it would be the perfect exposure to practice in my GOAL group, but I'm not even sure I know how to approach it.
People aren't all good or all bad. There is such thing as only half getting it. The very antidote to fear is living in the grey area. Any ideas for helping me see that?


If you have any ideas for exposures to tackle the discomfort of grey areas, post them here! If you don't know what an exposure is or are new to OCD and ERP, a good place to start is wikipedia, with the search term "exposure and response prevention."


  1. YES! I think we all struggle with this. OCD is very black and white for me. There is no "small risk" - it's either entirely safe, or entirely not. I posted a few quotes in myblog sidebar that might speak to you, as mostly they are about my feelings on certainty (or lack thereof) and taking risks.

    Simply, accepting risk is part of getting better. It is part of life, for that matter. Nothing is 100% guaranteed. Drives me nuts, to be sure, but it is what it is. Habituation and ERP, that is the only way around uncertainty that I know of. Sit with it. Wait it out. Do not feed the OCD. It will not just get hungrier, it's appetite will ease and your strength will grow.

  2. One exposure I've done is writing a script about how I can't really know for sure if I've made the right decision, but that I am going to keep living my life instead of freezing waiting to find out, and then I recorded it and listened to it frequently.

    Doing a coin flip for a decision at least once a day was a helpful exposure--because the random choice might not be the 100% right one, and I get a chance to habituate to that rather than doing my ritual of analyzing &researching everything for complete certainty.

    I struggle with believing I must know things in advance and omnisciently, and exposures usually consist of taking my "best guess" rather than researching.

  3. Expwoman, YES! I love your coin flip idea. I'm doing that. My approach to decision-making was to make myself conscious of the decisions I make, but I like this better.

    Regarding your best guess, how to you limit yourself? Does time determine how long you give yourself to figure something out?

  4. Glad the coin flip sounds helpful--it really pushed me into the gray area much faster than my usual analysis. With my "best guess" sometimes I give myself a time limit. It's important for me to frame the time limit as "get the decision done" not "use every last bit in order to make the right decision"--if I feel a bit riled up when the timer dings, that's a signal to make the decision, not keep going with my analysis and "figuring out." I went 3 months researching something I wanted to order, and finally, one of my first exposures was setting a time limit to make an order--I think it was an hour--it was hard, but also thrilling that I actually ordered SOMETHING!!!