According to the International OCD Foundation, obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD is, “A mental health disorder that occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.” We’ve already established how harmful it can be to toss around the phrase “I’m so OCD,” when you’re really just passionate about keeping your kitchen clean, but what about other things you shouldn’t say to someone who’s been diagnosed with OCD? We got the scoop from Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC.
1. “It’s okay, we’re all a little OCD.”
You might think statements like this will normalize what your friend is feeling, but Fedrick tells us they’re actually hurtful and damaging. “The first concern with this type of statement is that ‘OCD is a diagnosis not a label. A person is not OCD, they are diagnosed with OCD,” she explains. “The former way of stating it implies the individual is defective and is a disorder, whereas the latter way of stating this indicates that this individual has been diagnosed with this disorder.” Phrases like this are also incredibly dismissive and minimize the struggles that an individual experiences with this disorder. Implying that everyone struggles with OCD a little bit “works to minimize the tremendous emotional burden that accompanies an OCD diagnosis,” Fedrick notes.
2. “Relax. You’re acting crazy.”
This is gaslighting101. Throwing around the word crazy can be a major blow to a person’s self-esteem, especially if they already struggle with self-criticism (as Fedrick says many people with OCD do). Beyond that, suggesting that a person with OCD can just relax or turn it off ignores the reality of the condition. “An individual diagnosed with OCD does not have the choice to just ‘stop’ the obsession or compulsion; thus, if they believe they are crazy or weird because of this, this could certainly lead to or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and/or depression,” Fedrick stresses. Plus, if someone with OCD could just make it stop, they probably would’ve done so by now.
3. “You’re so controlling. Everything always has to be your way.”
“This type of statement is hurtful because it indicates that the individual has a personality or character flaw,” Fedrick points out. “While it is quite natural to feel frustrated at times with people you are close to who struggle with OCD symptoms, there are more constructive ways to express upset or frustration than name-calling, criticizing or making disparaging remarks.” She adds that phrases like this are counterproductive because, if the individual is feeling attacked or on the defense, this will like increase symptoms of anxiety. She urges that finding gentler ways to express frustrations will ultimately lead to more desired outcomes.
4. “You’re lucky. I wish I could be more organized.”
Nope! “Individuals who experience symptoms of OCD are most certainly not lucky and definitely do not feel as though these symptoms are helpful or beneficial to their daily functioning,” says Fedrick, adding that these symptoms often make even simple tasks much more difficult. On top of that, she tells us that it’s a common misconception that OCD automatically equates to increased cleanliness and organization. She explains, “The true nature of OCD is that an individual is often overwhelmed and uncomfortable by anxious feelings in their body, which often leads to obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors in an attempt to relieve their body from this discomfort.” While this can manifest as a compulsion to keep everything around them spotless, cleanliness is far from the only behavior associated with OCD.
5. “You don’t act like you have OCD.”
As noted, OCD manifests differently in each individual who’s diagnosed with it. Fedrick points out that though there are some common behaviors associated with OCD (frequent hand washing, excessive checking of locks or other safety features, a desire for things to look or feel, etc.) these aren’t the only ways that OCD can show up. As such, it’s crucial not to make statements that cause a person to have to explain or justify their diagnosis. What should you do instead? “If someone informs you that they struggle with OCD symptoms, you can use validating statements, such as ‘that must be really difficult,’ and then ask if they would like to talk about it further,” Fedrick tells us. She shares that OCD can at times be embarrassing or awkward for the diagnosed person to openly talk about until a sense of trust and safety is established—which is never going to happen if you use phrases like those outlined above.