What Not To Say To Someone with OCD (And What To Say)

Having OCD can make the typical day feel like a mountain climb. Uncomfortable emotions like fear, guilt, and disgust are experienced in response to everyday tasks, and the extensive rituals performed to deal with these feelings can take over one’s life. So it doesn’t help matters when disclosing one’s diagnosis to others becomes a struggle in itself. Unfortunately, this is often the case. Not only are people with OCD ashamed to share their symptoms with others, but they often receive unhelpful responses from others when they finally do share. So, here are some things to avoid saying when talking to someone you know with OCD.

“Just stop worrying about it.”  It’s important to appreciate just how much our brains can control us. For someone experiencing the extreme discomfort of OCD, it is not possible to “just stop” worrying about it, any more than you can tell a mourning person to “just stop” being sad or a soldier returning from a warzone to “just stop” being freaked out by loud noises. There is a treatment, and it does work, but it takes time and it doesn’t involve “just stopping” OCD. (other variations of this statement: “Just get over it,”  “Just stop doing that,” “Just ignore it,” “Just touch it.”)

“I used to have OCD and I just got rid of it on my own.” This is a common statement, particularly by family members, since OCD tends to run in families. However, it’s important to be aware that with any illness there are variations in severity. A person recovering from a hairline fracture wouldn’t go up to someone with a compound fracture and ask “Why aren’t you better yet?” The same can be said of OCD. Individual cases vary by anxiety/discomfort level, ability to challenge or ignore the thoughts, and the road to recovery is different for everyone. (variations on this statement: “Just do what I did in my addiction treatment,” “You just need to…”)

“You don’t have OCD. You’re fine.” This statement is usually based on a misunderstanding of OCD as something that always involves handwashing and ordering. In actuality, OCD is a severe mental health disorder that is often invisible to others. In some cases, individuals with OCD are able to hide it for years from others, resulting in extreme emotional distress and mental strain. When it finally catches up with the person, they often become highly disabled and are left with the task of sharing the diagnosis with others in order to get help. Loved ones may feel guilty and defensive for not catching OCD earlier, and may even express incredulity at the diagnosis. But keep in mind that there’s a reason the person is sharing this information with you, and it’s a problem that won’t be going away any time soon. (variations on this statement: “OCD isn’t real,” “Everyone has a little OCD.”)

Now let’s look at a few more helpful things you can say to your friend or loved one with OCD that will assist in recovery.

“I know you don’t want to be living like this.” Keep in mind that everyone wants to live a full life, be successful, and feel good about themselves. No one with OCD actually wants to have OCD, even though their motivation to fight their OCD may wax and wane.

“I’m sorry. I’m just really frustrated with your OCD today.” It’s inevitable. You will get frustrated. But be sure to separate the behaviors you find frustrating from the actual person, as this will only impact the person’s self esteem and make treatment more difficult.

“Let me know how I can support you getting better.” OCD has already left your loved one feeling like they have no control. Any efforts you can make to give that person a chance to dictate their needs and have some control over their day will go a long way towards recovery. (Of course, the person with OCD may already be controlling your behavior too much, and you may be offering too much support, but this would be something to work on after discussing the issue with a professional).

“I noticed that you did…insert success story here.” Recovery from OCD is often a slow process, with gradual gains. Try your best to stay focused on the positive. Your friend or loved one is going to need to know that you are seeing their efforts, and their successes.

Keep in mind that this is all general advice. You should encourage anyone you know struggling with OCD to seek out a qualified therapist to begin to work on things. If you become involved in the treatment process, you may receive new instructions on how best to respond to OCD in a way that will not perpetuate symptoms. And, be sure to take some time for yourself. If you become overwhelmed and stressed, you will be of no help to yourself or your loved one.