I have got OCD. That is to say: I have intrusive thoughts flying into my head, which create anxiety, sparking in me the urge to perform certain actions (‘compulsions’), that relieve me of the anxiety. What kind of thoughts am I talking about? Well, it’s hard to explain. Fore example: whenever I touch something, let’s say a book, I have to have a certain ‘image’ in mind – usually of someone I look up to. Also, I have to do the ‘touch-don’t touch’ ritual a certain number of times. Not any number of course! No, only the numbers that ‘are right’. This is not an exact science, but the numbers are always even (unless it’s one, which is always good!), but not any even number will do…Makes sense right?
Is this weird? Absolutely. Would I die if I wouldn’t give into the urges? Absolutely not. Why then do I do it? Am I stupid? Or to put it differently: is it irrational to give into these urges?
My first response would be: ‘Yes, this is very irrational.’ I perform certain actions which don’t add any value to my life. It is not like baking a cake, washing your car or taking a shower: activities that actually provide you with some sort of tangible effect. But it is even worse that: because besides the fact that my compulsions don’t add any value, they actually take (an awful long) time and energy. So actually it is very stupid to give into the urges. So why then do I do it? Am I stupid?
Well, it is actually very easy to explain…to those who smoke. If you are a smoker, you, after let’s say two hours of not-smoking, feel the urge to smoke. If you don’t give into that urge, you will get nervous, irritable, you cannot focus, and more. You know that smoking doesn’t add any value to your life; hell no, it’s even bad for you! Yet, even though you know this, you give into your urge to smoke, and take a cigarette. Why? Because in the short term, it’s the best thing to do. One more cigarette won’t harm you that much, while not taking the cigarette does harm you significantly – you get nervous, irritable, and you cannot put your mind to those issues you want to focus on, etc.
It’s the same with OCD. Let’s say I touch a book and put it away. Then I feel the urge to do this with a ‘good image’ in mind. Not giving into the urge makes me feel like there is a lock on my brain, like my cognitive capacities are severely limited, like I cannot think clearly (sounds familiar smokers?). This feeling is so unpleasant, that – even though I know it won’t add any value in the long term (if will even detract value due to the time and energy it takes) – I do the compulsion to get rid of the unpleasantness.
Furthermore, just like smoking, OCD is addictive. You either don’t do it, or you do it big time. For if you give into the urge, the urge will become stronger, and it will be harder to resist. But in case you don’t give in, the urge will get less and less. But in order not to give in, you have to resist the unpleasantness of the moment, and – as I explained above – that always seems the sup-optimal option.
But back to the question I asked at the start: is it irrational to give into the urges? Especially given that I know it won’t add any value to my life? I say – and I have been ridiculed for this by my psychiatrist – it is not irrational. Because at each point in time, not giving into the urge leaves me with a bad feeling: an unpleasant feeling, a restriction on my thinking, that I don’t want. This feeling can literally last for hours, or even an entire day. Giving into the urge clears me of this bad feeling. And – even though the activity takes time and effort – that takes much less time and energy than that the negative feeling makes me feel bad. The only problem is that I know that, within now and a couple of seconds after having given into the urge, the next urge will be there, to which I will have to give in again…
Welcome inside of the mind of someone with OCD.
What do you think: is it utterly irrational to give in to the urges? Or would you say that – given the short term relief of the negative feeling – it is actually a rational thing to do?