Why People with OCD Give Into their ‘Irrationalities’

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?

Book
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.

Rational
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?

An Application of Freud’s Theory of Mind

Everyone must have heard of the name ‘Sigmund Freud‘ at some point in their lives. Thinking about the name, there might be all kinds of images popping up in your mind: things like the mind being like an iceberg, notions like ‘The Id’ and ‘The Ego’, and Freud’s ideas about sex as the explanation for pretty much everything we do. But you might not fully remember all of it. You could say that the ideas might be floating around somewhere between your consciousness and your unconsciousness – to speak in Freudian terminology. But what was it exactly that Freud claimed? And why do many philosophers of science condemn his theories to the realm of ‘pseudo-science’? And what’s the value of Freud’s ideas? Let’s apply Freud’s ideas to an everyday situation and find it for ourselves.

Let’s imagine that you are a guy that goes out with some friends. You guys are ‘chilling in the club’, while suddenly an absolutely gorgeous woman enters the room. You notice a certain feeling taking control over your body: attraction, the feeling of you wanting – in whatever sense defined – that woman. This is not a feeling for which you might necessarily have arguments. No, the feeling is just there. This feeling comes down from the part of your personality that Freud calls ‘The Id. The only thing that The Id cares about is receiving pleasure, loads of it. It has an inextinguishable urge to grab on to everything within its reach, just for it to calm down its perpetual longing for pleasure; no matter how briefly the satisfaction might last.

You can imagine that society would be a rather chaotic institution if every one of us would just give into his animalistic urges at all times. The notion of rape would become little different from our custom of shacking hands. Therefore some basic rules of conduct need to be ingrained in each member of society: ‘Be gentle to others,’ ‘Help an old lady cross the street’ and ‘Don’t have sex with someone else unless that someone wants to’. It is within this domain of ‘The Superego‘ that all kinds of religious and political beliefs nestle. Beliefs that will guide you in living your life like a caged monkey.

Surely: it’s all nice that we are trying to control our animalistic urges by coming up with a set of reasonable rules. But who makes sure that the needs of The Id and the rules of The Superego are properly matched? After all, as we have just seen, they might contradict each other. So we can’t always satisfy both at the same time: we can’t just rape everyone and be a gentleman at the same time. And that’s where ‘The Ego comes in. The Ego is the controlling power, the power that tries to satisfy the needs of The Id while taking account of the rules of The Superego. The Ego is the house of reason, of the economically thinking part of you; the part that decides to fulfill the most pressing urges first – like the urge to still our hunger – and postpone not so pressing urges – like the urge to have sex – to a point in time at which satisfying this urge might be more ‘appropriate’.

Now you can understand why Freud sees our sexual drives as the prime reason for all our psychological problems, right? After all, it isn’t easy to suppress our animalistic needs, put forward by The Id. That can only be done by repressing the beast that lives inside of us. Or, to put it more boldly, the beast that we simply are. But taming the beast does not make it fall asleep. The beast is still there, waiting for his opportunity to come. And when it comes, he unleashes his true nature. So we have to do everything within our power to shackle the beast, everything in order for us to live a ‘reasonable’ life.

There are – and have been – many criticisms about the scientific status of Freud’s ideas, and you might see why. It’s after all quite difficult to capture something as intangible as ‘The Id in terms of empirical data. Nonetheless, Freud’s ideas have found to be very influential within the domain of psychiatry, even though the current generation of psychology students hardly learns anything about them.

Ah well, scientific or not, it’s still a pretty fascinating point of view, right? Oh, and for the guy at the bar: he took the girl home.

But what do you think?