Making decisions can be hard for anyone, but for someone with OCD and anxiety decisions can be an agonizing ordeal. It took me awhile to connect my difficulty making decisions with my OCD, I just figured it was a part of my personality (which I suppose it is). But one day I wondered if it might be connected to my anxiety disorder so I tried to observe my thought process when making decisions. I realized that I approach decisions with the same cyclical thinking process that I do my other obsessions.
I can’t simply make a decision. If it is something seemingly unimportant, such as which box of cereal should I grab from the shelf at the store (no not which brand…literally which box…these are the things I worry about *sigh*), I go back and forth weighing my decision on the thoughts that might pop into my head or how “right” it feels. Then if it is something very important, such as wondering if I should make a career change or not, I:
Compulsion 1: Spend hours Googling
Compulsion 2: Ask Mom/Dad/Boyfriend/Person-I-Just-Met for reassurance (multiple times)
Compulsion 3: Play out every possible outcome all the way to the end (multiple times)
Compulsion 4: Check my feelings as I think about options to see what feels “right”
On the surface these might not initially seem like compulsions, but they fit the definition. Things that I feel I must do in order to get rid of the anxiety I am having about the decision. I talked a little about the Googling compulsion in my previous post so I’ll talk briefly about the others I’ve mentioned.
Reassurance-seeking is a pretty common compulsion. Again, most people like some reassurance about things that are making them anxious but the difference between someone without OCD and someone with OCD is that the person without OCD usually only needs to hear that reassurance once or twice. Then, even though they may still have anxiety about the decision they will not continue to ask for reassurance. Someone with OCD however will not only ask for the same reassurance over and over but possibly even the exact same words over and over. Its not that they forgot but more that the reassurance did not shut off the doubting thoughts replaying in their head so they will need to keep hearing it until it does.
Playing out possible outcomes over and over is another unhealthy anxiety-resolving behavior. The way it works for me is I have a bad thought such as “If I choose to go back to school for Psychology I will be miserable AND in debt”. So then I must picture myself and how it would feel to go through the entire process of going back to school and starting over in a career etc. This might be something anyone would do briefly but for me it feels like something I have to do in order to feel like I’m making the most informed decision and I cannot focus on anything else until I finish thinking through the whole process. I will do this one day and then the next day have the thought again and have to do it all over again.
Lastly, checking for that “right” feeling. Another pretty common compulsion that can be applied to anything from choosing the box of cereal or putting on a shirt in the morning to making big life decisions. It is something that is hard to explain to someone that doesn’t have OCD but this is the best way I can describe it: That feeling you get when you cross the last thing off your to-do list and you sit down on the couch to chill. It is when there are no negative thoughts or feelings tied to something. If you were to plop down on the couch while you still had things on your to-do list you might not feel quite right, you wouldn’t feel settled. Someone with OCD might put a shirt on in the morning and randomly have the thought that they will die in a car accident that day (because their brain knows it’ll get a strong reaction out of that one, so it likes to throw it out at random times throughout the day). They will then not feel quite right, not settled, and take the shirt off and put it on again (and possibly again and again and again until they can get one without any negative thoughts), rather than deal with that not-right feeling. For big decisions it is more anticipating and “checking” for that right feeling when thinking about different options.
Once I realized difficulty making decisions was another part of my OCD it became easier to notice when I was following those OCD patterns and try my best to break them. Sometimes simply being and observer of your thoughts can do wonders for helping you overcome things (even if it is small steps at a time).