We all know someone who likes to keep things Danny Tanner-level clean or perfectly color-coded—maybe it's your own M.O. If so, you’ve probably acknowledged your quirks by saying “I’m so OCD.” Maybe you've even wondered if your habits do qualify as symptoms of an actual disorder.
Here’s the thing: If you’ve ever labeled yourself or a friend as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) because you love sparkly countertops, there’s almost no chance that you have the high-anxiety, debilitating disorder, says Noah Berman, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist with a specialty in OCD and a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. It's a chronic condition that affects approximately 2 percent of the population.
But today the term is used so often its meaning has gotten murky, Berman says. Not only is OCD nothing like the Mr. Clean stereotype you have in mind, but it also presents itself in many different shapes and forms. Here's why you should stop saying “I’m OCD” for good (or otherwise seek professional help).
The ABCs of OCD
“When we add 'D'—or disorder—to the end of a personality trait or mood state, it indicates something very important: intensity,” says Jeff Symanski, Ph.D., executive director of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). This emphasis on the letter “d” is especially important here since the other two letters—O for “obsessive” and C for “compulsive”—stand for terms that have an everyday meaning.
You can be “obsessed” with a new song, barre class, or yes, cleaning your house. On the other hand, a clinical obsession is an unwanted and intrusive thought, impulse, or idea. “People with OCD do not like having these thoughts,” Berman says—cleaning or organizing their room every single day doesn't give them any pleasure.
Another critical characteristic: Obsessions can be “ego-dystonic,” Berman says, meaning they do not align with your value system. For example, you may be a good, caring person, but if you suffer from one form of OCD known as harm OCD, you may have immoral, intrusive thoughts about harming others, such as pushing a stranger into traffic or attacking a family member or partner.
Compulsions are ritualistic or repetitive behaviors aimed at managing the obsessions and the anxieties that accompany them, Berman explains, and they often go unnoticed by others.
In the case of harm OCD, compulsions could include constantly checking your rearview mirror to make sure you didn't hit anyone or avoiding sharp objects like knives. Or if someone suffers from a fear of HIV, they may wash their hands for two hours to reduce that anxiety—not because they love the smell of soap or “feeling clean.”
People with OCD feel like these compulsive behaviors are out of their control, says Daniel Chazin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. If you're simply choosing to clean things in your house or whatever you habit is, that's not OCD. People with OCD would prefer not to be doing these behaviors, but it feels out of their control and very distressing.
More Than a Neat Freak
Many people also believe OCD is always related to cleanliness or organization or counting things. Although fears of contamination (from dirt, germs, viruses, and the like) and an overwhelming need of symmetry, evenness, or exactness are symptoms of OCD, they’re much more extreme than a desire to clean your house or keep pencils in a row.
People with an extreme need for symmetry, for example, constantly rearrange items or insist on even numbers not because they don't like things out of order, but because they fear that something bad may happen (like a family member dying) if everything's not perfect.
Plus, OCD comes in many different forms, says Chris Leins, a therapist at the Lousiville OCD Clinic. Half of obsessive-compulsive disorder cases misdiagnosed: vignette-based survey of primary care physicians. Glazier K, Swing M, McGinn LK. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 2015, Sep.;76(6):1555-2101. As mentioned above, people can have harm OCD. Other types include pedophilia OCD, homosexual OCD, religious OCD, relationship OCD, or postpartum OCD—all of which involve unwanted, unwarranted thoughts that the sufferer does not act upon but is terrified he or she will. (This site and this site have great resources for learning more about symptoms of each type.)
“These types of OCD are really important and really misunderstood, because they involve ‘unacceptable thoughts’ in society’s terms,” Berman says. “Having deep, distressing anxiety about these thoughts is a good indicator that the person is suffering from OCD.”
In other words, someone who suffers from pedophile OCD is not a pedophile; it's someone who has fears about harming children, but they deeply resent and suffer anxiety from these fears. It’s this deep anxiety (“Why am I having these horrible thoughts?”) that leads to compulsions, like avoiding situations where children may be present at all costs.
Living With OCD
There are treatment options available for people who suffer from all of these types of OCD, including psychotherapy, which uses a variety of techniques to help reduce or stop compulsions, and medication. Pharmacoepidemiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder: A Swedish nationwide cohort study. Isomura K, Nordsletten AE, Rück C. European neuropsychopharmacology : the journal of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016, Feb.;26(4):1873-7862. One therapy technique, “exposure with response prevention,” has clients face their obsessions head on and then allows them to see that their anxiety will dissipate on its own, even if they do not engage in their compulsions. Exposure and response prevention helps adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder who do not respond to pharmacological augmentation strategies. McLean CP, Zandberg LJ, Van Meter PE. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 2015, undefined.;76(12):1555-2101.
Obviously, this is some pretty heavy stuff, so joking around about the disorder can have some unintentional consequences. “Saying ‘I’m so OCD’ has become a fun fad almost,” Berman says, “but OCD is one of the top ten debilitating disorders that causes an unimaginable amount of stress and interference. Saying you have OCD because you love to clean completely invalidates someone’s experiences.” And while portrayals of these compulsions may be humorous to watch on TV or in movies, it's important to remember that for people with OCD, it's far from hilarious.
Plus there's a danger in calling yourself any rigid label—especially one that's negative and likely incorrect— since it can be harmful to your self-esteem, says Michael Mantell, Ph.D., a transformational behavior coach and Greatist expert. It's a better idea to see yourself in a far more positive light, he says. In other words, think: I may enjoy keeping my home highly organized, but that surely does not make me into someone with a diagnosed mental illness of OCD.
Before you share a GIF about being so OCD with your Facebook friends, stop and think about the implications. Would you want someone joking about something that seriously affected—and maybe even inhibited—your life? Even better: Step up and be the one to say something one of your friends cracks an OCD joke. The phrase will never go away unless we’re all willing to make a change.
Looking for more information? This awesome new website is a wonderful resource for people with OCD and people looking to learn more about OCD. Educating ourselves will help everyone start using the term with careful judgment and accuracy.