5 personality traits that made OCD recovery a challenge

I was 7 in this picture. I was always extremely overprotective of my brother.

1. Creativity

I’ve always been a creative person. I loved art as a kid, I would spend hours upon hours drawing. My family tell me they used to marvel at the way I would build Lego models at such a young age. We never had the sets with instructions, we just had a massive box of random bricks that we were given second hand. I would always build complex spaceships or buildings with a fine attention to details.

My own brain uses my creativity against me so that even the most illogical and improbable becomes a possible reality

I am also very creative in thought. Simple things can bore me and I struggle with repetitive activities (ironic I know!), I think that is why I like philosophy so much because it is the ultimate discipline to explore creativity of thought.

Of course, creativity is often a good thing and I wouldn’t trade it in. However, where OCD is concerned it has also been a curse because it enables my mind to concoct elaborate stories about how or why my obsessions pose a danger. For example, getting a random person pregnant when sharing a toilet (madness I know). I make leaps and assumptions often incorrectly, and devise complex webs of thought when it isn’t necessary. My own brain uses my creativity against me so that even the most illogical and improbable becomes a possible reality.

2. Perfectionism

Before I started school I had just turned aged 4 years old in July, to start September. I attended a Church of England school that required all pupils to wear a shirt and tie in all years during the autumn and winter terms. I remember being told about having to wear a tie. My parents showed me how to do it, and every day during summer I practiced until I could perfectly tie the tie. I was 4, and the only person for the first two years of school who could do it without help. Apparently the other kids would line up whilst I sorted their ties, I don’t remember this.

In my teens I was very much into basketball. I was never the most athletic person, but I could shoot the ball really well. But it came at a price. I would practice shooting every day for around 2-3 hours. Shot after shot after shot. I was striving for perfection. If I took 100 three pointers and made “only” 70 in practice, I would berate myself. One miss was one too many. This perfectionism, alongside OCD and depression led to me having to give up basketball because of how unwell I had become. I’m not saying I would have made the NBA, but I was hoping to at least give it a shot in the UK league and see how I got on. Maybe it would have happened, I guess I’ll never know. I have only recently been able to even start watching the NBA again in the last couple of years as it always reminded me of what OCD took from me. During lockdown I have even been shooting a ball into an old pedal bin. Come back at 32? 😀

Where OCD is concerned, perfectionism can make life very hard. Compulsions must feel perfectly complete before moving on. As perfection is an illusory concept you are aiming for a phantom goal, just like trying to get 100% certainty. Fortunately, I have made massive inroads with perfectionistics traits and I am a lot more relaxed in most areas of my life. I am content with “good enough”, and even though I try my best, I try not to be too hard on myself when I cannot get to the standard I might have liked. For example, when I was working to finish my Masters dissertation I was quite unwell at the time with OCD. I therefore decided to aim for and achieve a merit, rather than a distinction because to get the latter would almost certainly have made me more unwell. Working full time with 2 young children is a challenge in itself.

3. High empathy and sensitivity levels

From a young age I have always felt others pain extremely deeply. My mum has always said I am a “protector”. I did a Myers Briggs personality test when I was 16, and did it again not too long ago. I came out as an INFJ both times. I’m not usually a massive fans of such tests, I mean how can 4 letters sum up a complex human being. That said, some of the descriptions I have read about INFJs resonate deeply with me. For example:

The [INFJ] has a unique ability to intuit others’ emotions and motivations, and will often know how someone else is feeling before that person knows it himself. They trust their insights about others and have strong faith in their ability to read people.

Truity

I can be a grumpy son of a gun sometimes, but actually this is mainly because I get sad because of the way the world is. Caring all the time is tiring and I just cannot stop caring. I even care for those that are hard to care for, or difficult to like. I love the saying that you should always judge someone’s character based on the way they treat people they don’t need to treat well. It’s easy to me kind when you gain nothing or no one else sees, but it is in those acts where peoples true character shines through.

How does this affect OCD? Well, first, the high levels of empathy means that I am so concerned with the welfare of others that it can at times deeply affect my own mental state which can increase intrusive thoughts. I’m not saying I’m unique in this, and I suspect many OCD sufferers share this burden. Second, being highly sensitive and in tune with my emotions can be twisted against me by the OCD. I feel the pain deeply, small triggers can set the obsession off. Furthermore, the intuition I rely so heavily on as mentioned in the INFJ description above becomes distorted during am OCD episode. With OCD lapses I sometimes feel like I am in a house of mirrors. I cannot tell up from down, left from right. It’s like the ship’s emotional compass has been smashed and I’m sailing in the fog. It’s scary at times, and self preservation becomes the only means for survival.

On top of all this, which (again) I know most people with OCD share, is a high sense of responsibility. With or without OCD many of us will feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. This becomes amplified ten fold when obsessions strike, particularly those relating to harm OCD. This hyper responsibility as it’s sometimes called it often key area that needs looking into during CBT.

4. Deep thinking (and magical thinking)

My Dad has always said I remind him of the boy Jim in Empire of the Sun, a film incidentally made in 1987, the year of my birth (spooky coincidence?). In particular the following dialogue which can be seen at around the 3 minute mark:

Jim : Dr. Rawlin, do you remember how we had helped build the runway? If we die like the others, our bones would be IN the runway. In a way, it’s OUR runway…

Dr. Rawlins : No it’s THEIR runway, Jim! Try not to think so much! Try not to THINK so much!

If in the midst of an attack on the prisoner camp via aerial bombing, Jim is overthinking the situation and what it means, even if he is to die in the process. This sums up OCD so neatly. I once joked that if aliens invaded the earth I would be the first to volunteer on the front line, but I would still be ruminating in between shooting aliens!

On the positive side I can see patterns and predicts things in advance, which helps tremendously. Other times I get carried away and overly conceptualise situations to the extreme. I can’t even watch a film without knowing the year, the actors and what they were in before, or what the meaning behind certain scenes might represent. Last night for example I watch the Quiet Place with John Krasinski, I then looked at the usual stuff as listed above and came across a review that insinuated that Krasinski, who also directed the film, was unknowingly portraying his views about identity politics and race relations in America. Actually, no, the film is about creatures with super sensitive hearing killing people and one family trying to survive – literally there is nothing else to it.

This is the problem with overthinking or deep thinking when it becomes unhealthy. If we are not careful we can come up with all kind of convoluted theories. This is why smart people are prone to believe weird things, because they will always find a way to justify it. This can be an absolute nightmare for OCD, because alongside creativity we concoct all sorts of wild and whacky reasons why the obsession needs addressing.

Magical thinking is the belief that your thoughts or feelings can have an impact on the world. Most of us have a degree of this in our lives, whether its “touching wood” to avoid bad luck, or a lucky pair or shorts like Michael Jordan in Space Jam – such quirky behaviours are normal. Even me innocently implying that the year the film Empire of the Sun was made being the same as my birth year, and therefore implying there might be some cosmic link, I suppose, is a minor example of magical thinking in action.

However, the key magical thinking type belief I have had is thinking that good and bad are balancing forces in the cosmos. I have had this bizarre underlying belief since I was a small child, and even though logically and intellectually I know its ridiculous, it has somehow welded itself into my psyche. So for example, any time I have felt happy in the past, I thought that the universe would have to balance it out with something negative. If I didnt have something to obsess about, it was only a matter of time before something would come along. My mind also used to tell me that the longer I am happy the worse the punishment will be. The way I saw it then, if I could just find something to be sad about then the punishment would be less in future. Of course because of this I spent much of my childhood in misery.

I don’t literally believe that the universe is going to punish me with some kind of cosmic balancing act when I am happy. But to this day I am often at my most vulnerable to bad OCD spikes when I feel great, and I know this is one of the main reasons why.

5. Prone to guilt

Again, very common with other OCD sufferers. We sufferer tremendously with guilt. I can be so hard on myself its unreal. If I make a mistake I want to rectify it immediately. If I hurt someones feelings it can cause me a lot of distress until I feel I have made amends.

I have definately come a long way in these respects, but the guilt that affects OCD centres around 3 things: actually having OCD (why won’t it go away?); the effects OCD has on my loved ones, and; how I feel if I make a mistake and engage in a compulsion(s).

On the first point, and this related to perfectionism, I feel like I should be better by now. If I am not fully recovered then that means I am not trying hard enough. Many experts will argue that OCD is chronic for most, others, including ex-sufferers claim that the right treatment can bring forth a full recovery. It angers me sometimes that I cannot get this “full recovery”. There is nothing I have worked at harder in my life than to manage this disorder. I have done everything possible to get better, made so many sacrifices. Yet the best I get to is 80% recovered. This attitude ironically doesn’t help with OCD recovery. A 2019 article by Jon Hershfield suggests that the cure for OCD is accepting there isn’t a cure. I think this is the stage of recovery I am at right now.

On the second point, OCD has taken me away from my family often over the years. Nowhere near as bad these days as in the past, but I still often need extra sleep as a maintenance strategy. My wife is amazingly supportive but having to go upstairs on a Saturday afternoon for an OCD prevention snooze when my little boys are shouting for me to continue playing – it breaks my heart. However, if I don’t listen to my body I know the brain can become sticky and then OCD could grip and take hold again. Prevention is much less time consuming in the long run.

Finally, the third point, that I feel guilt when I make an error and give in to compulsions. I have actually punched myself in the face before in the past for this (mainly when I was much younger). Intellectually I know compulsions never help. It’s hard to describe but sometimes it’s like spirit Richard rises out of my body and watches OCD Richard start googling why he isn’t going to hell. Like an alcoholic reaches for a bottle of beer – one is never enough.

But guilt only makes it worse and drains much needed energy required for the comeback. This is something I continue to work on.


Thanks again for reading!

2 thoughts on “5 personality traits that made OCD recovery a challenge”

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