Those of us with OCD know what it’s like to suffer, many of us doing so for years or even decades until we finally find exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), the evidence-based therapy for OCD.
You’d think, after reclaiming our lives from OCD, that we’d do anything we could not to suffer again. Especially if we had some modicum of control over the suffering.
And yet, I’ve found that over the past ten years of my recovery, I’ve repeatedly and willingly created my own suffering using the following tried and true recipe, of which I first learned in Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion, and that she learned from meditation teacher Shinzen Young:
Pain x Resistance = Suffering
Let me give you a personal example. I love learning and creating. Whether it’s understanding a client’s story and helping her develop a targeted ERP exercise so she work on reclaiming her life or exploring the world of detectives and horse racing and writing a murder novel involving a jockey who has OCD (my current writing project), I love the creation process.
But I loathe administrative work: filling out forms, dealing with vendors such as credit card and phone companies and the bank, and gathering accounting information to give to my CPA. To me, those tasks are the opposite of creativity. Many times they feel like the equivalent of plunging a toilet that doesn’t want to be plunged.
Every day I wake up looking forward to my creative tasks and hoping the toilet will plunge itself, which it never does, and then becoming grumpy when I realize that I’m going to be spending time in the company of the metaphorical unplunged toilet.
I’m creating my own suffering, and what’s more, I know I’m doing it when I pretend like there’s going to be no admin work required that day! Here’s how this looks in equation form:
The pain of administrative work x my loathing it (including using words like “loathe”) = lots of time feeling grumpy, disappointed, and upset at toilets and their need for plunging.
Take the plunge!
How do I fix this? By stopping my resistance to administrative work. This is akin to a previous post I’ve written about turning “I have to” into “I want to.” Instead of saying, “Ugh. I hate admin. Why won’t it go away? Why do I have to do it?” I can say, “Admin is a part of life. I’m making it out to be a bigger deal than it is, as it’s honestly not that bad. So I’m going to accept it, because resisting is just making me disappointed and discouraged.”
I can even work toward plunging into loving toilet plunging: “Yay admin! This keeps my business and my life running smoothy! I want to do this!” That feels like a stretch right now, but I know that kind of radical acceptance would make my life a whole lot better.
The downside of noticing
As Jon Hershfield and I talk about in Everyday Mindfulness: Tips, Tricks, & Skills for Living Joyfully, people with OCD are noticers. This can be life-enhancing, as we may notice and appreciate that glorious sunset more than other folks. However, this tendency can also be a source of suffering, as we may notice our own pain more, too, and then automatically push back against it. For instance, you might notice that sometimes:
- You still have disturbing intrusive thoughts, even after all the ERP you’ve done (and you want them to go away!)
- You have anxiety for no reason whatsoever (and that “shouldn’t” be happening!)
- You feel irritation for even having OCD (and you wish so, so much that you didn’t have it.)
See how easy it is to go from noticing pain to wishing it weren’t there? All the things in the parentheses are examples of resistance, and they are the roots of our self-inflicted suffering.
Acceptance is key
When we resist, we’re trying to make the pain go away. We’re not accepting that pain is a part of life.
Compulsions are another example of a big form of resistance because by doing them, we’re trying to get the pain of anxiety to go away. Further, OCD is often conning us into doing compulsions by saying that we can somehow change outcomes in the past, present, or future as if we’re all wizards in Harry Potter. But by giving in to rituals we’re also resisting the reality that things are going to be how they are going to be, since we’re all Muggles (non-magic folk). As Doris Day sings, “Que cera, cera.” Resisting anxiety by doing compulsions is futile, and worse, it just makes OCD stronger.
I’m working diligently to accept that admin is a part of life, as acceptance is a key part of my new Rule #1 that I discuss toward the end of Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life. If I become really skilled at acceptance of admin, some day I may even learn to look forward to plunging the toilet because of the benefits it will bring.
Resistance is the key ingredient in the recipe for suffering and acceptance is the key ingredient to ongoing peace.
For more about my Rule #1, see pages 254-265 of Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life. If you’d like to read more about the equation for suffering in Dr. Neff’s book, please see page 93 of Self-Compassion.
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My blogs are not a replacement for therapy, and I encourage all readers who have obsessive compulsive disorder to find a competent ERP therapist. See the IOCDF treatment provider database for a provider near you. And never give up hope, because you can tame OCD and reclaim your life!