In this spirit, I will share with you that after the death of my little dog, Bella, I became sloppy with the response prevention part of my exposure and response prevention (ERP). I used grief as an excuse to do compulsions and started doing subtle rituals that felt almost insignificant. But I unsurprisingly ended up all wrapped up in OCD’s stories and—I kid you not—finally asked my best friend for reassurance, something I haven’t done for years. She refused to answer, but just the fact that she didn’t freak out was all the reassurance my OCD needed. Also unsurprisingly, over time all this subtle and not-so-subtle compulsive behavior essentially poured Miracle Grow over my OCD.
Self-indulgence vs. self-compassion
Why was I doing all these compulsions? In essence, I was using grief as an excuse and choosing self-indulgence over self-compassion to allow myself to engage in ritualistic behavior. What’s the difference between self-indulgence and self-compassion? A self-indulgent choice makes you feel good in the short term, even though it’s not helpful in the long run. Eating an entire box of cookies or spending hours and hours on social media are other good examples of potentially self-indulgent choices.
In contrast, a self-compassionate choice makes you feel supported and cared for in the short term so that you have the strength to do the hard things you need to do to have a better life. Examples include talking to yourself compassionately or doing compassionate things for yourself, eating just a few cookies, or doing a quick check of social media as precursors to doing the things that will help you feel better long-term, like ERP, exercising, or calling a friend.
A day of ERP for OCD
But since I’d been making self-indulgent choices, my OCD was blooming all over the place. And once I’d recovered from my grief sufficiently to finally realize what I’d done, I realized (and this was key) that I’d just had enough.
I therefore decided, spur of the moment during my lunch one Saturday, that this was going to be an ERP day the entire rest of the day. I started with a long session of ERP “may or may not” scripting (that was probably 1-2 hours long) to help myself stop my insidious ruminating compulsions. Then I really let my OCD have it by doing ERP exercises every ~5 minutes. To give you an example of how the day went, I’d purchased a few plants for my small garden, and here’s how turned the planting into one run-on ERP:
I threw away the recyclable container that had contained my lunch.
It was pretty warm out, so I decided to keep on the long pants I’d worn that morning because that would make me (and OCD) more uncomfortable as we worked in the garden.
I filled up my water bottle and dumped the ice cubes that had fallen on the floor right into my bottle, then took a big drink.
I live in an urban neighborhood and our houses are almost right on top of each other, but I didn’t ask my neighbors whether they cared that I planted these flowers right on the boundary of our property line.
I planted the flowers so that they didn’t line up with the tree I was planting them around.
I threw compost into the trash, not the compost pile.
I watered the new plants, but then watered the plants I’d added the weekend before unevenly, so one got way more water than the other.
I went inside and continued my ERP-filled day without washing all the dirt from the planting off my hands.
Out of my comfort zone and into my life
I approached the day with gusto, much like I approached my practices during Dr. Reid Wilson’s 2010 OCD weekend treatment group where I’d learned to do all this in the first place. I wanted to be anxious and to upset my OCD because I wanted to reclaim my life. I probably did 50-60 little exposures like I describe above that afternoon and evening, and I finished the day feeling empowered, my re-tamed OCD lying in an exhausted heap on the floor.
As I returned to the group that afternoon, I felt like for the first time in a decade I could once again hear my personal soundtrack, St. Elmo’s Fire, John Parr’s voice surfing gloriously on a fanfare of trumpets, belting out the title song’s final, powerful lyrics about feeling alive. Because the more I pushed myself out of my comfort zone—out of my OCD’s comfort zone—the more alive I felt. p 175.
Have you—like me—been self-indulgent instead of self-compassionate recently? Could you, too, benefit from an empowering day of ERP?
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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!
Featured image of runner going through finish line (c) Can Stock Photo / serrnovik