After reading my blog post The Anatomy of ERP for OCD, one of my Shoulders Back! newsletter subscribers asked an insightful question:

What’s the difference between telling OCD it’s irrelevant and neutralizing the thought (which we’re not supposed to do)?

This is a useful question because it alludes to some of the subtlety in the ERP process that can make a big difference in how effective your ERP efforts are.

Telling OCD it’s irrelevant doesn’t work

Let me answer the question by going back to my Shoulders Back! Man in the Park metaphor. If you’re walking through a park and hear a man yelling about something like the end of the world, you just keep on walking. You do not:

  • Walk up to him and say “Hey, Man in the Park, I’m going to ignore you. Just wanted you to know.”
  • Yell over to the the Man in the Park while you’re going by: “Hey, just so you know, what you’re saying isn’t important, so I’m gonna keep on going!”

Why don’t you do either of these? Because doing so shows him that he is, in fact, relevant because you’re paying attention to him!

Telling OCD that it’s irrelevant is a little bit like saying “Oh, that’s just my OCD,” and then attempting to ignore it. With those words you’re trying to minimize it and say it’s “not real” and therefore doesn’t deserve your attention. However, by telling OCD it isn’t something to worry about, you’re demonstrating the exact opposite: you’re giving yourself reassurance, which is showing OCD that you do think its worries are worth addressing. This is a compulsion and will only make OCD louder in the future.

Acting as though OCD is irrelevant is ERP

The trick here is to act as though the OCD is irrelevant. Using the Shoulders Back! Man in the Park metaphor, you hear the guy yelling, but you just keep walking toward your destination, focusing on what you care about. You don’t look at him, address him, have conversations in your head about him. Instead, you focus in both body and mind on what’s important to you.

Acting like OCD is irrelevant is the essence of good exposure therapy. Acting as though means not doing physical compulsions and not doing mental compulsions. (Mental rituals are what I call dancing the pas de deux in your head with OCD, as I describe in Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming Your Life). Once you act as though often enough, your OCD starts to realize from your mental and physical actions that it’s not relevant because it’s not getting any attention from you. The less attention OCD’s worries get, the smaller and smaller OCD becomes.

To learn more about acting like OCD is irrelevant, see chapter 16, “Shoulders Back,” of Fred.

P.S. If you have trouble not dancing the pas de deux with OCD in your mind, see Interrupt OCD’s Mental Rituals with “May or May Not.”

Learn more about taming OCD

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FredTalks 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!

(c) Can Stock Photo / Colecanstock