When I was nine years old, the monster that was my OCD loved to torture me when I was trying to go to sleep:

The Guillotine scene from Is Fred in the Refrigerator?

From Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life (p. 22).

The conclusion I eventually came to—as so many of us with OCD do—is that there was something “fundamentally wrong with me.” In other words, I was just “bad.” And the belief that we’re bad can turn into its very own sub-type of OCD: self-punishment as a ritual.

The OCD cycle of self-punishment

In the self-punishment as a ritual cycle, you might have obsessions that you’re “bad” for many reasons, including:

  • The types of intrusive thoughts you have (like my example above), the length of time you’ve experienced these thoughts, or the “fact” that you just can’t get rid of them.
  • OCD’s insistence about all the bad things you’ve done in the past
  • The “failure” of your rituals to prevent bad things from happening
  • The mistakes you’ve made that you “shouldn’t” have made
  • And many more…

And then you can get stuck in the following shame-based cycle:

Self-punishment as an OCD ritual

The compulsions in this cycle can include but aren’t limited to:

  • Negative or abusive self talk, name calling, and/or self-criticism
  • Mental review of perceived bad acts/failures
  • Removal of comforts (not allowing yourself to enjoy pleasurable activities, getting rid of or cancelling things that you care about, doing necessary activities in inconvenient ways, etc…)
  • Telling others with authority over you about the “bad” things you’ve done, so they can punish you
  • Increasing the threshold for “deserving” positive experiences

The lies of OCD

This self-punishment cycle can seem counter-intuitive: why would anyone with OCD want to make themselves feel bad? We already feel bad because we have OCD!

But the stated goal, from OCD’s perspective, is akin to absolving yourself from sins OCD says you’ve committed or serving time for laws OCD says you’ve broken. Once you’ve paid your penance or served your time, then your slate is washed clean and you can breathe freely and start over, fresh and innocent. Ahhhhhhh…….

This is all OCD nonsense, of course. What OCD is really looking for—what it’s always looking for—is a way to reduce your negative emotions through a compulsive (and futile) search for certainty. Most often it wants to reduce anxiety, but it’s also happy to get rid of shame or guilt as well. In OCD’s twisted logic, by punishing yourself, you’re creating certainty that you’re getting “what you deserve,” which will reduce those icky negative emotions.

But the truth is that punishing yourself only serves to reinforce that you’re “bad” as well as the accompanying shame, fueling the hellish OCD cycle even further.

Breaking the cycle of self-punishment

Breaking out of this tortuous cycle involves an often unexpected type of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy (the evidence-based therapy for OCD): being compassionate with yourself.

I highly encourage everyone with this sub-type of OCD to work with an OCD therapist who has training and experience in treating self-punishment as a ritual, as it sometimes can involve subtleties that a therapist can help you recognize and address.

Self-compassion as ERP for OCD self-punishment

There are infinite ways to use self-compassion as an exposure for self-punishment as a ritual. However, it’s important to realize the following:

  • If you don’t have self-punishment as an OCD ritual, you’re likely to find self-compassion comforting.
  • If you have self-punishment as a ritual, you’re likely to find that self-compassionate thoughts or acts create lots of anxiety.

The anxiety comes from the fact that OCD is going to tell you that you don’t deserve self-compassion. Or that you’re tempting fate by not balancing the scales and punishing yourself to compensate for the bad things you’ve done. And we’d expect nothing less from OCD. But paradoxically, this is an opportunity to try to use exposure skills to go toward the anxiety and be nice to ourselves anyway! Examples could include:

  • Participate in a positive experience: buy yourself a gift, take yourself to the spa, bake yourself cookies. You can use your love language to figure out the best way to show yourself some love.
  • Create some positive feelings: laugh while watching funny videos, for instance.
  • Spend time with people who treat you well: go to your favorite restaurant with a loved one or play a game with friends.
  • Focus on the positives about yourself: write down all your positive qualities or ask your loved ones what they like about you.
  • Talk to yourself self-compassionately: develop and use a self-compassion statement, and you can learn how in this blog post.

When self-compassion begins to feel good (which may take a while, depending on how long you’ve been participating in self-punishment as a ritual), you’ll know your self-punishment OCD is getting weaker. And then you can hopefully experience the side benefit of all this hard work: the more you use self-compassion and the nicer you are to yourself, the stronger your OCD recovery can become.

Learn more about taming OCD and reclaiming your life

To learn more about how my OCD convinced me I was bad and how I used ERP and self-compassion to reclaim my life, see Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life.  Click here to purchase your copy.

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My blog posts 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!