OCD and Selfishness

sitting in chair

Soon after my son Dan was diagnosed with OCD, he and I were out with some friends and decided to get a bite to eat. We were all casually chatting about various restaurant choices when Dan suddenly insisted we go to one particular place. He was adamant; we needed to eat there. So off we went. If I remember correctly some glances were exchanged (“What’s up with him?”) but nobody complained and we all went along.

I knew very little about OCD at the time, but what I did know was that this seemingly selfish behavior was totally out of character for my son. In fact, it was the exact opposite of the “real Dan” who’d always been so easy-going and eager to please others. I’ve written before about the convoluted way in which OCD operates and how it usually makes sense for OCD sufferers to do just the opposite of what their disorder demands. I think it’s also true that OCD sometimes gives non-sufferers the wrong impression, indeed the opposite impression, of  the true nature of those suffering from the disorder.

Our friends didn’t know that Dan had OCD, but I’m not convinced that would have mattered. They likely thought Dan was selfish because he demanded we eat where he wanted to eat, with no regard for anyone else’s preference. The truth was Dan’s OCD made him believe we all had to go to that particular restaurant or something bad would happen. He wasn’t being selfish; he was protecting those he cared about. Compulsions involving doing certain things at specific times or in a particular way, or being inflexible in various ways, all can be misconstrued as acts of selfishness. I’m sure all OCD sufferers and their loved ones could easily come up with their own examples.

But really, it’s all a big misunderstanding. Most people without OCD do not understand that those with the disorder feel they do not have a choice. They don’t choose, or even want, to act this way; they have to. It’s not about what they want; it’s about what their OCD demands. They are held captive by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Education is so important for those suffering from OCD, as well as for their loved ones. If I had understood what was happening when Dan insisted on going to that restaurant, I could have not enabled him. And while it’s true OCD can be misleading and deceptive, it’s also true that OCD is treatable. Sufferers need to get the appropriate treatment, and choose to fight. Only then will it be clear to others, as well as to themselves, who they really are.

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37 Responses to OCD and Selfishness

  1. Yes, yes, yes to this post. I remember being on a Florida vacation with my family when I got the VERY STRONG FEELING that it was WRONG to go to Disney World. I knew I couldn’t stop us from going, so I tailed along, feeling just SICK (which could easily be construed as selfishness/ungratefulness … my dad had paid for me to go to DISNEY WORLD, and there I was, dragging my feet). After that first day, I tried desperately to convince my family that one day was enough– we’d seen everything we wanted to see. (Seriously, who does this?!! Begs not to go back to Disney World?) But they all wanted to go back, so back we went. Repeat of day one.

    I look back on it now and feel guilty for my bad attitude. But I also know that at the time, I really believed that I was doing something wrong, even sinful, and so felt sick and ashamed.

    OCD. Gosh, I hate it. It just takes and takes and takes.

  2. Being held captive sounds like a really good way of expressing it. Best wishes

  3. Oh, yes, I can see how OCD’s effects have made me appear to be spoiled and selfish and overly picky about things. I remember times when I didn’t let visitors use my bathroom. How selfish and inhospitable! But I felt like I couldn’t explain what was going on inside my head. And I felt like I couldn’t live with anyone using my bathroom. OCD is awful.

  4. Krystal Lynn says:

    Not only do I probably appear to be picky and selfish, but I suffer a great – and I do mean extreme – amount of guilt over the times I manipulate circumstances (and people) so that I am not in an OCD situation. And those negatives feelings of guilt, selfishness, self-absorption, etc. just tear me down and make my OCD worse. I have isolated myself from family and friends at times when my OCD was really bad because I didn’t want to put them out, embarrass myself or tell people I was doing something because of OCD. (Isolation, for me, is the worst thing I can do.) Sometimes I do tell people I have OCD and other times I just don’t feel like talking about it. I don’t expect a lot of accommodation, but people staring at me in a public restroom bothers me if I wash my hands longer than normal and I suppose that is where I would like some kindness. For me that is where the OCD awareness and education comes in. Another great post Janet!

    • Thanks, Krystal Lynn, and thanks for sharing.Your comment really gives me a good feel for the torment you, and others I’m sure, go through with OCD. Yes, a little kindness would be helpful, and I just wish more people would realize this. I’ve been thinking of you and miss your blog………I hope all is well. Take Care.

  5. Susan says:

    Janet, wonderful post. It is comforting to see that there is someone(s) out there who understands the plight of the ocd family. We have been in similar situations and felt as though it made the whole family seem selfish or odd. Of course I was not ashamed of my child but it was awkward non the less.

  6. grannyK says:

    Years ago when I was in middle school, I can vividly remember going to school one day with a fear so real and terrifying that I didn’t hear a single thing said to me that day. I KNEW something bad was going to happen to someone in my family. Why did I feel this? I wasn’t able to turn my bedroom light off and on until it felt right. I had to do that until I felt calm. My mom was right there when I turned off the light, so I had to just turn it off and be done with it. I was convinced that because of me, someone was going to die. Your post brought those memories flooding back and I can so relate to what you are saying here.

    • Thanks for sharing, grannyK. I cannot even imagine the fear and torment you must have felt as a young girl experiencing OCD and not understanding what was happening. The more we share the more we can help others feel less alone…so thanks again!

  7. jdstockholm says:

    I did this on holiday once, everyone wanted to eat in a restaurant that I had that bad feeling about and I couldn’t do it. I was i’ll with fear, i didn’t want to go. i said I didn’t want to go and I hid in the bathroom to calm myself down. We went in the end, everyone was so mad at me for it, like i was doing it on purpose, no one of course knew of my illness, i was just classed as weird, and one of the people with us, even declared that they were never coming on a holiday with me again. Even if they had known I had OCD, there would have been no tolerance. i wish people without it could understand how bad it is inside.

    • Thanks for sharing, and what a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Hopefully the more we educate others about OCD, the more they will understand what the disorder involves and how tormenting these situations can be for those with OCD.

  8. The Hook says:

    There is a special place in the Great Beyond waiting for you, my friend. Your efforts are admirable.
    Well done.

  9. 71º & Sunny says:

    Oh I’m just SURE that people have thought I was selfish too at times. Of course, at times, I WAS, but other times, it really was about my twisted idea of protecting everyone around me. That is a horrible, horrible place to be. You’re trying to protect others, but they are all mad at you because they don’t understand. Ugh. Makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

    • I’m guessing you are/were never selfish Sunny, and your OCD likely played a part whenever you appeared that way. I’m sorry just conjuring up those memories makes you sick to your stomach….just shows how horrible OCD (or even just the memories of OCD) can be. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Susan says:

    I agree with The Hook Janet! Your concern for others who suffer is indeed admirable. I will keep you and Dan (and the rest of your family) in my thoughts and prayers. You are a wonderful mother. How is Dan doing at this time?

    • Thank you, Susan. We are all in this together and if our family’s story can help others, I am happy to share it. I do care deeply for all those whose lives have been touched by OCD, as I’ve experienced the desperation and fear that come along with it firsthand. Nobody should have to be in that situation and feel they are alone.
      Dan is doing really well, and I am so thankful. He graduated college a year ago, moved across the country and is working in his field. He is doing everything a 24 year old should be doing and, of course, I am very proud of him.

  11. Susan says:

    That is wonderful to hear, Janet! So happy that he is not only getting by, but living and working in the field he loves!

  12. Anna says:

    This is a great post, and I relate to it so much. I have been called selfish multiple times by different people because of my OCD.

    I have a form of OCD that causes me to hoard things, including trash at times, because I am just so deathly afraid of losing something that a loved one gave me. To me, it feels like a betrayal of my relationship with that person to lose something they gave me, so I have become overly paranoid about losing things.

    My hoarding got really bad last winter, when I was living with a roommate. We were not friends, and she did not want to even try to understand. She actually called me a “horrible person” because I was forcing her to live with trash. When I tried to explain that I did not want to be doing this, she kind of rolled her eyes and said that I need to take responsibility for my actions – showing that she had no understanding of the disorder. The truth was that I WAS taking responsibility for my actions by going to therapy, and that this hoarding was not AT ALL something that I wanted to be doing. While I fully understand that I am not entitled to hoard when I am living with someone else, and that she had every right to be angry, it really does bother me that there is such ignorance in the world, that she would actually attack my moral character KNOWING that I have OCD.

    I am not a selfish person. I HATE that my OCD makes other people suffer. And believe me, if I had a choice, I would stop these behaviors in an instant. As much as my roommate probably thought I was just being crazy and selfish, I think it’s safe to say that it was a million times harder on me than it could possibly have been on her.

    I write for a living, and someday I want to write a book that raises awareness about OCD and other anxiety disorders. There are very few people in the world who would call cancer sufferers and paraplegics “weirdos,” “freaks,” or “horrible people” (all of which I have been called for my OCD), because people seem to universally understand that that is not okay. They need to understand that it is just as wrong to attack someone who has a mental illness that THEY DID NOT ASK FOR.

    I actually have a friend whose dad has OCD, and he makes them wash each dish for several minutes, scrubbing about 30 times. She said she couldn’t believe how selfish he was, imposing his OCD on the whole family. I tried to explain to her that maybe he’s not being selfish, maybe his OCD is really driving him to believe that those dishes are filthy and carry germs, and he is PROTECTING the people he loves by imposing his compulsions on them.

    OCD is not selfishness, it is OCD. Period.

    • Thank you for sharing, Anna, and your comment confirms that there is still so much ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding OCD. Hopefully the more we speak out (I’m working on a book as well) and the more we educate people, the less OCD sufferers will be treated as selfish. Because as you said, it’s not selfishness they are dealing with, it’s OCD. Good luck as you move forward with therapy!

      • Anna says:

        Thanks for your response, Janet, and you should know that you are helping many people with your blog. It is just really great to know that there are people out there who are committed to the cause of eradicating ignorance about mental disorders.

        The sad thing is that even some therapists are ignorant. I had a therapist comment on how it seems like I think I’m “entitled” to filling someone’s apartment with trash, and then I call the roommate cruel for being unhappy about it. Basically justifying my roommate’s behavior. Needless to say, that was my one and only session with that therapist!

        Keep doing what you’re doing! Your son is very, very lucky to have a mother like you!

  13. Oh, thank you so much for your kind words, Anna. Your therapist story makes me cringe…….that’s a whole ‘nother problem: there are not enough qualified therapists to treat OCD.

  14. Jik says:

    hello its been awhile i know but im just here reading your blogs quietly and its really a big big help for all Thank You again janet.. and anna i understand very much of your experience its just so hard for us really coz right now i am experiencing again the strike attack of reponsibility ocd i acually do experience it every day of my life but i can tolerate ,its just that sometimes there are certain strikes that is not or its so much hard to tolerate of course just a human who also breaks down. Just to share i was very relax going to work yesterday morning i was about to get my id pass suddenly information employees were chatting about someone they know who gets “miscarriage” and was about to be in the hospital then they stopped chatting i was so eager to know who was it,why did it happen,whats the reason im so obssessed to know and i even wanted to go back to them and ask why, whats the reason for the miscarriage but i cant ask coz first of they dont know me im just an employee i dont even know who are they talkin about…..reason why im so obssesses bec i remember the day before that i was holding tumbler it has a water inside im not aware it was bend when i found out i immediately unbend my tumbler so water wont spill i checked the floor fast if theres a spill a quick glance as far as i could remeber thers no spill. i just worry that ther might be a spill what if someone slides on the wet flor what if thers a pregnant woman who steps and slided those are the my reasons im assuming thats what happen and that thought of it tortures me i did not ask them coz they will find me weird or crazy butting into their conversation that has just ended and who am i to ask them. GOSH its so depressing i dont want this thought but its feels great to share my experience yesterday with you friends.

    • Hi Jik, It’s great to hear from you and thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry things have been so difficult for you lately and know there are better days ahead. Thanks for your kind words also.:)

  15. Teri says:

    First of all, I wanted to say just how much I appreciate your insights on OCD, Janet. It’s rare to have people so understanding and empathic out there, because that certainly wasn’t my personal experience.

    My story is actually very similar to Anna’s, although not only was my roommate nasty about it, pretty much everyone in my life was. I was a hoarder too (although I’m better now thanks to hard work with a very compassionate and competent therapist), and my roommate called me a terrible person as well. She also went on to say she would never have agreed to be my roommate if she knew I had OCD – basically insinuating that I was less of a person for having OCD, that it made me unworthy of living with Her Royal Highness. One day, we had agreed that I was going to get rid of the trash the next day, but she actually waited until I left the apartment and just threw everything out herself. And she actually threw out a bag of my stuff in the process, which really freaked me out. When I confronted her about it, and mentioned that the one bag was not trash but my stuff, she didn’t even have the decency to apologize but just continued to verbally abuse me, saying she was done with my lying to her, etc. – as if what she had done wasn’t dishonest and sneaky! She never apologized, because she probably thought she hadn’t done anything wrong, which are classic signs of a sociopath. She also made everything all about her – when the girl next door was throwing up constantly, she was annoyed at how it was keeping HER awake and distracting HER – just no empathy whatsoever.

    I find it funny that she would have called me a terrible person, when she has no empathy, no remorse for treating someone badly, etc. I’m not a psychiatrist, but from everything I know about psychology, she was actually a sociopath. As a sociopath, BY DEFINITION, she was actually the terrible person in that situation, not me.

    Additionally, another tenant of the building caught me outside going through trash, and he came running outside, screaming and cursing: “WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU DOING? PUT THOSE BACK RIGHT NOW!” He said he had been watching me all morning, and he had known it was me messing with the trash. I tried to explain, and he said he didn’t want to hear my “psychotic” reasons. After I reluctantly handed the bags to the trash man, who happened to be there, the neighbor just kept talking. He asked why I’m doing this, and he then asked “you know this is weird behavior, right?”As if I didn’t already know I had OCD, and I needed some brain-dead moron to tell me that I have a problem! I basically just spent the whole day crying and wishing I was dead. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, my roommate knocked on my door and told me she had gotten an email from the landlady, and I had to move. Apparently, the neighbor told the landlady, and without even bothering to get my side of the story, the landlady emailed my roommate about the situation and told her I needed to move. She didn’t even have the decency to contact me directly. And the next day, when I talked to her and explained to both the roommate and landlady about my OCD, it just fell on deaf ears. The landlady actually said she had filed a police report, and if I wasn’t out within 10 days, she would press criminal charges for “criminal mischief.” I called the police and a couple of lawyers, and they said what I had done was not any sort of crime, and that there was no police report. So basically, she had lied to me – KNOWING I had an illness, she threatened me and scared me with utter and complete crap.

    First of all, the neighbor – calling me psychotic, seriously? Who’s really psychotic here, the girl with OCD, or the barbarian who comes running out screaming like a banshee? And possibly the scariest part of all of it is, he is a NURSE. A NURSE, who deals with vulnerable patients every day for a living. I wish there were some way to report him to his superiors at the hospital, because someone like that should not be dealing with patients. And the landlady – what kind of a human being behaves like that? She and the roommate were just harassing me to move out within 10 days, when legally, I had 30. Basically, to them, because I had a mental illness, I didn’t even deserve my basic legal rights.

    I actually find it horrible that many sociopaths and psychopaths (and I think the people above fit these profiles) are integrated and accepted into society without question, while people with OCD are treated like freaks. When, if anything, it should be the other way around.

    My family has also shown ignorance. Though they do love me, I have had to deal with so many comments about how “you need to understand it’s not all about you,” and how I’m making everyone’s lives difficult. I understand that it is difficult to live with a hoarder, but lashing out at the person doesn’t help anything. Shaming me and making me feel bad about myself only ever made the problem worse, considering that it is an anxiety disorder.

    Wow, I didn’t mean to write a novel, haha. Guess I just had a lot to say.

    GREAT JOB, Janet! There should be more blogs like this one.

  16. Hi Teri, I am so sorry you have had these terrible experiences, and one of my goals for this blog is to raise awareness and educate people about OCD, so that stories like yours become fewer and fewer. I am glad to hear you connected with a wonderful therapist and are doing so much better. That’s great news. I wish you all the best as you move forward!

  17. Richard says:

    Very insightful post…. spot on

  18. Alicia says:

    I have OCD too (right now it’s not so bad, but it has been terrible in the past). I can’t even count the number of people who called me “selfish” and said that I need to “take responsibility” for my own actions, that “OCD isn’t an excuse.” People just can’t fathom that, as much as it sounds like someone just failing to be accountable, OCD actually IS an excuse, at least in the moment. If compulsions were within the realm of the person’s control, they wouldn’t be doing them, period. So many people seem to believe that OCD is worse for the people around the sufferer than the sufferer him/herself, that the person with OCD is making a selfish choice to behave that way and it’s everyone else who is truly suffering because they have to put up with it…NOPE. I can say firsthand that I never felt like I had control over my thoughts and was pretty much a prisoner of my own brain, and that I wasn’t just doing it to annoy everybody else as they seemed to think. And that I would sit in my room for hours sometimes wishing I could just die already, which I’m betting none of the people I was inconveniencing with my OCD ever felt because of my OCD. Yelling at someone for inconveniencing you with their OCD rituals is like yelling at a cancer patient for having malignant cells that are multiplying. It’s incorrect, and it’s not fair.

    The only people that I would say are actually selfish and not taking responsibility for their actions are the ones who refuse to get help. As for those who are seeking help, and meanwhile unable to stop the compulsions immediately, dealing with others’ accusations and shaming statements, hold your head high and know that you shouldn’t let it affect your opinion of yourself, as it is coming from a place of ignorance and has no truthful meaning.

    • Hi Alicia, Thanks so much for sharing and I’m sorry you’ve had those negative experiences you describe. Yes, of course, if you could just stop, you would! I agree that the misunderstandings about OCD and the people who suffer from it come from ignorance, which is why we have to continue to try to educate people about the disorder. Thanks again for your insights!

      • Alicia says:

        Thanks for your kind words! I think the best way to describe the situation is that OCD itself is selfish. It does not care who it inconveniences or stresses out. It doesn’t care about its victims, with the person who has the disorder being at the top of the list. Unfortunately, many people around that person don’t understand that the person’s OCD is distinct from who that person is, and as a result they lash out at the person with OCD. Which is wrong, and typically ends up undermining and hindering the person’s recovery.

        I think it’s just really hard for some people to wrap their minds around the fact that people can have so little control over their thoughts and actions. Especially when living with someone who has OCD and frustrated by the actions, it’s easy to just believe that that person could stop anytime he/she wanted, and is just continuing to do this to make everyone else’s life difficult and to control them.

  19. Yes, I’ve always said it’s okay for family and friends to be angry at the OCD, but not at the person who is suffering with it. I like your explanation that OCD itself is selfish. That’s it, exactly. Thanks!

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