The Only Certainty is Doubt

by stuart mile

by stuart mile

This week I’ll be sharing one of my more popular posts from September 2011:

OCD is often described as “the doubting disease,” but what does doubt have to do with obsessions and compulsions?

In an article written for OCD Chicago, Dr. Fred Penzel he explains:

If obsessions are intrusive, unpleasant thoughts, compulsions are the mental and physical activities that people with OCD come up with as a way of dealing with them.  Since doubt is what drives most OCD, the answer, as OC sufferers see it, is to do, know, and control everything in a compulsively perfect way.  When everything is perfect, there is no room for doubt.  Compulsions start out as solutions, but inevitably become a large part of the problem themselves.

When Dan was dealing with his OCD, he was not able to drive. At this point I had little to no understanding of how he felt or what he was thinking and made the comment that his chances of getting hurt while driving around town were minute. Dan’s response was, “I’m not afraid of getting hurt; I’m worried about hurting someone else.”

The possibility of their actions causing harm to others is not an uncommon obsession for those with OCD. So let’s say that an OCD sufferer returns home after driving and thinks,“Good, I didn’t hit anyone.” But then the doubt kicks in. “Well, I don’t think I hit anyone, but maybe I did. What if I hit someone? I probably should go back and check. What if I hit someone and they are lyng in the road right now? I need to go check.”

The goal of  this checking compulsion is to make absolutely sure that everyone and everything is okay. Once this is confirmed there may be some relief for the OCD sufferer, but it is fleeting. The need for reassurance returns, and the vicious cycle begins again.  In this first person blog on OCD, we are shown how doubt infiltrates its way into every aspect of an OCD sufferer’s life; in this case, the writer describes her thoughts as she tries to answer a question on a form.

So how can those with OCD be certain that their worst fears won’t come true?  Indeed, how can all of us make sure nothing will go wrong? How can we control our lives, and the lives of those we love, so that nothing bad will ever happen?

The answer, of course, is we can’t. Because as much as we’d all like to believe otherwise, so much of what happens in our lives is beyond our control. And so the question OCD sufferers need to ask is not “How can I be certain?” but rather ”How can I live with the uncertainty?”  This is where the right therapist and therapy come in.

I have always liked this quote by the the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened.”  Replacing “what ifs” with “I’ll deal with whatever is,” is not an easy thing to do, but the payoff can be huge. Instead of concentrating on the uncertainties of the past and the future, OCD sufferers can begin to focus on what matters the most – the present.

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12 Responses to The Only Certainty is Doubt

  1. Daniel Walks says:

    Overwhelming, unreasonable, the doubt stream can really affect your self esteem to fight in OCD!

  2. Janet – thank you for sharing this one. It really helps to connect all the dots and make it very clear how doubt, obsessions and compulsions fit together in the OCD puzzle.

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Angie. I’ve been blogging for a long time now and I realize there are many “older” posts I’d like to share again. I appreciate your support!

  3. Oh those two words “what if” conjure up all sorts of emotions with me on the journey with OCD. That and the “reassurance” I think has been one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with the “bully”. When I think back to the early days and was so naïve with just what and how OCD was fed and how it affected our lives. We have come such a long way with therapy, knowledge and understanding of just what makes OCD tick….but of course OCD is never logical and I find myself being constantly challenged. Janet – thanks for your wonderful posts.

    • Thanks for commenting, Janis. I do think, for my son, just understanding how OCD operated and knowing he wasn’t alone, was a huge step toward his recovery.Of course he still had to do all the hard work in therapy, but at least he had an understanding of what he was dealing with. And yes, there is no logic when it comes to OCD! I hope you are doing well now.

  4. Janet, I love the last paragraph, especially these words: “Replacing “what ifs” with “I’ll deal with whatever is,;”–that is such a key point! Many years ago, reading Brain Lock by Jeffrey Schwartz helped me to practice doing that, to tell myself that even if I wasn’t certain about something, I would deal with the consequences if they happened. It’s easy to forget to do that–I still strive for absolute certainty in so many things. But then I remind myself that there is no certainty, and we all have to live with that.

  5. I so relate to this post! OCD seeks to eliminate and control for doubt, which of course is impossible…which means that the OCD can spiral out of control all in an attempt to do something that can’t be done. As you said, this is where a good therapist and strong support system can help enormously.

  6. Yes, it can easily turn into a vicious, never ending cycle, can’t it, Elizabeth? Those with OCD are desperate for control, but that’s exactly what OCD steals from them.

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