How to Stop Enabling OCD Sufferers by David Castillo Dominici by David Castillo Dominici

Over the years, I’ve written quite a few posts that discuss OCD and family interactions, and the general consensus seems to be that the single most helpful thing loved ones can do for those suffering from OCD is not enable them. While our instincts might tell us to do whatever we can to reduce our loved one’s suffering, instincts are typically not correct when dealing with OCD, an illness that follows no logic.

Okay, so we know we are not supposed to enable. But how, exactly, do we stop? When I’ve been posed this question before, I usually recommend families discuss their individual situations with their loved one’s therapist. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from many family members who are shut out completely from their loved one’s therapy, and are left trying to figure it all out on their own.

So let’s take an example. Perhaps your daughter’s OCD revolves around contamination and you have gotten to the point where you do her laundry separately, using the rituals she has demanded, in order to keep her anxiety down. This has evolved into sometimes hours of extra laundry time for you, often having to start over if she feels you didn’t do something “right.” You’ve decided enough is enough, you realize what you are doing is only strengthening your daughter’s OCD, and you’re determined to stop. I’m not a therapist, but here are some of my thoughts:

  • You could tell your daughter you will not be enabling her in this area in any way, shape, or form any longer. You will do her laundry with the rest of the household laundry, or she can learn to do her own. I think, in most cases, it makes sense to discuss this beforehand and come up with a starting date.
  • You could (possibly with her assistance) devise a plan to stop the enabling gradually. For example, you could first cut out the rituals related to the washing machine, and then move on to rituals related to the dryer, then those involving handling or folding clothing. You need to decide on a timetable, stand firm, and  stick to it.

That doesn’t sound so hard, right? I have to admit, in our family’s case, it was relatively easy to stop accommodating Dan. This was mainly because he was so invested in getting well that he reacted positively when we told him we wouldn’t be enabling him anymore.  The best advice we received when Dan left his residential treatment program was, “Treat him normally, and expect the same things from him as you would from your children who don’t have OCD.”

But as I’ve written before, OCD is often messy. The daughter in this post might fly into a rage, refuse to acknowledge you, or cry for days once the enabling stops. Parents might disagree on how, when, and even if, enabling should end. The whole thing could be so agonizing for the entire family that you just revert back to enabling. And this is a simplified scenario; it often gets even more complicated, depending on what type of enabling is going on, and how old the OCD sufferer is.

As long as you enable your loved one with OCD, the less likely they are to try to free themselves from OCD’s grip. Why should they? They have little incentive to get better. If your loved one’s therapist is unwilling to meet with you to discuss this crucial step toward recovery, it might be time to consider finding another therapist; one who realizes the importance of teaching families how not to enable.

If you have any suggestions about how not to enable, I’d love to hear them!




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14 Responses to How to Stop Enabling OCD Sufferers

  1. grannyK says:

    When fixing a sandwich, my son would wash everything first, even the bread in the wrapper! He ruined a lot of bread that way. When I fixed the food, I refused to do that. I could tell it was stressing him, but I kept to my rules explaining that it ruins the bread when it gets wet. He never did verbally complain and now he doesn’t need to wash the entire loaf of bread. The challenge I have is not enabling him when I also am OCD and it gets confusing!

    • Wow, I’m certain that you having OCD as well can be a complicating factor when dealing with enabling, granny K. And good for you for not washing the bread. How does one even do that? 🙂

  2. Ruby Tuesday says:

    I don’t necessarily have any suggestions, but oh my gosh, for me it was (and still is) the kitchen. Of course I’m a big girl who has been doing my own laundry for a very long time, but the kitchen is a shared space and there is no getting around that.

    Mostly I have learned to suck it up and breathe deeply and realize the world does not end if things are not cleaned to my “standard” — which means I have had to learn/force myself to relax a bit. The real complications, which I do not think are a true effect of OCD, come into play because I have been a vegetarian for 20+ years while my father still eats meat and my mother eats fish (though no meat there).

    I’m not condemning them and their choices, but when, for example, the dishwasher has not gotten things all the way clean, I have that added revulsion factor of, “What on earth was on this knife? Cow, pig, etc.?”

    I guess I’m just saying that I’ve learned if I want to be sure of something, I have to do it myself, and I accept that, because as I said, that’s something apart from OCD — and the dishwasher does work very often to get things clean! 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, Ruby. As you say, I’m not sure that’s OCD, but I get what you are saying. I guess the bottom line is you make the shared kitchen work, and are dealing with whatever comes your way (glad your dishwasher is pretty reliable……ours is terrible :)).

  3. Reblogged this on Jackie Lea Sommers and commented:
    Good stuff here from my friend Janet. This is so, SO hard to do … but such a critical part of the healing process!

  4. Brenda says:

    Thank you so much for this Post Janet, you are right on target with this, it is truly a huge problem. All the therapist we first took our son to, told me, to wash everything of his, so he would feel they were clean—They were Clean!—So, I did just as they said, without knowing that it was making the problem worse and worse!
    Finally, we found a therapist who said not to do this, but by then, there was such a meltdown from our son, we backed off!!! We are still looking for a therapist to tell us how to stop the enabling, without having to go through a horrible scene over each and everything he wants done!! Which is everything—he won’t touch anything!
    You are the first person to even mention how to go about this (HOW), is very important—we know we shouldn’t enable, but when we try, they do just what you mentioned, scream, cry, have a meltdown, and then everyone is upset!!
    Our main problem is finding a CBT therapist—-that has experience with OCD, that is about as hard as stopping the enabling!
    The last therapist we had come to the house said our son was illogical–and he didn’t think he had OCD??
    But we will keep looking.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Brenda, though of course I wish you were sharing better news. It is SO upsetting and frustrating to not be able to get the proper treatment. Unfortunately stories such as yours are all too common. I assume you’ve contacted the IOCDF for possible therapists? Please feel free to email me if you think I can help. I wish you and your son all the best….please don’t lose hope; it can get better!

  5. Great post, Janet. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the role that family members can play in a loved one’s recovery from OCD (as you well know!). As an OCD therapist I welcome the opportunity to work with family members (with the person’s permission) as they support the OCD sufferer’s work. The only time I can imagine not having the family be closely involved in the treatment is when there are certain issues with the family dynamics that are likely to make family involvement a net loss for the person in treatment. That’s very rarely the case, and when it is, the therapist still can discuss with the family why–at least for the time being–their involvement in the therapy is not a good idea. Again, that’s certainly the exception. Keep up the great work! I look forward to the upcoming events around the book.

    • Thanks Seth, and I appreciate your insight. Of course there are always exceptions, as you say, but even those can include some type of explanation to the family as to why they are not being included. Also, when I talk about family involvement, I’m really talking about teaching family how to interact with their loved one, and not about specific obsessions or details regarding the OCD. I’m not sure that was made clear in my post. My husband and I knew little about Dan’s obsessions, but that didn’t prevent us from learning how to not enable him.
      Yes, exciting times ahead for our book :)!

  6. Struggling with this as I write. My child also suffers from the associated anxiety and depression plus self harms when the anxiety gets too much. We all know that anxiety is extremely heightened when we stop enabling. I often feel like I’m balancing on a high wire with no net below while I’m riding a unicycle and juggling 5 bowling pins all at once. Having said that, enabling just prolongs the agony. We are finding success with lots of support, patience, positive attitude on our child’s part and to be honest plain luck.

    • Thanks for sharing, and I’m so sorry to hear you are in the “thick of it” right now. But as you know, it is the right thing to do and, in my opinion, an incredible act of love for your child (who sounds very brave) – you are doing what is in your child’s best interests.

  7. This is good for people with OCD to read, too. It’s so easy to get “hooked” on being enabled. I sought reassurance from others for YEARS before I realized that it was only hurting me, that I needed to face the OCD myself. Thanks for this!

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