OCD, Career Choices, and Limitations


winding road

A version of this post first appeared on my blog in May, 2013…..

I’ve written before about my son Dan’s almost lifelong dream of becoming an animator. When his OCD was severe, he came very close to giving up on this dream. My husband and I kept the bar high for him because we knew it was what he really wanted. We realized he was committed to continuing with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy and so we encouraged him to go back to school. If it didn’t work out, at least  he would have given it his best shot. Though there were some difficult times, Dan did indeed receive his BFA in computer animation, and he now works in his chosen field.

During his stay at a residential treatment program for OCD following his freshman year, Dan’s therapist suggested he become an art teacher; he felt that road would be less stressful for Dan. While teaching art is a great job for someone who wants to be an art teacher, Dan never had the slightest interest in the teaching field. I am thankful he decided to stay on track and pursue his dream.

For some people with OCD, however, original educational and/or career plans might not work out. Maybe college is too stressful, maybe a particular work environment elicits a multitude of triggers, maybe a job is just too demanding. Maybe those with OCD might have to work toward their goals differently, at a later date, or not at all. A competent therapist can help make a determination as to which paths to take. But is having to alter life plans a sign that OCD is “winning?”

Not in my opinion. Because really, don’t we all have limitations? I would have loved to have been a nurse, but blood and needles make me squeamish. Whether it is due to illness, life circumstances, or just who we are, most of us face detours as we travel through life. We compromise, we adjust, we revise our dreams. Even as an animator, Dan has realized there are certain aspects of the profession that aren’t a good fit for him, and so he is steering his career path accordingly.

Because obsessive-compulsive disorder is an illness that can totally control a person’s life, and successful treatment involves not letting it, I think there might be a tendency to feel defeated if OCD has to be factored into the equation when making these life decisions. Again, I think it’s important to remember that we all have challenges that need to be considered when making life choices; what we desire might not be what’s actually best for us. While those with OCD might need to acknowledge their disorder, it doesn’t mean that OCD is “winning.” It means they are being honest with themselves. And if those with OCD, indeed if all of us, maintain a positive attitude and endeavor to live a fulfilling, productive life, the real winners will be ourselves.

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18 Responses to OCD, Career Choices, and Limitations

  1. Paul says:

    This is a great post Janet… full of wisdom! From personal experience I would like to emphasize the following: When someone with OCD has a dream that they wish to pursue, it is EXTREMELY important to think it through very carefully. Is it a realistic goal given the limitations that the OCD sufferer has? My advice to the person with OCD is to ask his or her “support team” for feedback before committing to a dream. I can think of two specific instances where I chased a dream that perhaps was unrealistic. It can be very difficult to determine what is realistic and what is not. In my experience, doctors tend to encourage me to chase dreams as they want me to push the limits of what I am capable of doing. I emphasize being realistic because if the dream does not work out, going through that failure can be extremely painful. When this happens to me the stress involved causes my OCD symptoms to get worse. It also is extremely hard on my self esteem. It causes me to focus on the never-ending question: “how much better can I get?” In my case basically it causes a setback in treatment and in self-confidence. The two times that I chased a “big” dream and failed, the cost was high. I invested hundreds of hours in research and training, and tens of thousands of dollars in education. The emotional impact of failure was crushing (as it would be for anyone.) My OCD got worse, and it caused me to withdraw to some degree. The second failure happen to me very recently and I am still working on “bouncing back.” In fact There is a small part of me that still has not given up on making the dream happen. But when I am brutally honest with myself I would say the chances of my success are probably only about 5%. There is a silver lining of course: when I go through a failure like this I learn a lot about myself. Each time it happens I learn more about my strengths as well as my limitations. I try to use that knowledge to my advantage as I move forward in my life, and I try not to look back and dwell on the failure once I have had some time to heal. So the bottom line is simple and it applies to everyone whether they have OCD or not: When you chase a dream be realistic and seek input from those you trust. Perhaps the dream needs to be modified somewhat to maximize the chances of success.

    I think it all boils down to the following: “Follow your dreams, but be realistic and do not set yourself up for failure.” “Failure” is going to happen from time to time no matter how much planning you do, so if one dream does not work out, then find a new dream and don’t look back!

    • You obviously have a lot of experience with this, Paul a, and I appreciate your sharing. As you say, a lot of this applies whether you have OCD or not, though certainly OCD complicates everything! We want to be able to pursue our dreams, but we don’t want to fail (which of course is always a possibility). And we want to be realistic. I like your idea of talking with loved ones, who really know you, and getting feedback from them. In the end, though, we all have to make our own decisions. For me personally, I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. Otherwise, I’d always have regrets. Good luck and I do hope your latest dreams come true!

      • Paul says:

        Thanks for the kind words Janet. I agree with you completely: Better to try and fail than not try all. Just don’t waste your time, energy, and financial resources on things that are clearly out of reach. I’m a bit too old now to attempt to become an Olympic athlete! 🙂

      • I totally understand what you are saying, Paul. Which is why I’ve given up on my modeling career :).

  2. Daniel Walks says:

    Soon to embark on a career 🙂 Hope i can remain resilient but also self compassionate

  3. Paul says:

    Your comment tells me you have a fantastic attitude Daniel. Best of luck to you! – Paul

  4. aviets says:

    Good thoughts here – very practical and realistic. Except for that doctor’s advice. He obviously has no idea what a teacher’s life is like if he thought teaching art would be less stressful!

  5. This is a very interesting topic and well said!
    When I choose to not do something I always try to think through is it because “ocd tells me not to” or because I don’t want to. The same goes for choosing to do something, especially when it might be an exposure: am I doing it it because I want to and doing the exposure will bring me closer to my values or am I just forcing myself to do something I don’t want to for no reason?
    Of course I can never reach certainty about which category it falls into but it helps to stop and consider.

    • Thanks for commenting Morgan and I think you bring up a lot of good points. I especially appreciate what you say about doing exposures for the right reason. You obviously have a lot of insight into your OCD. And yes, good ‘ol uncertainty. It comes into play with everything, doesn’t it? Thanks again for sharing!

  6. 71 & Sunny says:

    I agree! Sometimes, making accommodations because we have an illness or some type of limitation is just plain good sense. It’s such a personal decision, and we can’t see the future, so sometimes it’s really hard to know which way to go. But for me, I do my research, talk with people I trust, pray, and then, follow my gut. And if I make a mistake, well, so be it. We can only make a decision based on the information we have at the time. Great post!

  7. Reblogged this on gemmabrandyboyd and commented:
    A very inspiring post for an OCD sufferer such as myelf.

  8. A very inspiring post – thank you! As an OCD sufferer I’ve found it hard to get the balance between focusing on my career versus focusing on my recovery. I’m now doing self-directed ERP and have started a blog of my own: http://breakingfreefromchronicocd.blogspot.co.uk/

  9. Peyton says:

    I found with a slight case of OCD, the main problem with all aspects of life was a constant shortage of time. I had to check things over over and never seem to have enough time to live normally.

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