Anxiety and Depression

Part I: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – 5 Things We Get Wrong About OCD

BY SHANE TAN

17 May 2021  |   5 min read

Obsessive Compulsion Disorder (OCD) is often joked about on TV or in movies, resulting in widespread misunderstandings about the disorder. This week, Part I of our series on OCD debunks five common myths about the condition.

“I arrange my books by colour; I’m so OCD!”

“I’m very OCD about my work… It has to be perfect.”

“Stop fussing about the details; your OCD is showing!”

The term Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has worked its way into everyday language. People use it interchangeably with “neat freak” or “clean freak” to describe fixations on orderliness and cleanliness. A friend who is a stickler for rules may be teased for “being OCD”. Some even claim to have OCD as a self-compliment on their high standards that supposedly make them better than others.

For years, media and pop culture has been churning out unhelpful tropes that trivialise OCD as a personality type or quirk. For example, Monica Geller from the TV show Friends is hyperactive, a germaphobe and an impeccable organiser. These behaviours are what most people consider typical OCD symptoms, and are frequently played for comic effect in the show. In the TV series Big Bang Theory, the main character Sheldon Cooper has to knock three times before opening any door. His compulsion is his main identity trait and provides the punchline for many jokes.

It is a debilitating mental disorder affecting millions of people worldwide and can potentially cause severe impairment to daily life.

However, OCD is no laughing matter. The condition is more than about being neat, clean or meticulous. It is a debilitating mental disorder affecting millions of people worldwide and can potentially cause severe impairment to daily life. In Singapore, OCD is the third most common mental health condition affecting one in 28 people.

Here are some common myths about OCD, along with some helpful facts to dispel them.

Common Myths About OCD

1. We are all “a little bit OCD” at times.

While people can have disturbing or fearful thoughts, these do not constitute OCD if they do not hinder normal functioning. Key symptoms of OCD are unwanted obsessions (intrusive repeated thoughts) and compulsions (repeated actions in response to an obsessive thought) that are difficult to ignore and dictate most of the person’s day. It can affect one’s ability to attend school, carry out work, or engage in social relationships.

Linda*, who is recovering from OCD, recounted her first experience with the condition. “In upper primary school, I remember doing ‘strange’ things like using my hands to cover my elbows when I was around people. I had intrusive thoughts that if my elbow pointed at someone, something very bad would happen to that person. I couldn’t understand why I was doing that, and I felt embarrassed about appearing weird in front of others. But I just couldn’t stop myself.”

2. People with OCD want to be neat and organised.

Wanting to keep a neat desk or colour-coordinate your wardrobe does not “make a person OCD”. While some people with OCD are focused on neatness, many are no neater than the average person. People with OCD feel the need to do their rituals out of fear that if they don’t, some dreaded catastrophethat is unlikely in the first placewill happen.

3. OCD is about hand-washing, cleaning and being a germaphobe.

“Some people think that OCD is just about hand-washing or being afraid of germs,” said Linda. However, only a portion of people with OCD are fixated on cleanliness.

“I especially don’t like it when people say ‘I’m so OCD’ to describe their quirkiness or preference for having things clean, when those are really different from the degree of distress that someone with OCD faces,” Linda added.

4. To have OCD is to be a perfectionist.

People can behave in perfectionist ways, but it is not the same thing as having OCD. People with OCD often engage in certain behaviours that help to lower their anxiety about their obsessions; however, the individual becomes stuck and dependent on these behaviours, resulting in a vicious cycle of repeating tasks. Researchers have also suggested that perfectionism has more common with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) than with OCD.

5. It is obvious when someone has OCD.

People with OCD are often embarrassed about their condition and go to great lengths to hide or suppress their symptoms in public. OCD can also take insidious forms like Purely Obsessional OCD (or Pure-O) where sufferers experience obsessive, unwanted thoughts without visible compulsions or rituals like counting and arranging. Because of the hidden nature of OCD, sufferers can go undiagnosed and untreated for years.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

It is important to expose the myths surrounding OCD to help raise awareness and support for those whose lives have been upended by the condition. Next week in Part II: Living Life with OCD, read about two women’s real-life struggles with OCD, and where to seek help if you or someone you know has OCD.

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.