BY ALYSSA RAIOLA
We all know someone who likes to keep things Danny Tanner-level clean or perfectly color-coded—maybe it’s your own M.O. If so, you’ve probably acknowledged your quirks by saying “I’m so OCD.” Maybe you’ve even wondered if your habits do qualify as symptoms of an actual disorder.
Here’s the thing: If you’ve ever labeled yourself or a friend as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) because you love sparkly countertops, there’s almost no chance that you have the high-anxiety, debilitating disorder, says Noah Berman, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist with a specialty in OCD and a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. It’s a chronic condition that affects approximately 2 percent of the population.
But today the term is used so often its meaning has gotten murky, Berman says. Not only is OCD nothing like the Mr. Clean stereotype you have in mind, but it also presents itself in many different shapes and forms. Here’s why you should stop saying “I’m OCD” for good (or otherwise seek professional help).
The ABCs of OCD
“When we add ‘D’—or disorder—to the end of a personality trait or mood state, it indicates something very important: intensity,” says Jeff Symanski, Ph.D., executive director of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). This emphasis on the letter “d” is especially important here since the other two letters—O for “obsessive” and C for “compulsive”—stand for terms that have an everyday meaning.
You can be “obsessed” with a new song, barre class, or yes, cleaning your house. On the other hand, a clinical obsession is an unwanted and intrusive thought, impulse, or idea. “People with OCD do notlike having these thoughts,” Berman says—cleaning or organizing their room every single day doesn’t give them any pleasure.
Another critical characteristic: Obsessions can be “ego-dystonic,” Berman says, meaning they do not align with your value system. For example, you may be a good, caring person, but if you suffer from one form of OCD known as harm OCD, you may have immoral, intrusive thoughts about harming others, such as pushing a stranger into traffic or attacking a family member or partner.
Compulsions are ritualistic or repetitive behaviors aimed at managing the obsessions and the anxieties that accompany them, Berman explains, and they often go unnoticed by others.
In the case of harm OCD, compulsions could include constantly checking your rearview mirror to make sure you didn’t hit anyone or avoiding sharp objects like knives. Or if someone suffers from a fear of HIV, they may wash their hands for two hours to reduce that anxiety—not because they love the smell of soap or “feeling clean.”
People with OCD feel like these compulsive behaviors are out of their control, says Daniel Chazin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. If you’re simply choosing to clean things in your house or whatever you habit is, that’s not OCD. People with OCD would prefernot to be doing these behaviors, but it feels out of their control and very distressing.