My OC tendencies once used to be a source of pride — but not anymore: finding freedom from shame
My OC tendencies have often been a source of pride. In the past, I specifically enjoyed my ability to “outsmart” therapists, by working hard to appear a certain way. Of course, they didn’t suffer any negative consequences. I did.
OC individuals are notorious for appearing like they have everything “together”. They are master at pretending that everything is OK, even if they feel immense emotional pain on the inside.
One time, I explained to my therapist that, “In order to appear OK when you’re not, you have to act as naturally as possible.”
“If you avoid eye contact, cross your arms or loudly sigh,” I continued, “then therapists are trained to recognize those cues as social signals in sessions, and they’ll immediately know something is off.”
So many times, I had the urge to engage in “don’t hurt me” and “pushback responses,” but I knew that my therapist would catch them and probably confront me about them.
The amount of self-control I had to exert to appear “OK” was extremely high. At the same time, I couldn’t sit there with a frozen smile, or look even slightly uncomfortable, because those were also dead giveaways that something was off. So, I had to relax and appear like I was engaging in big 3+1, even though I was feeling distressed on the inside.
If you’re still following me, then you can most likely agree that this process is emotionally draining.
“You can fool anyone,” a therapist once told me. At the time, I remember feeling proud of myself, and I’m not sure why. But now, a few years down the road, I can practice self-enquiry and ask myself, “What is there to learn? Is my ability to put on a good show something I value? What are the pros and cons of pretending everything is fine?” and most importantly, “How would my life be different if I allowed myself to be more genuine?”
The possibilities would be endless.
One psychologist I know, who is trained in both standard DBT and RO-DBT, once said that RO-DBT is a treatment that essentially targets core, unjustified shame. In plain DBT language, the whole treatment is like doing a big “opposite action” to it.
Her point of view brought me relief because it’s true that worthiness, shame and overcontrol do go together to some extent. In fact, there are specific RO-DBT skills to target this! When your shame is unjustified, what do you do instead of hide? You “out” yourself! You practice being vulnerable and candid in the moment.
Just the other week, I showed up to therapy feeling frustrated with myself, because even though I have enjoyed exerting maladaptive self-control for as long as I can remember, now I’m getting sick of it.
I told my psychologist that often during our sessions, I have urges to sigh, roll my eyes, lean back, curl up in his chair and so on.
“Yes! Do it,” he said with a goofy smile.
I think the idea here is that to address my “don’t hurt me” and “push back responses,” I have to communicate them in the first place, instead of cursing my therapist inside my head and silently and mentally collapse.
The irony is that I spent so many years practicing inhibiting such “inappropriate” behaviors, that now I feel incapable of doing the opposite! I have the awareness and willingness to change, but I have a long way to go when it comes to learning and practicing skills. It’s like I spent years building sturdy walls around me, and now I’m stuck, suffocating, and alone.
Today, when I think of my ability to exert an incredible amount of self-control, I still feel a tinge of pride. But deep down, I notice waves of sadness. I feel sad knowing that I missed out on genuine interactions and moments of connection. And I know that when you work hard at appearing a certain way, you feel very isolated and lonely in your struggles.
The way forward, I think, is to practice being vulnerable and candid, in therapy but also outside of my therapist’s office. For example, one time my therapist and I sang together in session, and although I was mortified, I ended up feeling proud of myself for taking a risk and putting myself out there.
It was a wonderful feeling to be accepted in the moment, but also know that I’m one step closer to not let my OC tendencies define me. It’s taken years of hard work, but I’m finally able to look back and validate the fact that my OC tendencies had a function, and that they were just trying to protect me from an invalidating environment.
I look forward to finding freedom from shame, while knowing that my OC tendencies are always there for me. They can be hidden gems in my back pocket because they are valuable. I just have to be mindful and careful when and how I resort to them. So maybe I don’t feel as much pride anymore, but I definitely feel a lot of gratitude.