Tips for Beating OCD, Anxiety, and Perfectionism: Break Down the Boxes

The past few weeks have been some of the most transformative I’ve ever had in my recovery from OCD.  They haven’t been particularly easy weeks, but of course I never expected this journey to be easy.  I want to share some insights I gained from a massive breakthrough I experienced recently, in case others who struggle with OCD might find them useful.  I’m not sure, but I have a feeling this might also be of value to folks who are perfectionistic or have a tendency to worry.  But because I am speaking from my experience with OCD, I’ll address OCD directly.

(Disclaimer: I am NOT a counselor and this is NOT scientific.  This is just an analogy that has helped me lately.  If you’re an OCD sufferer and it’s useful to you, wonderful; if not, please ignore me and listen to your therapist instead.)  :-)

I realized recently that there are two “arenas” in the fight against OCD…

The first “arena” is the obsessive worry itself.  This is the specific content of obsessions and the specific compulsions they spark.  For example, in my life, I’ve been obsessed with religious purity, and an accompanying compulsion has been to confess to “sins” (both real and imagined — mostly imagined) repeatedly.  In therapy, I learned that the way to beat OCD is to block my compulsive response — so that if I am worried that I have sinned, and feel compelled to confess in order to be “clean,” I must resist the urge to confess.  The more I resist, the less I feed the obsession, and eventually the urge itself weakens.

The second “arena” is the worldview in which the worry can exist in the first place.   The OCD mind tends to see things in extreme black and white.  There is little room for nuance or subtlety.  To use my religious purity example, when my religious obsessions were at their very worst, I sincerely believed in an interpretation of the gospel that said that I needed to be basically perfect in order to merit the love of God.  I believed that forgiveness was “earned” through works of righteousness.  As soon as I let go of those beliefs and adopted a worldview that says that grace is a free gift that cannot be earned, my compulsions to confess vanished. I no longer believed in a world where I had to “merit” salvation, thereby rendering the obsession irrelevant.  

Think of it this way.

Your worldview is a box:

Your obsessions and compulsions (or worries and perfectionistic tendencies) are moving particles inside it:

The tighter and more narrow your box is, the less space the particles have to occupy.  Therefore, your obsessions and compulsions will be more frantic and furious.  The wider and more expansive your box is, the more space the particles have to occupy.  Therefore, your obsessions and compulsions will be slower and more manageable.

And what happens when you eliminate the box all together?

The particles can’t be contained.  They scatter completely.

While the box exists, the symptoms exist.  And they’re tricky little devils, morphing and changing to adapt to whatever box they’re in.  But when the box is gone, they are free to fly away.

Here’s an experience that I hope will illustrate what I mean.

A couple of years ago, I had frustrating OCD symptoms surrounding email.  I couldn’t send an email without re-reading it 50-70 times — especially personal emails.  I worried that I would lose friends and loved ones if my emails were poorly-worded.

I fought the battle in both arenas:

First, I refused to allow myself to read and re-read the emails.  I set a timer, gave myself 5-10 minutes to write an email, took a deep breath and hit “send.” Even if I wasn’t ready.

Second, I consciously reminded myself that even if I sent the most poorly-worded email in the world, it wouldn’t ruin my relationships.  People don’t stop liking you because you send a lousy email.  The worldview itself was flawed.  The box was too narrow.

Over time, by waging war in both arenas, I began to form new pathways in my mind that allowed me really believe that email isn’t something to get worked up about.  The box broke down.  I no longer spent hours worrying about emails.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of my journey. I found that while I had broken down one box, it was contained within another box; which was contained within another; which was contained within another.   But because I’d had success before, I continued to work at breaking them down one-by-one. I gained more space and freedom.  The particles still fired, but they became slower and slower.

Finally, I got to the very last box.

I was surprised to discover that it was built from solid titanium.  The particles ricocheted off it with shocking force, picking up speed like they hadn’t since I’d started dismantling the very first boxes.  I was taken aback, but looked closer.  I saw that it was labeled: I need a box to be safe.

This final box, if I may speak crassly for a moment, was a bitch to destroy.  Breaking it down hurt worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.

After all, I’d spent my entire life trying to fit things in boxes.  I’d tried to fit my faith in a box.  I’d tried to fit my loved ones in a box.  I’d tried to fit myself in a box.  I’d believed that as long as I could contain the world in boxes, I could manage it.  Forget how tiny and confining the boxes were.  Forget how my insistence on living in a boxed-up world hurt me and those around me with excessive, painful demands.  My mind screamed: I need my boxes!  My boxes make me safe!  I can’t live without my boxes!

Until I realized: yes, I can.

That was the breakthrough I spoke of at the beginning of this post: yes, I can.

This isn’t a world of boxes at all!  It’s a world of endless expansion, of eternal progression, of chaos and beauty and freedom and grace.  I don’t need boxes to be safe.  The world itself is safe…even when it hurts.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that boxes aren’t useful.  Sometimes you need to move stuff from one spot on your journey to the next — and a box is a great way to do that.  The difference is that now I am empowered to choose when and how I use them.  More importantly, I see them for what they are: tools for helping me make my way in the universe.  Not the universe itself.

Does this mean my OCD is “cured”?  I don’t know.  Already, over the past handful of weeks, I’ve seen a dramatic reduction in symptoms, though there are lingering traces every now and then.  Maybe there’s another box I’m not seeing yet.  Maybe there are some stray particles flying around in a holding pattern, because they haven’t quite gotten the memo that they’re free to go now.

Either way, this model has helped me articulate and make sense of what I’ve experienced.  I offer it in hopes that it might help others, with this word of encouragement to those struggling with OCD or perfectionism:

The only way to get to the last box is by destroying all the other boxes.  You must tear them down one by one.  It’s a gradual process.  Don’t get frustrated.  Don’t give up.   The slow pace is actually a great mercy.

I know how much you want to be free.  But a person can’t jump all the way to destroying that last box until the others are out of the way.  You’d hurt yourself if you tried.  So take it slowly.  Give yourself grace.  Celebrate every time you tear down a box and move it aside.

Remember: you are worth whatever it takes to get well.

(If you are struggling with OCD, please see my books recommendations page for 5 books that helped transform my life and made a dramatic impact on my ability to successfully manage my OCD.  If you would like to reach out to me about OCD-related issues, you are welcome to email me at katie_in_logan [at] yahoo [dot] com.)

About Katie L

Thirtysomething wife, mother, writer, runner, believer, and lover of good food and bad movies.

Posted on April 4, 2012, in Advice, Mental Health, Personal and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Yes. I like this. And I like you, Smarty-Pants.

  2. PS Sorry about the “wifey” handle on the above comment. It autofilled that in from my comments on Bri-Bri’s blog. I’m mildly embarrassed.

  3. And for a moment I thought that was a proposal. My heart = crushed. ;-)

    I’m glad you liked it, Miss Annette. Loves.

  4. this was very helpful thankyou, I am still struggling with OCD. I have been for many years and I think I am held back by being in a big hurry to conquer the disease all at once, without giving myself any credit. This is obviously not working well. But I have felt that pnve I have gotten rid of that last box, what will happen, how will I interpret the world. How will I know things are OK? But it is nice to hear someone elses experiences

  5. Hi Annabelle,

    Thanks for your comment. :-) We obsessive-compulsives tend to be pretty all-or-nothing, so it’s hard to give ourselves credit for small victories, isn’t it? But when we try to do it all at once, we inevitably get discouraged and give up. So it’s important to remember that we can only get there one small victory at a time.

    When I was at the beginning of my journey, I kept notecards of my OCD incidents each day (similar to what Jeff Bell describes in Rewind, Replay, Repeat). I wrote down when I experienced an obsession, how long it lasted, and whether or not I gave in to the compulsion. It was nice to have such a tangible record of my progress. When I resisted a compulsive urge, even if it was just for a few minutes, I felt so good writing it down. I gave myself permission to celebrate those moments. Talk to your therapist (I hope you have a good therapist!) about a celebration system that might work for you.

    You ask how you’ll know that things are okay when you’ve gotten rid of that last box. Here’s an answer that’s probably not very satisfying to you right now: you’ll just know. But don’t worry about that for now. For now, just focus on breaking down the box you’re in at the moment. If you’re at all like me, you need the boxes to survive right now. Trying to operate without them would be impossible. So don’t try. Maybe just start reminding yourself, in the back of your mind, that it is just a box. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed for needing it — you didn’t ask for this. But when you have the wherewithal, either during or after a spike, maybe you can remind yourself consciously: “It’s just a box. It’s not reality.”

    Again, I’m only giving advice that has helped me; please run these sorts of things by a good OCD therapist who knows you and your situation as you continue your treatment. But do feel free to reach out at any point. You can do it. God bless.

  6. And you have, as always, hit the proverbial nail on the head: “The world itself is safe…even when it hurts.” It is disbelief in that which holds so many of us back. Especially if we grew up in worlds that were NOT safe, really, actually, not safe. Now that we’re grown-ups, it takes a lot of time and reprogramming to realize that we are safe, the world is safe, we can be okay without the boxes. And as Anabelle says, if I get rid of the box, how will I know the world is safe? I think most people in their therapy journey reach a point where they realize they are holding on to things because they don’t know who they’ll be without them. It’s like a freed animal returning to the security of the cage.

    I hope and pray you’ll continue to know you are safe as you live in this new box-less world. Sometimes things change and suddenly we cling to our boxes again; the good news is, we destroyed ‘em once, we can do it again! I’m trying to let go of freaking out about why I’m suddenly struggling with things I thought I’d ‘conquered’ – it’s just life, sometimes it puts more strain on the system than before and the system needs adjustments. I’m not broken; I just need to fine-tune the systems.

  7. Rosebriars, I want to run an idea by you. I grew up in an environment that was fundamentally safe. We always had a home to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear. My parents never abused us in any way — verbally or physically. So I want to make it clear I might not know what I’m talking about, never having experienced that sort of lack of safety.

    But could it be possible that even the least safe moments we can imagine, when our very lives are in danger by a very real threat, we are still safe, even then?

    I had an experience recently where something I’d feared came to pass. And when it did, I realized: wow, I’m still safe. God is still good. I’m still okay. In fact, this is kind of exactly what needed to happen because of how much I learned.

    Can that be true even in the extremes, do you think? Can even the very worst things that happen be part of something much greater? Thoughts?

  8. You are absolutely right, we are ‘safe’ in an eternal perspective even when our lives are in danger. Section 122 of the Doctrine & Covenants, given to Joseph Smith while in Liberty jail is a poignant sermon on suffering, danger, redemption, love, and safety. After listing much of the heartrending suffering that the Prophet has and will endure, the Lord tells him this: “…if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?…Thy days are known and they years shall not be numbered less; therefore, Fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” [italics added].

    Things the Lord said shall be for his good (all in verse 7): 1)[if] the sentence of death passed upon thee 2) if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way 3) if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee.

    These led me to some thoughts:
    1) Death will come to us all, and is a necessary and fundamental part of the plan, and God is in control of it always (“our days are known”) so although the natural man clings to this life, and it is good to desire to live, and to try to live long and well, we ought not to fear death and enough faith can banish that fear (I’m personally not quite there yet!)
    2) Natural disasters shall be for thy good, so, once again, not to be feared. Sidenote: The wording in this verse is very interesting; doesn’t it sound like the elements are acting of themselves? See my comment in Radical Freedom, Radical Grade part 1 for more on that.
    3) I had been playing around with an idea about spiritual danger, and how we put ourselves in it, but this makes it clear that you have to be really, really far gone to be in ultimate spiritual danger: does that make sense? Obviously, our goal is to cling to God, not see how far we can wander off and return safely, but I think most of us VASTLY misunderstand and underestimate the nature of the atonement, and the availability of the power of God always offered to us.

  9. I’ll also try to define what I meant about being safe a little better. Essentially my point is that when someone has experienced traumatic events, be it abuse, deprivation, natural disasters, whatever, especially when very young, it affects them in a very fundamental way. Often the coping mechanisms developed to deal with that situation become so ingrained with their conceptions of who they are and how the world is that it is very, very difficult to abandon them for better, more productive systems of behavior, even when their situations are very different. They feel ‘unsafe’ and fearful all or most of the time. This is something that I have struggled with personally. My therapist talked about it being ‘child’ me – I have to learn to recognize what thoughts/feelings are coming from ‘child’ me and are not based in my current reality.

    The knowledge that God is good always is a huge boon to me in dealing with those trauma-induced patterns of behavior. I can only imagine that without such knowledge dealing with these kinds of issues would feel pretty hopeless.

  10. I think that is what it is for me, a lot of trauma in childhood which I have not known how to deal with or file away appropraitely. Instead I developed this coping mechanism, of using compulsions to counter unwanted thoughts and to try to control my environment in fear of what may happen if I dont. Though circumsatnces have radically changed. I have a loving husband and two great kids. The sad part is that sometimes the ocd clouds my mind and I cannot see how beautiful the things in front of me are, and I am scared that if I cant get rid of it, it will contaminate all elements of my life. Which doesnt really help either, since putting so much pressure on myself does not help at all and only makes me further away from achieving my goals. Sorry about that vent, I just think its great that ive finally found some people who can relate that I can talk to about ocd regards annabelle

  11. Hi annabelle,

    I’m sorry that you had childhood trauma that caused your OCD. :( I had some experiences in childhood that I think played a role in mine developing, too. I’m so happy to hear you have a loving family now. Hopefully that gives you the space and security you need to make the changes you want.

    OCD does cloud the mind and makes it hard to see what’s beautiful in our lives sometimes, doesn’t it? I understand your fear about not wanting to “contaminate” all aspects of your life, and how that actually decreases your ability to get well. Have you looked into mindfulness at all, annabelle? There’s a wonderful book that helped me SO MUCH. It’s called The Mindful Way Through Depression. I read it and every time it said “depression” in the book, I changed it in my mind to “OCD” or “anxiety.” It was 100% applicable.

    I did all the exercises and guided meditations. It literally changed the way I saw the world. It helped me develop loving-kindness for myself and helped me reduce the amount of pressure I put on myself. I recommend it very highly. Brain Lock by Jeffrey Schwartz uses a mindfulness-based approach for OCD specifically. I liked the two of them in conjunction, because The Mindful Way Through Depression gave me a wonderful introduction to mindfulness itself, and Brain Lock helped me put it into practice in a really specific way as it relates to OCD. Maybe they’d help you?

    Finally, feel free to “vent” here any time. :) I know how awful it feels, and sometimes you just need to talk to someone who understands. Our loved ones, as much as they care about us, can’t really imagine what this feels like. I hope you have a beautiful day. :)

  1. Pingback: Dealing With OCD: Use a Positive Attitude to Change Your Life | 21C Woman

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