On Managing OCD and Being Emotionally Healthy

My last post was about doubt, something with which I am intimately acquainted due to my lifelong battle with OCD (often called the “doubting disease”).  Obviously, chronic doubt, like the kind associated with OCD, can have a profound impact on one’s spiritual life — so I wrote the post in an attempt to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned in my quest to cultivate faith anyway.  I hope it can be a source of help and strength not just for OCD sufferers, but people who struggle with doubt in any way (which, let’s face it, is all of us).

It occurred to me this morning, though, that spirituality isn’t the only thing  impacted by OCD.  It has also has a major effect on emotional health.  So today, I wanted to share some of the strategies I’ve learned about being emotionally healthy, despite managing a mental illness.  I haven’t always been great at these — and, in fact, am still mastering most of them — but they are useful principles that I work on daily.

1)–Recognize that Thoughts and Feelings Are Not Facts.  One of the most important things I have learned is that thoughts and feelings — especially the negative variety — are just that: thoughts and feelings.  They almost never reflect reality.

Most days, I experience literally dozens of distressing thoughts (on a bad day, it’s hundreds and even thousands).  To manage them, I keep in mind a quote I once heard: don’t believe everything you think.   Using a practice called mindfulness, I have trained myself to view my thoughts as passing clouds, events somewhat separate from me, and proactively choose which ones I will believe and act upon, based on what I have determined in advance are my highest goals and values.  Whether or not you suffer from OCD, when you are confronted with thoughts and feelings that don’t serve you, you can make the same choice!

2)–Get to Know Yourself.  Self-awareness is a major key to emotional health.  This is NOT the same as self-absorption — instead, it is a realistic understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and core values, so that you can set yourself up for success.

Something that has helped me a ton is understanding my Myers-Briggs Personality Type (I’m an ENFJ).   It has given me tremendous insight into why I do what I do, what kinds of pursuits are most rewarding for me, what to watch out for in terms of traps, and how to honor myself by maximizing my strengths.  My favorite online Myers-Briggs test is here, and my favorite descriptions are here.

3)–Focus on Your Greater Good.  A few months ago, I wrote a personal vision statement.  It is a one-paragraph, present-tense description of who I believe I was made to be at my core — a snapshot of what a fully actualized Katie L. might look like.  It is NOT a laundry list of things I feel I “should” be; instead, it is limited to those few values and characteristics that bring me my most profound joy and satisfaction.  A lot of thought and prayer went into its creation, and I review it daily — especially when things get difficult.

You see, the “cure” for OCD is simple: resist your compulsions, and your obsessions and anxiety will decrease.  It sounds easy, but in reality it is quite painful, because your OCD tells you that performing your compulsions is the only way to be safe.  To add insult to injury, as soon as you begin resisting, your anxiety actually increases for a while.  A lot.

That means that if you’re going to get better, you need a reason. A rock-solid, soul-deep reason…or you simply won’t find the motivation to do what it takes to improve.  My personal vision statement keeps me grounded in who I really want to be, so that I can make positive decisions based on my greater good — even when it hurts.

This same principle can be applied to anyone.   Your greater good will pull you through all kinds of challenging situations, whether you are waging war against addiction or mental illness, or struggling to be polite to the bank teller.  I highly recommend that everyone take some time to think about it and define it in their own lives.

4)–Give Yourself Grace.  Here’s a confession: in my journey toward recovery, I have yet to make it through an entire day without giving in to a compulsion.  Sometimes, that makes me feel guilty and ashamed.  But the truth is, shame and healing cannot exist simultaneously.  One of the most important things I have learned is to cut myself some slack, to accept that I can’t always control what I struggle with, and to let go of blame.  I try to celebrate even small victories and forgive myself fast when I fall down.  I believe that no matter what you’re working on, you will be so much more successful if you treat yourself with kindness, forgiveness, and love.  (And here’s a great side-effect of extending grace to yourself: suddenly, it’s a whole lot easier to extend it to others, too!)

5. Establish Appropriate Boundaries.  Finally, one of the most important characteristics of emotionally healthy people is that they take responsibility for themselves, have appropriate relational boundaries, and honor the boundaries of others.

My battle with OCD is not something that I expect the people in my life to fight for me.  Don’t get me wrong: of necessity, people who are close to me are compassionate about this (I honestly don’t know what I’d do without family and friends who are understanding and kind when I am unreasonable or excessively stressed out). Still, I know that I have an obligation to do what I can to minimize the impact on the people I love.  I do not expect them to rearrange their lives around my disorder.

Having said that, there are moments when I need special consideration.  Maybe it’s some extra reassurance, support, or structure.  Perhaps it’s an activity or conversation topic that needs to be avoided because it is a trigger area for me.   I am getting better at asking for such considerations, but I also make an effort not to be hurt when, for whatever reason, they cannot be given and I must to bow out of an engagement or situation to preserve my peace of mind.

Establishing appropriate boundaries can be difficult, but it is a key aspect of emotional well-being, one that cannot be overlooked!

So there you have it — five strategies and skills I’ve been developing in my journey toward recovery.  In the comments below, please share any thoughts and insights you have on these or other characteristics you feel are important for emotionally healthy people to develop!

(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 need someone to talk to, you are welcome to private message me on Facebook or email me at katie_in_logan [at] yahoo [dot] com).

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About Katie L

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

Posted on May 30, 2011, in Advice, Mental Health, Personal and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. this is so helpful . our stake president keeps reminding us to “act,rather than being acted upon”. Your strategies do exactly that. thank you

  2. All good and especially helpful thoughts for me. Thanks my beautiful and spectacular daughter!

  3. Katie… two lines into this, I thought to myself, I have to share the bumper sticker I read a few months ago. It said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Great minds think alike! It struck me so hard when I read it. I’ve been sharing it with everyone and most people are like… huh… clever. It’s good to know someone else gets it.

  4. Thanks, everyone!

    Lil, that’s funny about the bumper sticker. When I heard the quote, I remember being told it was a bumper sticker. I don’t like bumper stickers in general, but I would totally put something like that on my car!

    One more bit of advice specifically for people struggling with anxiety or other mood disorders: find a good therapist. And keep looking till you discover someone who works for you. I’m on my fourth now, and am finally in therapeutic situation that is productive and solid. I am so thankful for the help, insight, training, and work I’ve been able to do as a result!

    There’s no shame in seeking professional help when you need it. In fact, it’s a sign of strength of courage. And if you’re battling something like OCD, you really can’t do it alone.

    I felt like I needed to share that for future visitors who might stumble upon this post. 🙂

  5. I love this post and this information! I think it applies really broadly and anyone can benefit from knowing these tactics. Most helpful advice I’ve received in a long time. Thanks for being awesome!

  6. I’m so happy you found it helpful and broad, Teresa. Love ya! 🙂

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