The whole entirety of OCD recovery can be summed up in one task: stopping your compulsions.
But that’s much easier said than done, right?
The desire to fulfill compulsions is stimulated by a rush of almost irresistible emotions, fears, urges, and obsessive thoughts. When we find ourselves in an OCD spiral, everything feels so urgent. It can seem impossible to do anything other than follow the dictates of our anxiety.
But you don’t have to obey your anxiety!
In this blog post, I’d like to share the golden trick to stopping your compulsions. It’s a very simple but powerful idea that can help you learn to walk away from compulsive behavior.
Stopping Your Compulsions Feels So HARD
Stopping your compulsions isn’t as easy as flicking off a light switch. I know, and I can fully sympathize with the colossal struggle that you may be experiencing as you try to overcome OCD. Loved ones may try to give you overly simplistic advice like, “just stop doing it,” but I think we both know it isn’t that easy.
Compulsions are powerful and addictive behaviors that help us manage our anxiety. No, they are not effective ways of managing our anxiety (because in the long run, they make us much more anxious), but nevertheless they do give us a small hit of relief. That’s why compulsions are so addictive.
I often compare compulsions to drugs. Engaging in your OCD compulsion is like getting a hit of cocaine. It might feel good for a moment, but pretty soon you’re going to be needing it again…and in larger doses. Similarly, our brains build up tolerance for our compulsions, and we generally need more and more.
More reassurance. More obsessive googling. More ritualistic behaviors.
Pretty soon, we’re strung out on compulsions, living from one hit to the next, hardly able to work or play or sleep without needing to engage in some sort of compulsive ritual to make ourselves feel better.
That’s no way to live! And most of us know it.
But it’s hard to stop. SO HARD.
I don’t know if there’s a scientific way of comparing the difficulty levels of OCD recovery and drug rehab, but I’m going to guess there are some similarities. (But, on a positive note, having OCD is still better than having a drug addiction, because OCD doesn’t actually kill any of your brain cells–at least, not that we know of!)
Most people with OCD can get to the point where they recognize that they have GOT to STOP their compulsions if they want to live a normal life. They view their compulsions as bad. And if their compulsions are bad, then stopping them is good.
Unfortunately, this rationale can get a bit muddy when we talk specifically about religious compulsions.
Why It’s Hard to Stop Religious Compulsions
Moral and religious compulsions are a particularly tricky type of compulsions to overcome. This is because they garb themselves in a cloak of truth and virtue. Just as Scripture says that Satan himself appears as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), our compulsions can often appear to be very virtuous acts.
Isn’t it a good thing to stop and pick up everybody else’s litter on your way to class?
Doesn’t it sound like a good idea to “visualize” God correctly when you pray?
Isn’t it virtuous to confess every single sin by name?
Religious compulsions often “sound” good, until we dig a little deeper. Then we begin seeing the fear-laden, excessive nature of these fanatical behaviors. Certainly, it’s a kind and responsible gesture to pick up other people’s litter–until it makes you consistently late to class and unable to focus on other people around you, who could have been benefiting from your presence and Christian witness. Stewardship of the planet– “creation care” — is awesome, but it shouldn’t be motivated by fear that God will make you fail your classes if you walk past someone else’s abandoned soda can.
Stopping your religious compulsions is made very difficult by the feeling that it is “sinful” to walk away from these urges.
If your compulsion is to confess your sins for several hours per day, it feels ever so unspiritual to stop doing that. It feels like you’re being spiritually lazy to just pray once, even if you can’t get your mental image just right.
Religious commitment is one of those things that feels hard to back down from once you’ve engaged at a certain level of intensity.
Here’s one practical example that isn’t exactly from the world of religious OCD, but I think you’ll see how it applies.
My husband and I have paid tithe and offerings ever since we got married almost ten years ago. We pay a regular tithe and we also have a percentage of our income that we dedicate each month to freewill offerings. Obviously, the tithing percentage comes from Scripture, so we aren’t going to play around with that number. But for the last ten years, we’ve given another set percentage of freewill offerings without really questioning the amount.
Lately, as we’re expecting our baby girl, we’ve started budgeting more carefully. (And wow, babies cost a lot of money!) We revisited the amount we give in freewill offerings and wondered if it would be terrible to decrease the amount a bit.
For both of us, it felt difficult even to ask that question. It felt like we were stealing from God just to think of it! Why? Not because Scripture dictated that amount, but simply because we’d gotten used to giving it.
We called our pastor and talked with him about freewill offerings. We asked him how much was typical for church members to give, and if there are any specific biblical requirements for how much to donate above the regular tithe.
We found out we had been giving about twice as much as most people, and that no, there aren’t any specific biblical guidelines to freewill offerings in the Christian church. They are, as the name implies, given out of “free will.”
So we prayerfully decided to reduce our offerings as we try to budget for our daughter’s future.
Let me tell you, it feels really weird to do that. Although my mind believes we are well within Scriptural guidelines, and I feel that we are following both the letter and the spirit of the law, it’s hard to “back down” from previous spiritual behaviors, even if circumstances have changed.
Stopping your compulsions can feel very similar.
If you’ve gotten used to frenetic levels of spiritual over-engagement, it will probably feel sinful to back down. It might feel like you’re copping out, disappointing God, sinning, or becoming a lazy and rebellious Christian.
But this is not the case.
And that’s what brings me to our Golden Trick for stopping our compulsions.
The Golden Trick to Stopping Your Compulsions
Stopping your compulsions, especially your religious ones, will seem impossible as long as your mind paints the picture that stopping = sinning.
You love the Lord. You don’t want to rebel against Him or lose that special relationship you’ve been building for so many years. You don’t want to be lazy or uncommitted.
You are, in a word, a Christian. You would rather be miserable with your OCD for the rest of your life rather than disobey your Savior.
So you’re not going to stop your compulsions as long as you allow yourself to view the stopping as a sinful thing.
The good news is that it’s a logical and spiritual fallacy to say it’s sinful to stop your compulsions. Think of this important truth: your religious compulsions are daily painting a picture of God’s character in your mind. As long as you conflate the voice of your OCD with the voice of God, you’re going to obey these weird and fanatical urges. And as you do that, you’re absorbing a silent but sinister picture of God.
Slowly and subconsciously, God begins to appear nitpicky, distant, easily disappointed with your performance. He becomes a slavedriver, a God who delights in sacrifice and suffering.
Over time, won’t this impact your relationship with Him? Certainly! How many of us in the OCD recovery community struggle with unwanted anger or bitterness towards God? We scratch our heads, wondering where this comes from. Sometimes, these unwanted feelings towards God are nothing more than intrusive emotions, and they mean nothing. But other times, they bubble up as a repressed feeling of angst–not against the true God in heaven, but against the distorted picture of God that OCD has painted in our minds.
Thus, I would humbly suggest that continuing your compulsions is far more damaging to your spiritual life than stopping them.
Every time you get the urge to fulfill a compulsion, and you know or highly suspect it’s a compulsion, yet you do it anyways, you are ascribing legitimacy to a distorted view of God.
Every time you choose to resist the urge to fulfill your compulsions, you are fighting back, declaring that “God’s not like that,” and that you won’t be ruled by a false picture of your Father in Heaven. By not fulfilling your compulsions, you are ascribing legitimacy to the true, biblical picture of God. You are honoring Him by ignoring false religious urges.
Stopping your compulsions doesn’t make you a bad Christian. On the contrary, it’s the best way to draw closer to God and understand His heart like you’ve never seen it before. Ignoring those obsessive-compulsive urges makes you a better Christian.
This, then, is the Golden Trick to stopping your compulsions–it’s a mindset that firmly declares, “stopping my compulsions is not a bad thing for my Christian walk, it’s the best thing I could possibly do for my relationship with God.”
I believe the most difficult part of stopping our compulsions is simply believing that it’s the right thing to do.
Yes, of course, ignoring the flood of emotions is hard. Finding ways of distracting ourselves as we “ride it out” is hard. But all this is made easier when we believe that it’s a way for us to draw closer to God. Resisting, ignoring, and stopping our compulsions is, I believe, a form of worship.
Consider the words of Jesus when He said:
” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ “Luke 10:27
Love is typically something that we think of as coming from the heart. But here, Jesus says it is possible to love God with our minds.
What does that mean?
Perhaps it means that the mindsets we choose to adopt and the mental health patterns we embrace translate into forms of worship.
If it is true, as we discussed, that our response to OCD affects the mental picture we have of God’s character, than truly it is theologically important to prioritize our mental health. It glorifies God when we weed out mental distortions. And every time we ignore a compulsion and refuse to do it, we are pulling out one more weed.
Let us love the Lord with all our minds. Let us worship Him through our attempts to develop better mental health. And let us remember this Golden Trick for getting up enough gumption to resist our next compulsion: it is a mindset that says, “stopping my compulsions is not a bad or sinful thing; it’s the best thing I could possibly do for my relationship with God.”
Let me know how it goes. I’m rooting for you, and so is God.
Best wishes on the journey,