7 Surprisingly Subtle Differences Between Superstition And OCD, According To Experts


A lot of the time, the popular concept of what mental illnesses look like can be reductive. When it comes to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the stereotypes about what the diagnosis looks like often overshadow the daily difficulties of living with this mental illness. And because of the confusion around OCD, some people may not understand that personality traits like superstition may sometimes be symptomatic.

Both superstitions and OCD have one thing in common: they're rooted in wanting to control the difficult world around you. "The truth is that both OCD and superstitious behavior can look so similar that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference," licensed professional counselor Adamaris Mendoza, MA, tells Bustle. "They are both considered coping strategies." The biggest differentiator, however, is the amount that your superstitions or symptoms interfere with your daily life.

"We can safely say that most of us have participated in superstitious thinking and behaviors at one time or another," Mendoza says. "[...] The average person, however, can include a little superstition in their lives without it completely taking over." But with OCD, these symptoms become a lot more distressing. So if you're curious whether your superstitions might be due to something more serious, then it's possibly worth examining further.

Here are seven surprisingly subtle differences between superstition and OCD, according to experts.


Always Carrying Something Around

Kavun Halyna/Shutterstock

Not emptying out your purse or work bag is one thing, but if you have a certain item you can't go anywhere without, you may be walking a fine line between superstition and OCD.

"Always carrying certain things might be thought of as a person being superstitious as well," therapist Adina Mahalli, MSW, tells Bustle. If you are afraid of going anywhere without this one item, however, and it interrupts your daily life, you may want to reach out to a professional.


OCD Is More Overwhelming

kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock

Superstitions may be something you carry with you, but OCD symptoms can take over your daily life. This can be understood through a comparison of a superstition about, versus and obsession with, the number 13.

"The number 13 has superstitious meaning," licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D, tells Bustle. "[...] If someone has an obsession with the number 13, though, they might have to lock the door at night 13 times, or buy things in multiples of 13, or tap the number 13 every time it appears on this page." So if you notice your superstition doesn't let up as you go about your day, then you may be experiencing OCD.


With OCD, You Can't Resist Your Compulsions

LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Those with OCD cannot move past resisting compulsions the way those with non-OCD-related superstitions can.

"Another difference is that in OCD, the urges or compulsions are a lot harder to resist than the urges that come with a superstition," Dr. Daramus says. "[...] In OCD, if you don’t give into a compulsion, the anxiety gets worse and worse until you do give in." So if you, for example, walk under a ladder and can't get past the anxiety about it, then you may be dealing with something more serious.


Superstitions Are Cultural, When OCD Usually Isn't

Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

A lot of superstitions are learned in childhood, from your family, from your schoolmates, or from your culture in general. With OCD, your superstitions and beliefs don't always line up with those you learn in cultural contexts.

"Superstitions are usually a part of a cultural tradition, while the obsessions in OCD are more personal," Dr. Daramus says. "In the U.S., for example, there is a superstition that walking under a ladder is bad luck. A lot of people will go around it without thinking about it, even when they don’t really believe that. In OCD, the obsession isn’t usually culturally sanctioned." Therefore, if you have a particular superstition that bothers you and that you don't share with others, then you may want to talk to a mental health professional.


Having The Superstitions Interfere With Daily Life


Not all OCD symptoms exist in the mind. The fears or obsessions (which can look like superstitions) create compulsions. While this may be confused with the "compulsion" not to walk under a ladder, the way this manifests in OCD is much more severe.

"People with OCD often present with compulsions to do certain rituals over and over again, which severely interferes with their everyday life," Mendoza says. So if you have any rituals you can't shake without feeling very anxious, you may want to talk to your doctor about these symptoms.


People With OCD Largely Know Their Fears Aren't Rational


While some superstitions may be rooted in genuine belief, many people who suffer from OCD are aware that their fears defy logic and don't believe them on an intellectual level — despite their symptoms.

"In my clinical experience, I have rarely come across an individual with OCD who actually thinks that their fears are rational when they are not in the throes of anxiety," licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Michael J Greenberg, tells Bustle. "[...] most people with OCD don't even look superstitious." A major distinguishing factor is anxiety and fear, which doesn't always need to be logical.


OCD Means Being Terrified Of What Happens If You Don't Give In


Despite a possible awareness that your superstitions or fears aren't practical, how you respond to this awareness can differentiate OCD from superstition.

"At core, OCD is a fear of missing the opportunity to prevent an irreversible catastrophe," Dr. Greenberg "Typically, it's not that the individual actually believes that something bad will happen if they do x or don't do y, but rather that they are afraid to take the risk that it might." So if you have to go back and fix stepping on a crack, or walking under a ladder, for fear of the consequences, then that may be more serious than a non-obsessive-compulsive superstition.

While superstition is far from the only symptom of OCD, and every person with OCD has symptoms that present differently, distinguishing the thoughts and feelings that go along with obsessions can be really helpful. While almost everyone has a superstition or two, having a great deal of stress or interruption to your daily life due to these fears may be something more serious worth noting.