Whether we realize it or not, using the phrase "I'm so OCD" in a casual way can diminish what it's like to have obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as the validity of the struggle people face daily when coping with this issue. It's often mischaracterized by people who think it's all about making your bed a certain way, organizing a bookshelf by color, or putting everything neatly away after cooking a meal. But are these habits a sign of OCD? Or are they just quirks and preferences?
If you catch yourself being meticulous when it comes to tidying up, or think your partner might be going a bit overboard with their to-do lists, that doesn't necessarily mean you have OCD. A trip to a therapist will be necessary for a true diagnosis, but you can begin to evaluate your urges, as well as the motivation behind them, by knowing the distinction between what may constitute OCD and what typically doesn't.
"OCD is extremely debilitating, and the diagnosis requires a negative thought pattern and a behavioral pattern that makes everyday life miserable and confining," Marla Stone, MSW, a retired psychotherapist tells Bustle. So what might true OCD look like? "Imagine putting a toilet seat up and down for hours, or going back to your house over and over and over again to make sure the sliding glass door is shut," Stone says. "It is a challenge that haunts a person daily and sometimes can take hours of the day away from them."
In short, if you have OCD, your obsessions (thoughts) and your compulsions (actions) will start to run your life in a distressing, time-consuming, and unhealthy way — until you seek treatment. By debunking myths surrounding the disorder, we can better understand what qualifies as having OCD, and no longer minimize the very real, very challenging symptoms people face when they have the disorder. Here are a few habits experts say aren't OCD no matter what others might say.
1. Keeping A Super Tidy Living Space
When it comes to misconceptions about OCD, wanting to be clean or habitually cleaning your living space is often wrongly attributed to be a symptom of the disease.
"Most people don't enjoy working or living in filth or chaos," licensed psychologist Dr. Crystal I. Lee tells Bustle. "This doesn't mean you have OCD. It's also [common] to do a deep cleanse of your living space that takes hours, once in awhile." Same goes for wanting to clean all the dirty dishes out of the sink before bed, and arranging your couch pillows in an appealing way. While it may make you particular — and it may bug you occasionally when these things aren't done on time — it's not OCD.
2. Worrying About An Upcoming Event
Since it is a type of anxiety disorder, OCD can cause intrusive and unwanted thoughts that flood your brain, and cause distress. That's why, if you're fretting and stressing over an upcoming event, you might joke about having it. But experts say worries like these do not indicate the disorder.
"It's natural to worry about impending work presentations, third dates, and other big events," says Lee. "Sometimes those worries will even pop into your head when you don't want them to. These intrusive thoughts are not indicative of OCD, but are signs of anxiety (and not necessarily an anxiety disorder)." If these thoughts are persistent, though, discussing them with a loved one or psychologist may shed light on whether they may constitute an anxiety disorder.
3. Wanting To Arrive Somewhere Early
Keeping to a tight schedule, or wanting to arrive to meetings a few minutes early is something lots of people strive for in order to have a better day. As Stone says, "It is something most of us want in our life. Being on time can make things less stressful, and we can be counted on as dependable."
But when this desire is fueled by OCD, it's more about assuaging an obsession than it is about timeliness. "Wanting to be on time and showing up an hour early for appointments because of tragic thoughts of doom and gloom can ... be considered a sign of an OCD challenge," Stone says. "There are people suffering from OCD that believe unless they leave the house at exactly 7:00 a.m. every morning, something horrific will happen to them or a loved one." It is important to make this distinction — while your timeliness may be consistent, it may not necessarily be a compulsion. And when OCD is used as a way of describing punctuality, it can diminish the disorder overall.
4. Being A "Perfectionist"
If you need your desk to be just so in order to begin working, you might think it's a sign of OCD. But keep in mind, there's a big difference between perfectionism and an anxiety disorder. "Many people confuse perfectionism with OCD because they both involve a person being very particular and 'obsessing' over things," Lee says. "Perfectionism tends to generalize all aspects of a person's life. OCD, on the other hand, is usually prescribed to a very specific set of obsessions and compulsions."
Again, there's also the motivation that can help you tell the difference. "Perfectionists ... tend to be very invested in their perfectionism and believe it helps them produce better work. Individuals with OCD will often recognize that what they're doing is not helpful but are driven by great fears and anxieties to continue engaging in the behavior."
5. Wanting To Wash Your Hands
If you think hand washing is one of the biggest signs of OCD, you'd be right. But there's a major difference between being diligent about your health, and having a deep-seated fear of germs, which is pretty common for OCD sufferers. "With OCD, the fear of being contaminated by germs can significantly impact daily life, [often affecting] where someone goes, how they interact with others, and what they touch," Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, Executive Director at Maryland House Detox, tells Bustle.
If you touched something sticky, or are trying to avoid catching a cold, you might feel grossed out until you rinse your hands. But if you have OCD, you will feel compelled to stand at the sink, washing your hands with super hot water. As Lee says, "These individuals spend hours engaging in rituals that can result in painful consequences, such as bleeding skin from over-washing." Recognizing this distinction can not only help you better understand the disease, it can also prevent you from unintentionally downplaying the severity of the disorder.
6. Hanging Onto Things You No Longer Use
While kind of quirky, it's pretty typical "to have a junk drawer full of old rubber bands, or twist ties, or staples. Or even a closet full of things you never use or wear. As Dehorty says, "Some people save or may be more sentimental about items." For this reason, you might hang onto old clothes because you remember the memories attached to them, or collect tons of books you never plan to read, just because you like the look of them. And that's totally OK.
With OCD, these "hoarding" tendencies are a lot different. "With OCD, the anxiety is about fear of not having something they may need, even if what they may need is useless — like old newspapers," says Dehorty. "There is no logic associated with the saving."
7. Checking And Then Double Checking
It's not uncommon to get up in the middle of the night to double check your front door is locked, or to make sure you really did turn off the stove. But doing so doesn't mean you have OCD.
"This is a common behavior," says Dehorty. "The main difference with OCD is the amount of checking. Someone with OCD may check up to 20 times or they may have an amount of times they need to check something. This becomes a ritual, meaning they cannot continue with their daily life until it has been completed. In severe OCD cases, people can become prisoners in their home, or in one room of their home, due to the amount of checking they must perform before they can move on with their day."
OCD is a debilitating disorder that can truly impact your life, while OCD-like tendencies are often just tiny quirks or preferences, and not something to worry about. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that it's up to you to decide what's debilitating or not. If you feel held back by one of the things listed about, talk with a therapist to see if you do, in fact, have OCD. And they can start you on a treatment plan so you can better handle your thoughts.