Why compulsions don’t work

A compulsion is performed to relieve anxiety, but the reality is – it increases it. This is because the compulsion has to be performed exactly right for the anxiety to subside. That perfectionism is a hard thing to achieve.

Often, the criteria for ‘just right’ is how the task feels, rather than what you see with your own eyes. It has to feel right. That makes judging when to stop difficult.

Sarah’s Story.

Sarah’s obsession is about keeping her family safe. She worries that when she is asleep, she is not alert to fire and could not save her loved ones if a fire were to break out. Her obsession is focused on the oven and light switches as these are sources of electricity. She has to make sure they are off.

Sarah’s compulsion is switching the light switch off when it feels right. She can see that the light is off, but the anxiety is still there. Therefore she catastrophes that it might not be off after all. Maybe if she does it again, the anxiety will go away – then she will now it is safe.

Unfortunately, anxiety does not work this way and is fuelled by thoughts. Sarah is constantly thinking ‘what if?’ which fuels her anxiety more. Every time she switches the light on and off, she cannot be sure – even though she can see it is off with her eyes. It still doesn’t feel right.

Sarah is now in an OCD loop of obsession and compulsion. She now has to be brave and just walk away otherwise she could be stuck in this loop for hours. When this happens Sarah becomes very distressed because her anxiety is forcing her to continue, even if her logical mind doesn’t want her to.

A compulsion is a safety behaviour. But it only keeps the sufferer on the cycle.