OCD and the Two Truths

By Brian Robinson.

Subjective and objective truth.

For the OCD sufferer, it’s easy to see how the intrusive thoughts involved in OCD can embroil us in a battle between truth and lies. Logic may be telling you one thing: but your OCD may be telling you quite the opposite. But is this really a battle between truth and lies? Or is it better seen as a battle between two truths?

Our ability to use logic to reason our way to the truth is probably the main characteristic of what makes us human. It is a powerful tool and acts as our best guide. But our OCD mind can be powerful enough to overwhelm our ability to reason, so much so, that we begin to behave and live according to what most people would see as a lie. For example, our contamination OCD may be telling us that touching certain things may be putting us at risk. Whereas the objective evidence may be suggesting that touching things can actually help build up our resistance to germs.

Dealing with intrusive thoughts is an essential pathway to coping with OCD. In the broadest sense, this means looking at the intrusive thoughts in detail and asking lots of questions. The idea being, we may not be able to get rid of the thoughts, but we may be able to better understand them and so become more accepting. This in turn means we focus on them less; see them in a different light; award them less significance; and so become less troubled by them.

This relationship between the truth and lies of the OCD condition can vary from one sufferer to another. One person may insist that no matter how often they wash their hands they will always be contaminated to some degree. While another may believe that washing with certain decontaminating agents will give them the required degree of protection. From the therapists point of view, increasing the degree of rational belief in the sufferer will be one of the main aims. However, we first have to have an understanding of what truth is.

One dictionary definition of truth tells us that it is something that has to be in accord with fact or reality. And we can arrive at these truths in a number of ways. For example, if we see a cat sitting on a mat, then this can act as evidence that this state of affairs exists, and so we arrive at that belief or truth through visual means. However, with an OCD sufferer, or indeed someone suffering with a phobia, the truth arrives via the OCD or phobic pathway and that works quite differently. The cat may be sitting on the mat: but he could also be contaminating the mat.

When the OCD mind becomes energised, it locks onto a certain logic and it then it pursues that logic to extremes. For example, we know that germs exist, and we know that if hygiene levels are allowed to fall, then we may become affected by these germs. However, the OCD mind is not able to rationalise about the risks involved with germs. It simply takes the view that they should be avoided at all costs.

And for the sufferer, this OCD truth is then imposed upon them, not as a reasoned truth, but as an emotional truth. There is no logical pathway to this truth as with a reasoned belief. It simply comes to exist within the person, and perhaps more to the point, it performs in much the same way as a rational truth might. In other words, the sufferer is persuaded to act according to the OCD truth, and there should be no surprise that they do so. The only difference being, OCD truths are far more urgent and much more hinges on acting in line with them.

The reality for the OCD sufferer then, is that they live their lives with two truths. But this should not be seen as a contradiction. One is not the truth and the other a lie. They are both truths, one is subjective; OCD informed; and experienced emotionally: and the other is objective; informed by reason; and experienced psychologically.

Seeing the OCD truth for what it is, and accepting that it is to some extent at odds with the rational truth, is a great way to begin the CBT work. It allows the OCD belief to migrate to the background of our thoughts: and it opens the door to the rational honest truth we should all live by.

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