You can stand it.
If anything, that’s the singular message I tell myself whenever I’m facing challenges with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
For those of you who might follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been diagnosed with OCD since October of last year; my symptoms from it, including compulsions that were becoming out-of-control, had been worsening throughout the spring and summer.
A huge part of what I’ve done in terms of treatment in the past twelve months has been Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a subset of cognitive behavioral therapy and the gold standard treatment for OCD. What I’ve found through my challenges and success with ERP is a new way of understanding unconditional self-acceptance. Which is to say, while OCD has been an awful experience for me, I’m grateful for the ways the treatment for it has given me insight on how to approach self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Concerning OCD, something I have to keep reminding myself is that progress isn’t linear. (I even printed out an inspiring illustration saying just that, but it’s lost somewhere on my desk . . . oops.) This past Friday, I had a significant wakeup call that I want to be more consistent with doing ERP. I had an unexpected trigger (or exposure) to a long-standing OCD theme that I had assumed was old business. After all, I had made leaps this past year with doing the planned exposures and resisting the compulsions to it. The sheer frequency of the intrusive thoughts from this theme had plummeted. Something that used to take up my headspace as soon as I woke up and continued throughout the day was now extinct. Or so I thought.
We often use the word “rude awakening,” but, if anything, the setback I had on Friday afternoon was more of a kind awakening. The incident informed me that it would be a good way to commit to my values if I were to do some more planned exposures on this theme and to write down some ways I could avoid giving into the compulsions. I do want to emphasize that the way I framed my self-talk in the aftermath of this unplanned trigger was so that I wasn’t pressuring myself into doing more ERP homework just to be enough, to accept myself; that would go against the mindset of this blog.
One of the biggest, and simultaneously easiest, ways I can keep in mind while facing OCD—and what any of us can use when anxious or frustrating or distressing situations come up—is not only that I can stand this moment, no matter how awful it feels, but also that I’ll remain at the same baseline of acceptance, of being enough, as I was before those emotions and as I will be afterwards.
Going through countless sessions and homework practice with ERP has given me a hands-on view of self-acceptance in action—sometimes just talking about self-acceptance can be too philosophical, too abstract. Every time I’ve made myself face my obsessions and not act on the compulsions to reassure myself, it wasn’t just trust in the ERP process that was helping me, it was recognizing unconditional self-acceptance.
Living with uncertainty (who’s going to win the election in November?), dealing with anxiety or intrusive thoughts (like with my OCD), and facing a frustrating situation (I had to take three attempts at a psychological statistics test yesterday because the first two times, my grades were disappointing) are never fun. But self-acceptance allows you to cope with them in a way that doesn’t lead to safety behaviors or distractions and instead empowers you to understand just how much it is that you can, after all, stand while still being enough as a person, just like everyone else.