OCD and “Checking” our Emotions

When managing your emotional responses turns into its own compulsion.

Key Takeaways:
  • Many OCD sufferers learn to "check" their emotional responses to certain situations as a way of being aware of their OCD.
  • For some, this "checking" can turn into a compulsion. One in which a sufferer is so concerned with feeling the "right" way, that they stop knowing how they feel at all.
  • Mitzi VanCleve speaks to the struggle she's faced with over-checking her emotional reactions and scrutinizing herself for not "feeling" differently.

One of the subtler compulsions I’ve struggled with is checking my emotions to discern if I’m having the “right” reactions to an obsessional theme I’m struggling with. I’ve done this to try and sort out if I’m on board with the obsessional theme or not. Yet, the moment I try to discern how I’m feeling, the natural flow of my emotions is automatically blocked. The effort I spend trying to muster up the feeling I think I should be having, gets in the way. Our emotions will not cooperate with this kind of scrutiny.  They aren’t meant to be scrutinized, they are meant to flow naturally. Trying to muster them up will fail.

These are some of the ways I have attempted to measure or check my feelings while suffering from OCD:

  1. While struggling with Religious OCD, I would often try to discern if I felt my faith. Sadly, this was a disheartening experience because all the effort I put into trying to feel my faith only caused me to feel even more anxious that I’d lost it.
  2. I went through a prolonged period of obsessing about being clinically depressed and feeling terrified that I’d never feel happy again.  During that time, I remember trying to test my emotions to gain reassurance that I wasn’t clinically depressed. One experiment I did, was seeing if I could laugh about something funny. I decided to watch one of my favorite comedians with the hope that I would be able to laugh. But, about ten minutes into his performance I had to shut the TV off because I hadn’t been able to muster up the tiniest chuckle. This only ramped up my fear.  I hadn’t laughed, and that seemed an ominous sign that I was in the throes of a deep depression that I might never pull out of.
  3. While struggling with Harm OCD, I would try to measure my feelings about my loved ones. I’d go back over the past when those feelings had seemed to flow out naturally and compare them to how I was feeling during the Harm OCD.

Questions like:

 “Am I feeling love for my child, my grandchild, my spouse?”  

…are a common experience for those who struggle with Pure O.  And yet every attempt we make to muster up or find evidence for these feelings will only be met with more uncertainty and fear. The frantic effort we put into this, will block our ability to feel any other emotion.

Eventually, all these different forms of checking my emotional state started causing me deep concern that I might be a sociopath who was incapable of normal human emotions. I remember singing at the funeral of a neighbor and trying to discern if I was feeling normal grief and sadness. Again, all the effort I was putting into checking if I felt sad blocked the natural flow of grief. The only emotion I was left with was intense anxiety.

For a very long time, I didn’t understand how all this navel gazing had a detrimental effect on my OCD.  I didn’t even consider this type of thing to be a compulsion.  Once I could see that checking emotions is also a compulsion, and that doing so will only serve to keep fear center stage, I realized that I had to stop.

Feelings are not meant to measure our faith or our true character.  They are as fickle as the weather, and they will not flourish in the way they are meant to when we try to scrutinize or force them. Doing so blunts and blocks them. I had to learn this the hard way, and even today when I’m struggling with some new Pure O theme, I often need to remind myself to leave off checking my emotions.