On social media and television, one sees and hears the word OCD associated with individuals being obsessed with cleanliness and organising objects in an orderly manner. Or a super cautious person who sees germs everywhere and washes his hands after every touch. “I am so OCDish” or “that’s such an OCD” are the things we hear.
This may not be an accurate portrayal of OCD, however.
In a moving TED Talk, Tauscha Johanson rightly points out that OCD is not a verb or an adjective but a serious condition, often resulting from a neurochemical imbalance in the brain. She described how her daughter was obsessively concerned that she had hit people while driving when she had actually hit potholes on a dark winter night. Her OCD demanded that she goes to backroads and check all along for injured people. She would spend over an hour commuting for a three-mile distance for repeated checking of her path back and forth.
The American Psychological Association defines OCD (i.e., obsessive-compulsive disorders) as a disorder characterised by recurrent intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that prompt the performance of neutralising rituals (compulsions). For example, constantly engaging in compulsive behaviour like washing hands forms a habit of repeating it every time you touch something. Not doing it, on the other hand, brings anxiety and discomfort.
OCDs are not limited to being terrified of contamination or obsessively arranging things in a certain order it can take several other forms. One such form that is rarely discussed is the manifestation of OCD in the realms of morality – an obsession with being morally right all the time, not just in the present and future but also in the past.
We all have a moral compass guided by our conscience and informed by beliefs, perceptions, and life experiences, amongst other things. At times we may feel we have violated our conscience, we may apologise, take some reparative actions, and move on, but in the case of OCD, this unfolds differently. There is an obsession with being morally right all the time. An extreme sense of guilt and anxiety mounts up every time an action performed is deemed morally wrong, howsoever small the action may be. This is followed by the compulsion to seek reassurance that one is not guilty. For example, the guilt of not being able to help a friend in need is followed by seeking reassurance that this is not entirely in one’s control and that once in a while, we all may not be able to help those whom we want to.
When such reassurance-seeking behaviour happens every time for every tiny action deemed immoral, it becomes a disorder. A moral OCD doesn’t just concern with the actions of the present. One can feel immense guilt for actions done long ago.
It is quite true that our morals evolve with time. What one may regard as acceptable as a 17-year-old may seem abhorrent at 31. However, this OCD bypasses this fact and harshly judges the past through the moral lens of the present. As a 10-year-old kid, one teased a classmate for his appearance but later became friends. Now at 31, as the OCD kicks in, one suddenly remembers every fine detail of teasing a friend. Anxiety, restlessness and a desire to reach out to this classmate and apologise follows. The anxiety could be intense enough to affect one’s normal functioning. The friend may not even remember this incident and would be surprised by a peer suddenly reaching out to him out of the blue and apologising profusely.
It may not be necessary for an action to have been committed; even the thought of committing an action can be enough to feed this OCD. For example, one might have thought of hitting someone or seriously injuring someone but never did. The OCD will convince the person that he did it. One will dive deep into the oceans of thoughts, unpacking every minute detail of the event and trying hard to convince oneself that they never hit the person.
OCD can go into a loop of multiple incidents from the past. After convincing oneself that one didn’t do action A, the mind will convince that one did action B. And after being reassured that one didn’t do B either, the mind may go back to A with a one or two newly remembered detail that may have been missed earlier. This way, the endless loop of obsessing and reassuring over actions of the past continues.
Besides guilt of the past, moral OCD will also bring crippling fear for the future. What if the same friend one teased as a kid grows up to be very influential and then one day publicly calls one out for being insensitive, bringing shame and humiliation? The guilt of the past goes hand in hand with fear of the future, howsoever irrational it may be. Furthermore, the intense fear of being morally wrong cripples the ability to participate in activities – being too concerned about speaking insensitively in communication leads to avoiding public speaking or meeting new people. Too concerned about violating consent in any relationship leads to avoiding any initiation of intimacy.
Situations such as a lockdown or social isolation, or not having any set plans for days can trigger OCD-related thoughts. Once the mind gets preoccupied with OCD-related thoughts, a spiral of incidents and thoughts will continue. Medicines (serotonin reuptake inhibitors, for example) can help a great deal in extreme forms of OCD, and therapy can help in better identifying the factors which trigger such OCDs and how to handle the OCD once it kicks in by using steps like an active distraction. To someone adhering to religious faith, this OCD can be dictated by morals as described in the faith. The term ‘scrupulosity’, in fact, came about with obsessions with observing religious tenets.
At the heart of moral OCD is a longing to be morally right all the time. But being right all the time is impossible. As a society, we must keep room for improvement and growth. Forgive others, consider giving a second chance as much as possible and keep room for improvement. Reassure your friends when they reach out to us. Turning them down can make them even more anxious. But if you sense this (seeking your reassurance) as a pattern, suggest they seek professional help. A moral OCD feeds on the fact that a mistake (in a moral sense) is permanent. We must therefore resist the propagation of this belief.
Salik Ansari is an early career researcher and writer interested in ethics, sexual and reproductive health, and the LGBTQIA+ community. He has written for academic and non-academic platforms, including the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, Research & Humanities in Medical Education (RHiME), Gaysi, and Feminism in India, amongst others.