I’m going to be very vulnerable about something I used to struggle with every autumn and into the early new year: obsessive compulsive disorder. I was never diagnosed, but I used to check door locks, ensure repeatedly the stove was off, check the fridge was closed, all the outlet plugs pushed in all the way, and . . . oops, gotta check that lock again!
I would stand there, agonizing, as I turned the door lock one way and then another. I saw it lock, but I still wasn’t sure it was secure. So I had to do it again.
My form of OCD was mild compared to many, and it was seasonal, but that brief glimpse taught me something important: guilt and uncertainty are powerful and need to be addressed.
It’s different for everyone, but for myself, I had to check things because I was scared if I didn’t, something bad would happen and it would be my fault. Maybe I’d forget to lock the door and someone would come in and hurt my family. Maybe I’d leave the stove on and start a fire or leave the fridge open and spoil the food. Interestingly enough, my concern wasn’t so much about the food spoiling or someone entering the house as it was about it being my fault.
I hated (and still absolutely hate) uncertainty. Our culture focuses a lot on making sure we treat animals well, only purchase items from companies that take care of their employees, use the best ingredients for our hair, eat the best diet, etc. At every turn, we’re presented with dire consequences if we don’t do these things. Don’t have good posture? Guess you’ll have a bowed back when you’re old! Don’t eat right? Diabetes! Don’t take care of your skin? Wrinkles! Buy a piece of non-humanely raised meat? An animal suffered because of you. Pick a piece of clothing without checking where it was made? You are now responsible for child labor. Didn’t recycle? Good job. You’ve now contributed to the decline of an entire planet.
No wonder guilt and uncertainty play such a huge role! Every decision means life or death, or so we absorb from commercials, media, and daily conversations.
And some of us, like myself, in order to try to mitigate the intense guilt, shame, and overwhelm from this, turn to practices like checking, obsessing, or indecision. I no longer check things excessively, but I do stand at the grocery store tormented over which piece of meat to get (are Foster Farm’s chickens really happy?). I agonize over what pair of shoes will cause others the least harm, and research, research, research so I don’t make a decision that will send my life (or someone else’s) spiraling.
As you can imagine, that isn’t healthy. Because important as it is to care about the environment or animals or people or ourselves (and you do care because you wouldn’t feel guilty if you didn’t), we simply can’t go through life as if the entire world revolves around our every decision. It’s great to be aware, make the best choices when possible, and slowly align ourselves with what we truly want for ourselves, others, and the world.
But doing so out of guilt is no true motivator and will tear us apart, causing us to feel responsible for things we have no business taking on our shoulders. And, perhaps more to the point, we have a deep shared desire for structure, consistency, and safety. We want to know—we want to ensure—things will be okay.
If you’re like me, uncertainty terrifies you. When I watch the news, I feel like I’m emotionally experiencing whatever story plays, and that can be absolutely horrifying. What if I ever find myself facing a flood or fire or cancer or . . . the list goes on. So, to make myself feel like I have some control and some power in the face of all those unknowns, I turned to checking behaviors.
What I’m here to say is that your desire to check things or be perfect or ensure you don’t do anything wrong may actually be a sign you care very deeply about the world and that you haven’t yet found a great way to deal with uncertainty, change, and the inability to have all the answers.
I’m not there, either, so please don’t think I’m talking from an enlightened perspective. I’m at the point where I realize what’s going on but am still very unsure how to deal with uncertainty or the fact that nothing is really “stable” in the deepest sense of the word.
And yet, maybe we can learn to be stable inside. Maybe letting go of control is our best weapon against uncertainty. Maybe we need to find what to hold onto when everything else isn’t guaranteed. For some people, religion fills that need. For others, it’s art. For others it may be experiences or memories or meditation or . . . or anything you want it to be. I’m still not sure what the best approach is. Maybe we can find one together.