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When OCD and Self Compassion Meet in the Middle
by Therapist Nancy R. Larsen, MSW, LCSW

OCD is a disorder that affects millions of people and causes a lot of mental, physical and spiritual distress. Because OCD can be debilitating it is important to note that the problem is not the disorder itself, rather, it is the anxiety that comes from the symptoms of the disorder. So when you are compulsively demanding your mind to stop obsessing, this just fuels your OCD symptoms and increases your relationship with the distress.

A big part of learning to live with OCD is to incorporate self-compassion. Instead of avoiding your anxiety, self-compassion invites you to look at it with understanding and gentle curiosity. This approach allows you to see your pain exactly how it is without self-judgment or self-criticism.

Kristin Neff, PhD, who studied the concept of self-compassion for five years, defines self-compassion as, “Recognition of our own suffering… The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times.” In her research, Dr. Neff discovered three components of self-compassion necessary to facilitate personal healing: Mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness. 

As human beings, we all suffer in some way. It does not mean that we are inadequate or unable to handle life. It simply means in this moment we acknowledge that things are difficult. Difficult does not mean inadequate. It just means difficult. 

Looking at pain caused by OCD with self-compassion is not instinctual. It takes a conscious effort to notice when your mind is being mean or unkind to you. This can be challenging as our first reaction to any type of discomfort is to ignore it, push it away or pretend we are not feeling it. Dr. Neff states, “We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place.” This type of behavior is anything but self-compassionate. 

Writing a simple self-compassion statement introduces a new inner dialogue that is softer, gentler and kinder. A self-compassion statement incorporates all three of the components of self-compassion mentioned above. It can be as simple as, “I recognize I am having a feeling of anxiety right now (Mindfulness). This is a normal feeling for people who struggle with OCD like I do (common humanity). I don’t like this feeling; however, I am willing to be kind to myself as I notice it (self-kindness).” 

How could this change the way you feel about your experience in a moment of discomfort? This sure sounds better than, “Man, I hate that I can’t handle my OCD… I can’t handle anything.”

Do you hear the difference? Do you feel the difference? Giving yourself permission to acknowledge the pain you are feeling softens that old negative inner-dialogue with your OCD without trying to fix it or get rid of it. 

While co-facilitating an OCD group I invited each participant to write their own self-compassion statement incorporating the three components of self-compassion. It was interesting to hear the various ways in which participants expressed self-compassion for their pain. With permission, below is an example of a self-compassion statement from one of the participants:

“I breathe in gratitude for my life and my abilities.

I breathe out love for myself and all men and women.

In between my breaths, I notice the OCD thoughts and all the

burden-feelings they bring.

In between my breaths, I grant myself permission to grieve, to cry,

and to feel the great fear.

In between my breaths, I grant myself freedom, once more,

to experience joy and creativity.

I breathe in gratitude for my numerous blessings.

I breathe out love for myself and all men and women.

I breathe in gratitude. I breathe out love.

I breathe the wind of the Holy Spirit.”

As participants listened intently to the above self-compassion statement, there was a tender feeling in the room. In that moment, they were joined in their pain through feelings of self-compassion. As sufferers themselves, they understand the courage it takes to live with OCD and each had witnessed what it sounds like when OCD and self-compassion meet in the middle.

Self-compassion can change the way you interact with painful experiences caused by OCD. It truly is the key ingredient to one’s personal healing. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by OCD, I invite you to write your own self-compassion statement using all three components: Mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness. As you recite it daily you will notice how your experience with pain, anxiety and discomfort changes. And you will be able to approach OCD with self-compassion.

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