When Every Other Day is About Ought’s and Should’s

Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash

“You don’t really control anything.” —Sheldon B. Kopp, Psychotherapist and Author

All of us have times when we’re obligated to carry out duties as part of normal life rituals. Having relatives visit us from out of town may prompt us to clean our houses ahead of time and get the guest rooms ready. Doing so lets our loved ones know we’re welcoming their visit and puts our mind at rest to know that we are providing for their care. Imagine however what it must be like to always have to keep your house clean and have everything perfectly in place even when you don’t have guests visiting you. Or, what it must be like to have to perform certain rituals each day just to know that you are not a bad person. Or, having daily unwanted obsessions and compulsions regarding what you must do and you have no idea where they come from and why you feel the way you do.

For some people, life can be a treadmill of obligations, so much so, that no matter how conscientiously they are performed, such people never feel completely good about themselves. Their compulsive solutions may even be quirky and they’re not clear why they even help! In more extreme cases, some people feel compelled to wash their hands numerous times a day, repeatedly check to see that their houses have been locked, or be obligated to perform some quirky task, like not stepping on sidewalk cracks, in order to be OK with themselves. Often these rituals don’t make logical sense, are seen as odd by the people who do them, are nearly impossible to stop, and strongly interfere with a person’s quality of life. Obsessions take too much time out of our lives when we’d rather be doing other rewarding things; it’s the pits when we lose control of our behaviors and thoughts.

Most of us are aware, perhaps from watching some humorous TV sitcoms, of extreme examples of people with obsessive/compulsive disorder. Indeed if this problem weren’t so painful all of us would get quite a laugh at how serious the duty bound person really is, since it is truly out of proportion to reality. Perhaps all of us have had times when we can relate to the duty bound person. The truth of the matter is that one in 40 people are plagued with having to live every day with an obligatory list of ought’s and should’s and they suffer accordingly. These rituals are embarrassing, are often kept secret even when they are not extreme, and simply become habituated in people’s lives since they feel they have no other choice but to carry them out. They are no laughing matter.

I just can’t stand it when things go slowly at my receptionist job. I tell myself, “Now Jane don’t just sit there. Clean out your desk. Dust off your laptop. Do something to look productive.” When things are slow I get this horrible dread in my stomach and tension in my back and neck. I go home with migraines. Over and over I think, “Jane, what if somebody comes by and sees you not working? Shouldn’t you be proving that you are a valuable employee?” The reality is that nobody comes by and says such things. I even got a raise last year for my good performance. Does that stop me from finding busy work for myself? I should say not. I have the cleanest, most well-organized desk at my office. If you ever need a paper clip in a certain color and size I have just what you need. I wish I could just relax and get these ought’s and should’s out of my head. Sometimes I could just scream at my job. Oh that would go over big!

I have this problem with my tree-hugger neighbor. He’s one of these guys that never cuts his lawn when it gets long. I live in an upscale neighborhood and everybody knows the city ordinance that the grass has to be less than four inches long. He’s always bragging about his new ornamental grass and how it requires no maintenance. His yard looks like a jungle with rocks, prairie grass and wildflowers. Worst of all, this past summer he painted his house a bright green. Imagine! I don’t mind green but not bright green. Doesn’t he realize that property values go down when a house is painted an odd color? I did a survey of our neighborhood and no other house is painted bright green. This green house is driving me crazy. I can’t sleep at night thinking about it. Once I talked with my neighbor and he saw no problem with his house. I even offered to pay for his house to be painted a different color. He just laughed. So finally I got some relief by having numerous arbor vitae bushes planted between our houses. They’re about six feet tall now but eventually in 30 years will grow up to be 20 feet tall. Some people just have difficult neighbors!

Why am I like this?

First of all, realize it is not the crime of the century to worry too much or be overly conscientious. Most people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are really nice people who lead unfortunately burdensome lives. Some of the nicest people have this problem! Being concerned about minutia is a heck of a lot better than being a cold person who could really give a rip about other people. You will never be put in jail for having this difficulty.

Yet having this problem may sometimes feel like you’re already putting yourself in jail. Some of us are genetically driving to be overly cautious and conscientious and we may have had relatives with this disorder. Many of us have first symptoms in childhood and adolescence which may persist and wax and wane throughout our lives. More often this anxiety disorder arises from a family history of emotional abuse, violence and excessively strict parenting that served the needs of the parent at the expense of the child. We exhibit chronic anxiety symptoms today much like survivors of war do. It is our mind’s way of trying to have control when we grew up with a lack of control.

Yet having this problem may sometimes feel like you’re already putting yourself in jail.Our character gets affected by this disorder. Most of us feel we must justify our existence, we’re not good enough, and we must constantly live up to unrealistic self-expectations in a vain attempt to attain our parent’s approval. The underlying dread of being rejected in our childhood often appears in our bodies in a wordless form whose only relief is to re-enact some compulsive and inexplicable ritual.  Often these rituals are an attempt to undo specious hidden guilt and deep unlovability all deposited for safekeeping in us by an abusing parent. Our of loyalty for our abusing parent we take on their internal self-loathing and make it about ourselves. This is the deep stuff that may not be particularly helpful to know.

Finding hope and recovery

The most important thing to get out of this article is that you don’t need to be stuck forever with obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can overcome it if you put the elbow grease into licking it with the help of a savvy partner. Left on their own, your symptoms will likely not get better. You have every right to believe that you are stuck for life with these symptoms. But it just isn’t true. You can substantially lessen your ought’s and should’s to the point that they don’t interfere with your life.

Overcoming this problem is not like learning how to read when you’re illiterate. You can’t do this on your own but you can with the help of a teacher. Since the problem originally occurred in a relationship, you need a healing relationship to resolve it. You need a trained helper. It takes time to heal. Progress is slow but you can see some results fairly quickly. Your brain needs time to be rewired by a gradual exposure and relaxation process combining both talk therapy and essential body sensitive work.

Once you get the emotional “alphabet” and self-acceptance “phonics” you will be on a roll toward living a more relaxed life as the wiring in your brain permanently changes for the better. Sometimes good medication can be helpful in your learning process for the short term. Mostly what helps is learning the wisdom of the body and how to use it to heal. As you tackle and heal one “ought” after the next you will frequently surprise yourself on how much easier your life has become and how much more accepting you are of yourself. You may feel incredible relief and grief over lost years and lost opportunities. A classic heartfelt example of the importance of relationship in healing this problem is the movie, As Good As It Gets with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. The miracle that is portrayed in the movie is not too far from the truth. It is yours to experience as well.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Call 651-699-4573. 

This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission when you click on some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thanks for helping to support the website.

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