20 Things to NOT Say To Someone With ROCD (& What To Say Instead)
I learned the hard way.
I made the same mistakes over and over again during my worst bouts of ROCD.
When the heart palpitations lasted for hours. When I frantically paced around my room—wanting to pull my hair out, cursing the universe and God, asking for a “sign” from my deceased father or other family members. When I fell to my knees and cried on the floor.
When it all felt like too much.
When the anxiety and obsessive thoughts were too much.
When I felt completely out of control, repeating compulsions in hopes of temporary relief…only to find myself obsessing again, moments later.
When I felt like a complete stranger to myself.
When I didn’t know who I was, and I desperately wanted relief.
Sometimes, with great hesitation, I would reach out to friends in these moments. Wisdom would sit on my shoulder, whispering to me: “Kiyomi, you know what they’re going to say will not help. Don’t do it.”
But, I needed some sort of relief from the suffering. Something. Anything.
“Maybe this will be the sign that I need. Maybe they will tell me the answer, and offer the clarity I need to move through this.”
I had tried reaching out to people before. Very few people, mind you; only a select one or two individuals knew the nature or extent of my suffering. I began to notice a pattern in myself:
A. Become triggered (or not — sometimes it was just an ongoing, chronic sense of doubt that culminated in a breakdown).
B. Have an intrusive thought that would tell me something I wouldn’t want to hear (e.g., “You need to end the relationship”).
C. Feel extreme/physical anxiety and grief (heart palpitations, gagging/vomiting, physical tremors—my body would shake convulsively).
D. Ruminate and obsess (What if, what if, should, should...).
E. Enter into a compulsion (Google was my main source; so were praying and looking for “signs.” Much of my thinking revolved around “checking” my feelings: Are there feelings of sadness? Am I happy? Am I feeling connected?)
I would flicker endlessly between C and D—these physical and mental intrusions were woven into the fabric of my daily life.
Amidst these patterns, I would often seek reassurance from my husband.
One time in particular, though, I picked up the phone and called a friend I had at the time.
My friend said every possible thing that could have triggered anyone with ROCD and anxiety.
This particular conversation ended in an extreme breakdown. Although I was used to feeling this way every couple of days, I felt a shift this time.
The suffering the resulted from this conversation was immense. It made me realize many important things about ROCD. I had a breakthrough in the midst of my breakdown—as we occasionally do.
A. Don’t reach out to people who offer unhelpful, unsupportive advice (even if they feel as though they’re being supportive). Yes, you can be picky (actually, please be picky). No, not everyone has to know the details of what you’re going through. You can ask yourself: “Is this person emotionally aware and understanding enough to support me?” If your answer is no, skip this person.
B. Use your reassurance-seeking compulsions as a chance to consult your own wisdom, instead.
Again, I’ve learned and have become an expert on ROCD the hard way.
It was these conversations that helped me realize what worked and what didn’t work. Such conversations also made me realize that many people who don’t experience any mental health issues—this goes for physical as well—often don’t know what to say. And...that’s okay. It’s okay because they aren’t “in it.”
Many people don’t understand ROCD or related mental health issues. But there needs to be more education, support, and awareness in order for the stigma of ROCD to be reduced in our society.
FRIENDLY REMINDER: I INVITE YOU TO BE CAREFUL WHO YOU SPEAK TO ABOUT ROCD. I NEVER SPOKE TO THIS SPECIFIC FRIEND ABOUT ANXIETY OR ROCD AGAIN. SHE GAVE THE WRONG KIND OF SUPPORT, AND I DID NOT NEED THIS TYPE OF SUPPORT. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE PICKY ABOUT THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM YOU SHARE YOUR STRUGGLES. IF THEIR WORDS AND SUPPORT DON’T WORK FOR YOU, THAT’S OKAY.
There were a few things my friend said in our conversation that stuck out to me. Many ROCD sufferers I know have experienced similar conversations with their own family members and friends.
Here are some things to NOT say to someone experiencing ROCD:
“I WOULD TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THIS ‘WRONG FEELING’ COULD BE.”
“IF YOU FEEL AS THOUGH SOMETHING IS ‘OFF,’ THEN IT PROBABLY IS.”
“IF THE LOVE DOESN’T FEEL GOOD, THEN YOU’RE SETTLING.”
“IF YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW.”
“LOVE SHOULD ALWAYS FEEL GOOD, POSITIVE, AND HAPPY.”
“STOP BEING SO NEGATIVE. JUST THINK POSITIVE!” (TOXIC POSITIVITY)
“IF IT’S THIS DIFFICULT, THEN MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T BE WITH THEM.”
“YOU ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS.”
“LISTEN TO YOUR GUT—IT KNOWS BEST.”
“LISTEN TO YOUR INTUITION.” (You can replace this with the idea of a Higher Power/God).
“FEELINGS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. WHAT DO THEY SAY IN THIS SITUATION?”
“MAYBE YOU SHOULD BREAK UP WITH YOUR PARTNER SO YOU CAN GET THE ANSWER YOU NEED.”
“THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WILL ALWAYS BE EASY. IT SHOULDN’T BE THIS HARD.”
“YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE ANY DOUBTS. DOUBTING MEANS ‘DON’T.’”
“YOU SHOULD GOOGLE FOR YOUR ANSWERS.”
“LISTEN TO SIGNS. THEY’RE ALL AROUND, TELLING YOU IF YOU SHOULD BE WITH THIS PERSON OR NOT.”
“BUT YOUR PARTNER IS WONDERFUL! REMEMBER THE OTHER DAY WHEN YOU FELT REALLY IN LOVE WITH THEM? YOU LOOK GREAT TOGETHER. YOUR PARTNER IS ATTRACTIVE. I FEEL LIKE YOU GUYS ARE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER. YOU LOVE HIM—YOU TOLD ME THE OTHER DAY!” (False reassurances—telling us what they think we want to hear).
“LOVE IS A FEELING. IF YOU DON’T FEEL ANYTHING, IT’S WRONG.”
“YOU SHOULD STOP THINKING AND STOP DOING THOSE THINGS.”
“OTHER PEOPLE HAVE IT WORSE THAN YOU. STOP COMPLAINING.”
“MAYBE YOU SHOULD EXPLORE OTHER PEOPLE SO YOU KNOW IF THIS IS ‘THE ONE.’”
“YOUR FEELINGS AND THOUGHTS ARE NOT VALID.”
Overall, in helping another person deal with ROCD, the aim is to validate the sufferer’s experience.
Their experience is REAL—but it doesn’t mean what they’re thinking or feeling is TRUE. The ideal listener provides a compassionate, safe space for the ROCD sufferer to share what they are feeling in that moment.
Here are some examples of responses that can be helpful:
”I’m here for you.”
”What you are feeling must be so hard. You’re not alone.”
”You have the right to feel whatever you need to feel. I am here to support you.”
”Do you want me to sit with you?”
”I might not entirely understand what you’re going through, but know that I hear you. I see you.”
”Tell me what I can do to support you right now, and if you don’t know, that’s okay too. I am here.”
”I know these feelings and thoughts are intense right now. Remember: You are not your thoughts or feelings.”
”I know this feels really hard right now, and must be really painful. But I want you to remember that this, too, shall pass.”
”What are some things that your therapist or Kiyomi has suggested for you to do when you’re feeling this way? Whatever it is, let’s do it together.” (breathing exercises, taking a walk with a friend/family member, and using techniques with the sufferer can make them feel supported)
”When is your next appointment with your therapist or doctor? Shall we to contact them together?” (This is important, especially in an emergency situation).
”I know this feels horrible, but I promise, this is not permanent”
”This is temporary, and better days are ahead.”
We are not trying to sugar coat the sufferer’s experience with toxic positivity, but moments and reminders of progress can also be very important.
Even reminding the sufferer that they had a good day yesterday, and that they felt good last week. You can even remind them they did a great job by even contacting you, reaching out for help and support, or just being able to label and breathe through their experience.
Small moments and reminders of progress are especially helpful when our old brain take over, miring us in our fears and traumas. It is hard for individuals to see a way out when they’re clouded with intense feelings of anxiety and fear. Our new brain doesn’t function as well in these case; the only things that feel real to them in these moments are fear and anxiety. We are secreting hormones to fight, flight, or freeze in these situations.
A voice of compassion will offer a sense of safety to the person in need.
Again, we never want to invalidate the sufferer’s experience—to push them down or make them feel worthless and hopeless. Phrases like “I told you so,” “You should be feeling different,” or “Why didn’t you do a, b, c? This is your fault” —putting them down with blame, shame, and guilt—do not help, and will make it worse.
If you’re a parent, it can be instinctual to give “tough love” so your child “learns a lesson.” But here’s the truth: They don’t need your blame, shame, or guilt to learn a lesson. The only “lesson” is your love, support, and confidence in them.
If you feel as though you want to be more of a help by means of action, then you can bring your loved one to therapy appointments; offer them love in a way where you’re reminding them of their anxious patterns, without judgment. Perhaps you can offer them an opportunity to get up and take action, instead of stewing in their obsessive thinking:
“Hey, you’ve been in bed obsessing. Let’s get up and do something”
“I’m taking you to therapy today. It’s important for you to go.”
“You’re explaining that you feel anxious. Let’s do a, b, c together.”
But whatever you do, never ever blame the sufferer, or put them down for their experience.
Putting them down or shaming them will re-traumatize them and will highlight feelings of shame and guilt, ultimately making the ROCD worse.
And remember: It is never your job to “fix” them (they are not broken, anyway). Nor is it your responsibility to make them “better.”
If you notice yourself trying to fix, and “cure” them, then you’re overstepping the role of being a partner.