What is mindful awareness?
What is OCD?
How do they connect? Here’s a way they connect…
OCD is short for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “Obsessive” meaning there’s an obsession on a certain thing, and it’s hard to let that thing go. “Compulsive” meaning that there’s a compulsion to perform an act, whether one wants to or not; one is compelled to act. And “Disorder” meaning that that compulsion to act on an obsessive thought is a behavior that is maladaptive and it’s not healthy for you, it is something that actively harms your life rather than helps it.
Let’s take an example. Let’s say that I want to go into a store to buy a cookie, and I’m afraid to go. There arises the feeling of fear. This fear demands you to not go in the store. When you feel the fear, and you hear it telling you to go away from the store, what happens next? What happens next is where we find out if you have a mindful and detached awareness of the fear, or if you respond obsessively and act compulsively.
Usually, we tend to feel the fear, we don’t want to feel afraid, we know what the fear wants, so we give the fear what it wants until we stop feeling fear. So you walk away from the store. If your friend tells you something like “it’s ok, don’t be nervous,” you’ll still be nervous. You can’t stop being nervous, you can’t stop being afraid to go in. And as you’re so afraid, you can’t stop yourself from going away from the store. You can fight the urge to run, and just stand still, maybe take a step closer and see inside. But once the fear arises again, you are compelled to run away. Why are you running away when you want to go into the store and buy a cookie?
This is because the fear is taking over. Well, what does that mean? Is there some kind of control panel in your brain with buttons and screens and the fear is a person who thinks and speaks with hands and feet? I’d make a joke about how this would make for a fiiine animated movie, but I wanna say that in a way the fear does have the controls on you. In a way…
When you’re afraid, what do you know to do with the fear? As you step closer to the store, the fear gets larger and larger and larger and there’s no end to the size and the depth of the fear. All of a sudden, as you get closer to the store, you don’t see a store anymore, you see Cthulhu, a creature so vast you can’t see the ends of it, so otherworldly terrifying that there’s no point in thinking, you just run away.
Well what’s happening here? I’ll tell you what I think is happening… It’s really simple. Funny how simple it is, really…
The fear is a part of you that wants you to know something. It’s trying to tell you something. That’s all. It really just wants to be heard.
“But I heard it, I know I’m scared, what else does it want?”
Well no, you’re not hearing it. This is a very subtle thing we don’t know we’re doing. Even with years practicing this, I still default to not listen to it. Instead of listening, you’re resisting it, you’re fighting the fear, you’re looking for ways to silence the fear, to bury the fear, to make it go away, you’re not listening to it one bit. (Well, you are, I don’t know who’s reading this to be fair. But most people most of the time don’t listen to their emotions.)
You’re looking for “how do I go into a store when I’m nervous?” and “how do I deal with social anxiety?” and tricks and techniques to “face the fear”. When “facing the fear” sets the expectation that you do a magical little routine of breathing or something and the fear is expected to no longer be there, and the timespan is expected to be only a few seconds. So then you’re saying to the fear “I will do this trick, and you’re supposed to go away by the time I’m done.” If you say that to any friend of yours who’s trying to warn you of danger, do you think they’ll feel heard? Imagine saying that to your friend, and they just stand there watching you do your breathing technique or mental gymnastics or something, and then you’re done and they watch you just walk away from them, pretending they don’t exist.
Do you see how insane this is? This is our default response to our emotions. (To be fair, this is how we were conditioned to respond to our emotions as we were growing up, it’s not a natural response we’re born with, but this is how we learned to survive in the world. It’s completely not true, we do not need to treat ourselves this way. It’s a learned behavior which we can practice to unlearn for sure.)
The fear is trying to tell you that there’s something dangerous over there, in the store. You listen to it. Take it seriously, and ask it: “What’s the scary thing?” Your attitude here matters, be genuinely interested in getting to know the fear, and what it’s trying to point your attention to. It wants you to see what it sees. To understand what it understands. It doesn’t want solutions, it just wants to be understood. Nothing more, nothing less.
You don’t have to act on what it says, you don’t have to believe what it says, but you do have to take it seriously and listen to what it says, and be with it, make it feel that it’s not alone. Because the fear, along with every other emotion, depends on you entirely for expression. They can’t express themselves unless through you, and only if you let them.
You can go into the store, but if your fear doesn’t feel heard and understood, it will only grow larger. Listen to it before going in, and be with it for a moment. Then you can walk straight into the store, knowing you’re feeling fear, and you understand the fear fully. You won’t hesitate, despite you feeling afraid.
This is mindful awareness. This is detached awareness. You’re aware of the fear entirely, but you choose to act on your own accord.
The OCD response would be to get obsessed thinking that the store is dangerous and you can’t go in, and feeling compelled to run away and never go into a cookie store again, because you’re nervous and socially anxious.
When you haven’t learned to be mindfully aware of your emotions and feelings, and you feel afraid, your default reaction is thinking that if you do the thing the fear wants you to do, everything will be ok. The fear wants you to not go into the cookie store. If you reactively and compulsively do that, thinking it’ll make the fear go away and everything will be ok, you’re right that the fear will go away, but not everything will be ok. Here’s what might happen next…
The part of you that wanted the cookie now rebels. That feelings wants you to go into the store. If you just act on it like you did by default with the fear, you’ll walk towards the store, then the fear will come up, and then you act on it the same way by default by walking away from the store, you’ll be in conflict with yourself. Part of you wants to go into the cookie store, another wants to run away from the cookie store. This conflict will manifest as tension physically, and you’ll be left feeling powerless and confused.
This won’t get you anything good.
Instead, with mindful awareness of your feelings, you can see the part of you that wants the cookie, and the part of you that’s afraid of the store, you can feel connected with them both so they feel safe with you and your expression, then you, independently of both feelings, decide what to do. And if you’ve made them both feel heard, they won’t rebel, they’ll trust you.