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I’ve noticed a common trait among many who suffer from OCD (the real kind). Essentially it’s that they appear to have a very low tolerance for negative surprises. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that many OCD sufferers are terrified of them. And this fear of negative surprises leads to excessive vigilance, the hallmark of OCD.

To some extent it appears that some part of the OCD sufferer would rather manifest misery in the present by engaging in excessive and life-disrupting levels of vigilance than to relax and enjoy the present moment only to eventually suffer some unwelcome surprise. Far better to always assume the worst and be positively surprised than to assume the best and be disappointed to the downside. By making themselves miserable in the present they can, in a way, attempt to ensure that any true surprises are of the positive variety.

Where does this fear originate?

It seems to me that it's sometimes anchored in a lack of self-trust. Many of those suffering from OCD fear that they can’t handle negative surprises. If something unexpectedly bad happens, they don’t trust their ability to cope and manage that challenge in the moment. This causes them to focus instead on preventing negatives (vigilance) rather than on pursuing positives.

For other OCD sufferers, the fear may instead (or perhaps also) be a consequence of having been severely berated and/or demeaned as a child for failing to foresee and prevent bad outcomes. If these experiences were traumatizing enough, then it's easy to understand how an obsessive need to foresee and prevent negative surprises became a thing.

Even the most vigilant person obviously realizes that he/she/they can’t prevent all negative surprises. But through a bit of magical thinking the OCD sufferer can convince themselves (or try to) that if they can just prevent a particular kind of negative surprise from happening (e.g., getting sick due to germ exposure, being robbed, etc.), then they will be sufficiently safe from negative shocks.

It seems to me that it's not actually the direct object of their vigilance (getting sick or being robbed, for example) that’s the real fear. The real fear is simply negative surprises in general, and the real goal is to prevent those through vigilance. But since they can’t prevent them all, they (irrationally) choose a single thing (or perhaps just a few things) to project all their fears upon, and then they strive to ensure that thing doesn’t happen, as if preventing it will magically insulate them from other negative shocks.

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In other words, just as the issue of an addict isn’t usually really the abused substance but rather the underlying beliefs and thought patterns that make the substance so irresistible, the issue of many OCD sufferers isn’t actually the obsession or compulsion they project their fears upon but rather the terror of negative shocks that underlies that tendency.

If the above is correct, then it seems that one way to manage OCD is to retrain the body and mind (e.g., through cognitive behavioral therapy?) that:

  1. I’m perfectly capable of dealing with negative surprises if and as they arrive and so need not devote myself to vigilance, and 
  2. I’m not “bad” or “worthless” or “stupid” or “wrong” if I fail to anticipate and prevent some negative surprise.

In other words, the OCD person must learn that it’s okay for negative surprises to happen, and so it is okay to be okay in the present moment. Feeling good in the present moment and letting one’s guard down is not wrong, lazy or shameful, and this is true even if something surprisingly “bad” happens while the guard is dropped.

Once the hyper-vigilance is dropped, the OCD sufferer can, perhaps for the first time, begin to focus his/her/their attention, faculties and creativity upon what he/she/they really want out of life rather than spending so much of their time trying to prevent what they don’t want.

Only after the OCD sufferer makes peace with the possibility of negative surprises and stops trying to obsessively prevent them will the world open up to them. Alas that is far, far easier said than done, I know, but healing is never easy and there’s no time to start like the present.