If you have a loved one with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s important to be aware that your actions may unintentionally contribute to the maintenance of their disorder. While it may seem like you are helping them by accommodating their compulsions or participating in their rituals, in reality, you may be reinforcing their unhealthy behaviors. This is known as enabling. While it can be difficult to watch a loved one struggle with OCD, it’s important to resist the temptation to give in to their compulsions or rituals. Instead, try to focus on supporting and encouraging them to seek professional treatment, which can help them learn coping skills and gain control over their disorder. Remember, your love and support can be a powerful source of strength and motivation for your loved one as they work towards recovery.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that causes people to have obsessions (recurrent, unwanted thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors/mental acts that they feel compelled to do to neutralize their obsessions).
OCD is a potentially crippling condition that significantly interferes with a person’s ability to function in daily life.
What is Enabling?
In the context of OCD, enabling refers to any behavior that helps the person with OCD avoid their fears or ease their anxiety by engaging in compulsive behaviors. Enabling can take many different forms, but some common examples include:
- Allowing the person with OCD to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety
- Doing something for the person with OCD that they are afraid to do themselves
- Making excuses for the person with OCD’s behavior
- Tolerating the person’s OCD rituals
- Giving in to the person’s demands
- Giving verbal reassurances
Why Do People Enable OCD?
OCD symptoms can make a loved one’s life miserable and lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and embarrassment. This may drive you to try “fixing” their OCD or make it go away.
Unfortunately, your efforts to protect and rescue a loved one from their fears can actually make their OCD worse. While it’s important to be considerate, supportive, and loving to someone with OCD as they work towards recovery, it’s also crucial to draw a line between healthy support and enabling behavior.
Enabling may provide a reprieve from obsession and compulsions but will ultimately reinforce their fears and prevent them from learning healthy coping skills.
Consequences of Enabling OCD?
Enabling OCD can be consequential in more ways than one. It can reinforce the disorder, strain relationships, and impede recovery.
As noted, enabling OCD only serves to reinforce the disorder. It teaches the person that compulsions and rituals are the solutions to their fears or anxiety. This strengthens their belief that they must engage in compulsive behaviors to “feel better.” In turn, this can also make OCD symptoms more severe over time.
The person with OCD may become increasingly demanding as their disorder progresses, which may come across as manipulation. This misunderstanding can put a strain on even the most supportive and loving relationships.
Enabling OCD can also impede recovery. OCD treatment requires a person to face their fears and learn healthy coping techniques. But if they are being shielded from their fears by someone else, it becomes hard to overcome the disorder.
So What Can You Do Instead?
It may take time and effort to change how you respond to your loved one’s OCD, but with patience and practice, it is possible to support them without enabling their disorder. Here are some steps you can take if you think you may be enabling OCD:
The most critical step in helping someone with OCD is encouring them to seek treatment and ensuring they follow through to the end. This may mean helping them find a qualified mental health professional, accompanying them to therapy appointments, or helping them stick to medication.
OCD treatment mainly involves exposure and response prevention (ERP), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy where the patient is gradually exposed to their OCD triggers in a safe and controlled environment and taught healthy coping skills to prevent compulsive behaviors.
Your doctor may also prescribe some antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to prevent the symptoms from interfering with daily life or hindering treatment.
Learning everything you can about OCD will help you better understand your enabling behaviors and why you should avoid them. It will also give you the tools to help you disintegrate from enabling behaviors while still being loving and supportive.
Support Healthy Coping Skills
Encouraging healthy coping habits like exercising, relaxation techniques, and healthy eating can also go a long way in helping someone with OCD overcome their symptoms and reduce their reliance on compulsions or ritualistic behaviors.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to be mindful of the role you may play in the maintenance of your loved one’s OCD. While it may be tempting to try to help by accommodating their compulsions or participating in their rituals, this can actually reinforce their unhealthy behaviors. Instead, focus on supporting and encouraging your loved one to seek professional treatment, which can provide them with the tools and skills they need to manage their disorder and lead a fulfilling life. Remember, your love and support can make all the difference in their journey towards recovery.
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