4 Subtle Signs You May Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD makes you feel out of control. Here's how to stop it.

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If you suspect you have OCD or "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," then you've likely been dealing with OCD symptoms for some time. But what is OCD, and what causes OCD to happen?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is categorized, as its name suggests, by a series of obsessive thoughts and compulsions to complete certain behaviors or tasks. Leaving these behaviors undone — or doing them "wrong" — can lead to anxiety, stress, or overwhelm.


Oftentimes, people with OCD develop these specific needs for rituals due to trauma. There are various types of OCD, but the causes of OCD are frequently trauma-based, whether it comes from childhood or an early stress event.

People with OCD have "obsessions" or out-of-control thoughts, and compulsions, which are actions they feel like they must do.


Obsessions are thoughts you can’t get out of your mind; they intrude even if you try to keep them out. And when these worries or ideas get in, they spin around over and over in your head. They won’t stop.

Compulsions are actions you must do. In fact, when you’re taken over by these behaviors, you can’t stop yourself from doing from. Compulsions most often arise out of superstitious thinking.

They’re designed as protections against the worries and fears in your obsessive thoughts. They have to be done in a very exact way to protect you.

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There are common symptoms of OCD. Yours might be similar:

  • You worry about germs. Wash your hands numerous times. Can’t touch doorknobs. You have intrusive thoughts, sometimes violent ones, of hurting yourself or someone else.
  • You’re terrified that you can’t control it. You worry about loved ones getting into an accident or being in danger. You constantly feel you’ll be embarrassed.
  • Sometimes you have irrational beliefs about your thoughts. You worry they could (magically) cause harm. You live in fear.

To prevent a disaster, you have OCD rituals and behaviors. These are different for everyone, but they can have these similarities. Your particular version is your own, and for your own reasons.

You might have had these rituals since you were a small child. The worst thing is, you can’t stop yourself. Sometimes you want to; it’s all so exhausting. But if you try to stop, anxiety hits.

That’s a part of OCD. You ask yourself, "Why am I this way?"


OCD is an anxiety disorder. And the obsessions and compulsions are driven by anxieties that you aren’t really conscious of, which means trying to stop them causes more anxiety

The complicated thing is that the roots of anxiety are largely unconscious.

You’re under constant stress with your OCD, trying to manage it, caught in its trap. And you wonder how it happened in the first place. You’ve probably lived with it your whole life in one way or another.

So what causes OCD?

To put it simply: Thinking over feeling. That’s a large trait of OCD. OCD is a way of managing feelings that are too overwhelming.

And you probably got no help as a child since, very likely, you lived in a family that couldn’t feel. A family that was “rational about everything,” or the opposite: Explosive, critical, and abusive.


Feelings become overwhelming when, very early in life, there is no one to listen to or hear them in a sensitive way. When there’s no one that helps you work them out, feelings are too much to handle.

You don’t know what else to do, and because you didn’t get help with your feelings as a child, you’re stuck with them inside and have no choice but to try to push them away or control them.

OCD is about controlling what you feel is out of control or threatening to take your control away. Your emotions can feel that way.

In fact, sometimes you think your feelings were either “crazy” or “stupid” or made no sense. You might even have been told that as a child. Your fears were discounted and you were told to forget them. Of course, you couldn’t. You worried more because you were convinced there was danger and no one took you seriously.


Pushing feelings away creates anxiety and OCD is a result of anxiety. In fact, OCD is what psychologists call a "defense."

A defense is an unconscious mechanism used to protect yourself and control what makes you anxious. The intention is to create a sort of numbing or distraction (and your rituals are a distraction) from anxious thoughts.

OCD rituals are ways of managing anxiety and controlling the situations and feelings that create constant worry and doubt.

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Here are 4 subtle signs you may have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

1. You constantly shove "negative" feelings aside

You may not be doing it consciously, but your OCD is there to control your feelings. Otherwise, you might feel overwhelmed by them.


You’re especially not supposed to feel hurt or sad or angry. This started a long time ago. You have a lot to be angry about.

But anger at anyone feels dangerous. An angry thought makes you guilty.

2. You have low self-esteem and a lot of anger toward yourself

If you feel angry or “get out of line” in any way, you have a voice in your head that criticizes you. In fact, it’s always reminding you of your “faults.”

You made this mistake or that. Why did you do something this way when you should have done it another?

It makes you believe there’s nothing good about you. It makes you hate yourself.

3. You're always worried that you're being judged

You think you’re going to make a fool of yourself if you’re not perfect. And although you aren’t aware this belief is the cause, you’re also certain people are judging you.


If someone looks at you, you just know they’re thinking something negative.

You’re afraid of speaking in class or going to social events. You believe you will be humiliated.

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4. You're certain you're always doing something wrong

You live with this worry all the time. When you make a move to do anything, the thought hits you — what if you just did the wrong thing? Made the wrong choice? What’s going to happen now?

You’re sure you’ll get in trouble or that some disaster will happen. You’ll be fired or left or criticized. It’s your fantasy, but you don’t think so.


And you also have a lot of guilt. Why is that?

The unconscious sources of guilt are linked to the hate and anger you aren’t allowed to feel.

Can you cure OCD?

Freud was right. The unconscious and psychological roots of your OCD need to have a safe place to be worked out. The best place is in psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis with a psychoanalytic therapist that understands and treats OCD.

You need to have a place to talk about your obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions. Your therapist must know that these are not only driven by anxiety but that the anxiety is because of feelings you’ve had to block out of your mind.

A therapist needs to help you, gradually and at your own pace, express the feelings you’ve numbed. These, then, must be specifically and over time, linked to your early traumas and hurt.


When you have this kind of therapy, you will build trust in your therapist and in the safety of your feelings — even the negative ones.

You don’t have to live with the torture of OCD. Therapy can free you to live a less stressful, doubtful, and guilty life.

And when you don’t feel so afraid of every move you try or want to make, you can learn to like yourself, too.

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Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who specializes in working with survivors of sexual abuse and childhood trauma.