Touching rituals (for instance having to touch the light switch three times before going to bed), counting rituals, washing compulsions (an example is having to wash your hands five times after going to the toilet), obsessive neatness, obsessive intrusive thoughts about murderous or sexual acts (an intrusive thought like “I want to kill my father” is an example)- all of these symptoms are familiar to us. Many of us have experienced some of these rituals and thoughts. What do they mean and where do they come from? Obsessions and compulsions are actions and thoughts that are not consciously chosen and foreign to your conscious intentions and attitudes. In fact they are mostly experienced as highly irrational and in extreme cases can control your life and cause enormous guilt (nobody wants the intrusive thought: “I want to kill my father” if you consciously love your father).
These symptoms are often reaction formations or examples of undoing. What does this mean? Reaction formation is when the opposite of our unconsciously impulses is expressed consciously. In the human psyche one extreme tend to point towards the opposite extreme. In other words you might be overly kind because their are unconscious aggressive impulses that you are unconsciously trying to control. Exaggerated cleanliness can point to underlying enjoyment of dirtiness. Extreme homophobia can point to unconscious homosexual impulses.
Washing compulsions are often attempts at undoing. In other words there is the magical belief that your actions can undo an unconscious impulse that is unacceptable. Particularly sexuality can feel “dirty” and washing rituals can be an unconscious attempt to undo “unacceptable sexual impulses” like masturbation, anal eroticism and “dirty thoughts”. Ritual bathing can have the meaning of the washing away of sins and feelings of guilt caused by instincts that are experienced as unacceptable. Underlying guilt feelings about all these “unacceptable” instincts are a strong underlying trait of these individuals.
Underlying obsessive and compulsive symptoms are normally fears regarding sexuality and aggression. When excessive goodness and orderliness is seen it very often points to repressed sexuality, aggression and enjoyment of dirt (faeces) .
Children are socialized by their parents. As a results of children’s longing for acceptance they give up their instinctual drives and comply with what their parents want. Potty-training is one of the earliest examples of this. Children have many instincts that are socially unacceptable and have to be given up e.g. defecating is highly pleasurable, but children are taught to control the excretion of their faeces and to be clean. Young children enjoy exhibiting their genitals, but they are taught that this is not socially acceptable. Little boys want to marry their mommies and get rid of their daddies. In the process of pleasing their parents children have to give up these instincts. Children give up instinctual sexual and aggressive impulses to please their parents. They long for acceptance and therefor give up what their parents expect them to give up. But, these instincts that are given up (repressed) can come to the surface in the form of obsessions and compulsions. Typical conflicts that are found in obsessions and compulsions are between aggressiveness and submissiveness, cruelty and gentleness, dirtiness and cleanliness.
Compulsions often protect against spontaneity. Everything done compulsively is planned and routine. There is often and unconscious fear that spontaneity is dangerous. That spontaneity can lead to expression of “dangerous” and unacceptable instincts. Magic and superstition are often used by obsessive or compulsive individuals. The unconscious belief that you can magically control your world by rituals. An example is when there is the unconscious magical belief that washing can clean you from “dirty thoughts”.
Next time you feel compelled to check ten times that the oven is switched off or when you have to count your steps or feel compelled to touch your right and left hand in the same way – know that there is meaning to these seemingly absurd rituals and compulsions.