Do you have a compulsion to check that the doors are locked? Do you experience intrusive sexual or aggressive thoughts that feel utterly unacceptable to you? Do you wash your hands compulsively?
People with obsessive and compulsive functioning have personalities where thinking and acting are important. For these people control is valued and expressiveness is often avoided. Anxiety about loosing control over what feels like unacceptable impulses or feelings is typical in this way of functioning. Obsessive-compulsive people unconsciously fear being out of control, sexual, aggressive, irresponsible, messy etc. These people’s emotions are suppressed or avoided. Obsessive people overvalue thinking and avoid feeling. These people are conscious of their experiences, but deny the emotions associated with their experiences. They deny their emotions so well that it becomes totally unconscious. It is then possible for these people to speak about an event or experience without any awareness of the emotions associated with it.
Compulsive acts (like repetitive hand washing or counting) often have the unconscious meaning of penance for past crimes or preventing (controlling) unacceptable behavior. There is an unconscious effort to undo guilt or shame with an behavior that will magically undo the act or thought that has caused the unconscious guilt. For these people there can be the belief that their feelings are dangerous even if not acted on e.g. they may believe that their aggressive feelings are bad and dangerous and even if not acted on is equal to and aggressive act (feeling and action are not experienced as separate – if you feel angry it can then feel as if you have done something bad). They may then perform compulsive acts that unconsciously functions to undo what feels to them like unacceptable emotion or impulse. This mechanism is called undoing because the unconscious meaning of the action is to undo the imagined impact of feelings that are considered unacceptable (e.g. hostility, lust, dependence). Compulsive acts and rituals can also take on the meaning of controlling the underlying impulse that the person is denying and fearing. These acts or rituals sometimes take on the meaning of magical protection creating a sense of control over a situation in which the person does not have control. This can be seen in the athlete performing a ritual before competing, on some level this athlete believes that he/she can control the uncontrollable by doing the correct thing.
Another mechanism that is often used by obsessive-compulsive people is called reaction formation. We all often feel mixed emotions in various situation. One example would be when a new baby is born. The mother loves her baby, but can also feel anger and resentment about the enormous impact on the mother’s own life. The mother can because of guilt about her hostile feelings (not actions) towards her baby deny the hostile feelings and consciously only feel and express loving feelings. In reaction formation some of the denied feelings often leaks through causing people to sense that there is something false or exaggerated in the feelings consciously expressed by the person. Consciously, someone who uses reaction formation , experience exactly the opposite attitude to their underlying denied impulses. One example of this is someone who is highly condemning of homosexuality, but has underlying (definitively unconscious) homosexual impulses.
A very common fear for obsessive-compulsive people is an obsession with contamination. This often causes compulsive washing. Some people pathologically doubt themselves and feels guilt about forgetting something. This leads to a compulsion for checking (that the stove is turned of or the door locked). The underlying obsession (with checking) often points towards some danger or violence. Some people experience intrusive thoughts that are usually thought about sexual of aggressive acts that is unacceptable to the person, this can be thought of as the alienated feelings and impulses breaking through into conscious thought. Another common pattern is the need for precision and/or symmetry that can cause these people to be very slow at completing tasks. We can wonder what they are trying to control by these rituals.
The parents of people who struggle with obsessive-compulsive functioning often set very high standards of behavior for their children and are often very strict. These parents do not only judge unacceptable behavior, but also the emotions that these parents see as unacceptable. This can cause these children to have severe efforts to try and control their erotic and aggressive feelings where other children can accept and enjoy these feelings without acting them out in destructive ways. These children learn to feel that they should control their feelings and impulses and should live morally correct. They end up feeling that they should keep aggressive, lustful and needy parts of themselves under control. They have high standards of behavior and thought. These children end up easily feeling irrational guilt and shame. All “unacceptable” emotions and impulses (like lust, greed, envy, laziness, aggression) can cause difficulty for these people. They may struggle to be sexual, spontaneous and playful. They try very hard to be good.
What helps people with obsessive-compulsive functioning is not only acknowledging their underlying feelings and impulses, but also to enjoy their impulses and feelings. Feeling our feelings is important for human being to feel fully alive and energetic. The meaning of obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior is unconscious and the person needs help to unravel the meaning of these thoughts and behaviors.
(The work of Nancy McWilliams was used for parts of this article.)