It Matters How We Talk About OCD: The Importance of Using Language of Agency

OCD isn’t random or illogical.  It is a comprehensible, logical strategy (avoidance and compulsion) aimed at preventing the Core Fear.  Recovering from OCD requires recognizing that you are employing a strategy that doesn’t work, and learning that you have the ability to make different choices that lead to feeling better.

Put another way, recovering from OCD requires developing a sense of agency, or control, over the choice to engage — or not to engage — in avoidance and compulsion.

The language we use to talk about OCD is therefore very important.  I believe that we need to use language that enhances an individual’s sense of agency, and avoid language that undermines it.

I believe that we undermine a sense of agency when we:

  • Talk about OCD as an external force with its own agency*
  • Talk about OCD as random or illogical
  • Use language that denies that the individual has control of their behavior

We enhance a sense of agency when we:

  • Talk about OCD in terms of an individual’s own behaviors
  • Talk about OCD as a comprehensible and logical strategy
  • Use language that emphasizes that the individual has control of their behavior

Here are some examples of language that undermines agency:

  • The OCD wants you to…
  • The OCD made you…
  • Can’t stop…
  • Couldn’t…
  • Had to…

Alternatives include:

  • You were really scared so you…
  • You chose not to take the chance that…
  • You worried about the possibility that…
  • You knew that in all likelihood… but you remained aware of the risk that…
  • You were afraid to do it because…
  • You chose to…

The above is not intended to minimize how terrifying it is for someone with OCD to make certain behavioral choices; it’s simply intended to emphasize that they are making certain choices because of their fear, and that they can make other, healthier choices in spite of it.

*I am not objecting to labeling a person’s overall condition as OCD, or saying that certain experiences are common among people with OCD