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

Please note that this article is for your information only and does not constitute clinical advice or establish a patient-psychologist relationship.