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What Not to Say to Someone With Clinical OCD

Updated on January 5, 2013

I've suffered from severe clinical Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for my entire life and I was diagnosed at the age of three. Over that time, I've tried a lot of things to manage my OCD: therapy, medication, exercise, prayer, vitamins and diet changes, to name a few. I've also run into a lot of people who had a lot to say about my disorder, some things more helpful than others. This is a collection of the worst bits of "advice" that I've heard. Before you give advice to someone with OCD, make sure none of these are on your list of things to say, for your sake and theirs.

1. "You have OCD? Me, too!"

In my own experience, this one is often followed by something like, "Yeah, I check my door twice at night before I go to bed and use hand sanitizer so I won't get colds, but it's really not that big of a deal." I once had a very wise psychiatrist tell me that nearly everyone has obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but that does not mean they have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. defines a disorder as:

"A disturbance in physical or mental health or functions".

The little OCD quirks that everyone has may be irritating, but they don't constitute a full-blown disorder, which impairs the daily functions of the disordered person's life. A good rule of thumb is that if your regular functions, such as getting ready for work or school, being on time, focusing through work and interacting with friends and family are impaired, that constitutes a disorder. Insinuating that an isolated quirk is on the same level as a disorder is not only offensive, but it can give the disordered person the false impression that their suffering is "no big deal," or that if they simply ignored it, it would go away.

2. "My cousin has 'insert problem here', and she's fine without her meds."

First of all, not everyone with a mental disorder is the same. Neuroscientists and psychologists have yet to nail down a singular cause of OCD. For some individuals, the cause may be that their brain is simply wired differently. For many, environmental factors such as stress are at play. For others, OCD is caused because of the body's overzealous attempts to re-uptake the mood stabilizing chemical, serotonin. For some of us, it's a combination of all three.

While Cousin Sally might be fine without her meds, the part that often doesn't make it into the story is that she may have been weaned off that medication over a period of months by her doctor.

What's more, Cousin Sally's condition may not be permanent. She may have been influenced by stress for a finite period of time. Bob, on the other hand, may have a serious chemical imbalance and need to be on medication for the rest of his life. Suggesting that someone with a mental illness should stop taking their medicine is no less absurd than suggesting that a diabetic should stop taking their insulin. You can't "see" either illness, but that doesn't make them any less real.

3. "Just stop it."

While we all get a kick out of Bob Newhart's succinct psychologist on MAD TV, "Stop it!" does not constitute valid psychological advice when dealing with a friend or loved one who's been diagnosed with OCD in real life. My parents tried this tactic for years, and trust me, all it does is make the disordered person feel guilty and helpless. Would you tell someone with a broken leg to "stop it" and expect them to get up and walk? If not, then don't have the same unrealistic expectations of someone with OCD.

4. "Have you prayed about it?"

I know that many who ask this are doing so out of the best intentions. I've known many people for whom prayer was a great medium of healing and comfort. However, suggesting that someone pray about their mental illness can come across as anything but caring. If the sufferer is a person of faith, chances are they've already prayed about the matter. A lot. They don't need you to remind them, and if they're not a person of faith, the suggestion can be downright insulting.

This question also comes with the implication that the person has done something wrong to be in the situation they are in. Not only that, but it implies that their situation can be changed, which is sadly not often the case with mental disorders.

5. "You don't need therapy because ______"

There are so many reasons why this statement is wrong, not the least of which being that their choice to seek therapy or counseling is no one's business but their own. If they're confiding in you, that means they're looking for support in their decision to take control of their own mental wellness -- not judgment, or a diatribe on the pitfalls of modern psychology. Turning another person's journey to mental health into a political debate can only do more harm than good.

6. "Try this, not that."

This is another example of advice that is meant to be helpful but often comes across as condescending. A hallmark of Obsessive-Compulsives is that they tend to be rather intelligent, diligent folks. Chances are that in a lifetime of dealing with their disorder, they've done more research than you and aren't too keen on hearing about that article you read suggested that a kumquat a day is better for anxiety than their yoga routine.

7. "OCD is just another term for being high strung, it doesn't really exist."

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not every opinion is entitled to validity. OCD is a well-researched, well-documented disorder defined by a very specific set of criteria. It is not simply a desire to have things neat and tidy or to fold the clothes a certain way. To suggest that it doesn't exist is to ignore not only a mountain of scientific evidence, but personal experience as well. I guarantee that OCD is very real to the person suffering from it.

8. "But you can't be OCD, your room's a mess!"

There are many different forms of OCD. Sometimes the disorder manifests in extreme particularity about sanitation and order, other times it doesn't. The act of cleaning is only one manifestation of the compulsive component in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In those cases, extreme cleanliness is a compulsion that is used as a coping mechanism for stress, usually caused by an obsession, or the mental component of OCD.

The compulsion is what you see, but it is only one part of the disorder and it is often a response to the invisible obsession. For example, the Obsessive-Compulsive person may have an obsession about losing a pet or loved one, dying, failing at something important to them, or some other negative event outside of their control. The obsession is usually something extremely negative that every rational person would fear, but the difference is that the Obsessive-Compulsive does not simply fear the event, they are preoccupied with it to the point of obsession. To alleviate the stress of constant preoccupation with something they are powerless to prevent, they may subconsciously attempt to prevent the object of their obsession from happening by performing certain rituals, or compulsions.

For instance, a young child with an obsessive fear of their mother's death may perform the compulsive ritual of flipping a light switch on and off or wash their hands a certain number of times. Rationally, they may understand that the compulsive act is not related to the object of their obsession, but therein lies the heart of any disorder: irrational behavior and thoughts in otherwise rational people.

To suggest that someone isn't suffering from OCD is to ignore the complexity of the disorder in all its incarnations. The obsessive cleaner is a stereotype and there is far more to OCD than that. For many, cleaning is a valid component to their OCD but it is only the component that rises above the surface for others to see, and is typically fueled by the invisible obsession underneath.

9. "What you're going through is normal, life has its ups and downs."

This is by far the worst thing you can say to a person suffering from any disorder, in my opinion. Not only does it invalidate what the person is going through, but it implies that the often extreme anxiety and despair that can accompany truly clinical OCD is just a "down" period that will soon pass. The truth is, there is no cure for OCD. Something that stays with you for your entire life can hardly be considered a temporary obstacle.

Remember, everyone has their own cross to bear. If you know someone who suffers from OCD, try to give them the same understanding and respect you'd want them to give you. Education is a great place to start. Fortunately, because OCD is such a well researched disorder, there are many great books on the topic!


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    • lanablackmoor profile imageAUTHOR


      19 months ago from New England

      Thank you for the insightful comment, Judy! You raise some very good points. I will have to check out "Brain Lock!"

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      I agree with this post except that it is *not* true that someone can't recover from clinically diagnosed OCD. The problem with most psychiatrists and therapists is that they maintain patients rather than attempt to cure them, because if patients unraveled deeper rooted issues, they would go out of business. Any cognitive therapist who hasn't recommend his OCD patients read Brain Lock, to exercise, retrain and rewire their own brains, is doing them a great disservice.

      But moreover, and perhaps more importantly, OCD at heart is just fear of harm syndrome, almost always caused by suppressed or unremembered childhood trauma. When children are young they adopt not so healthy mental habits of thinking in order to survive trauma or double binds wrongly imposed upon them.

      Until real trauma in the past is recognized, realized, revisited and relearned correctly, the subconscious mind in the now adult victim will keep intuiting something is wrong, something is wrong, even though concously the brain might know the house won't catch on fire, or whatever harm you currently "fear" doing or happening won't come to pass.

      Once you recognize who real aggressors were, your innocence and that you're not in danger anymore, and *replace* negative loops with focus on your own amazing (but until now suppressed) potential, you cannot be triggered into OCD mental loops any longer.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      My son, who is 18 now, was diagnosed with OCD at the age of seven. It is very difficult to see your baby, who doesn't understand why he is washing his hands up to fifty times a day, go through this. I am thankful there is medication to help him. (SSRIs) He manages his disorder relatively well with medicine and has just completed his freshman year in college. To explain to folks who don't understand OCD, I often relate it to someone who has diabetes. You would never think of making fun of that person or not giving a person with diabetes the medication he/she needs. :)

    • roob profile image


      3 years ago from United States

      One of the things that frustrates me is that I have to have everything be made for what i'm using it for. For example workout headphones for working out, hate using holiday stuff like bags when it isn't that holiday, all this quirky stuff. I have also gotten rid of so many things because I did something I didn't like with them. Such as I used it for a purpose it wasn't made for, then it almost feels tainted. I am not too bad though I believe. I do have to have everything orderly or my mind can't get past it such as a drawer organized a certain way or something I want to get rid of in my closet. I often find myself over doing stuff like when sanding or painting. But over all I don't feel very affected by any of these things too much.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Severe OCD is bad like cancer.

    • profile image

      Isabel O'Brien 

      5 years ago

      You know what really irritates me, is when people say "I'm so OCD". You wouldn't say "I'm so depression" or "I'm so schizophrenia". But somehow saying you're "OCD" has become an OK thing. I want to say, "Actually, I really am 'so OCD' and it's psychological torture, day in, day out. It's not cool, and it's not funny, and it's not something we can bond over like it's just another personality quirk".

    • lanablackmoor profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New England

      Thank you so much! I was surprised and thrilled!

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      6 years ago from Western Australia

      Very well reseached and informative hub, learnt a lot, congratulation on your nomination:)

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Well done, Lana … a valuable hub on a perplexing condition.

      Everyone who has OCD or has a friend or family member with it will find this hub of real use in understanding what constitutes the disorder and hopefully stop these thoughtless and often hurtful comments. We all know they mean well but often they just highlight their own insensitivity.

      Congratulations of being chosen as a Rising Star … voted up.

    • 2uesday profile image


      6 years ago

      Sorry I discovered this too late to vote on it. This is a topic that deserves more understanding and this article is useful to help with that.

    • Learning in Life profile image

      Megan Smith 

      6 years ago from Florida

      This is very true. These statements apply to a lot of mental disorders.

    • lanablackmoor profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New England

      Thanks everyone, for taking the time to vote, read and comment! :) Means a lot!

      Millionaire Tips, I agree completely. That is a very insightful perspective you have there. "Remember the source," like my grandma used to say. A little education is usually all that people really need. There are certainly other topics that I'm continually learning to be more sensitive about! I try to be patient when these things come up, as I hope people are with me when I don't understand something they're going through and make well intentioned mistakes.

      SkeetyD, Absolutely! :) I'm always happy to have a discussion. Thanks for being willing to ask questions! I don't think that I can post my email directly in the comments section due to spam filters, but if you go to my profile, then fan mail and click the Send LanaBlackmoor an email link at the top of the page you'll be able to reach me. I look forward to hearing from you!

      Valleypoet, That person is fortunate to know someone who seeks out information on their disorder. :) Thanks and I'm very glad you found the content useful! I feel like the more people who speak out about their disorders, the more they will be understood. When I was a kid going through the worst period of my OCD, no one I knew ever talked about it so I thought I was completely alone. I feel like I owe it to other sufferers to be honest at the very least.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I know of someone very close who has O.C.D, not just tendencies as you describe in the first section of your hub. From what I have learned personally, I believe that you are offering some really good advice here to people who have good intentions toward the sufferer, but don't really understand the condition. It was very brave of you to write this, and I wish you all the very best with your continuing battle with this rarely understood illness.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      lanablackmoor, I totally understand what you said in your first point but is it possible that we can have a private chat? There is something that has been plaguing me for a long time and I want to ask you about it since you have personalised knowledge about OCD.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      6 years ago from USA

      People often mean well when they say these wrong things. They just want to find ways to help, and somehow thought that these things would be helpful. I don't have OCD, but when I get "well meaning" advice like this, I try to put it in that perspective and try to remember that the person is saying what they are saying out of love, and translate their words in my mind. "I'm worried about you and trying to think of what will help you with your condition."

      Thanks for providing this list, so I can avoid saying these! We have a lot to learn about mental illnesses, and people often think that you can will it away if you are strong enough. Voted up.

    • lanablackmoor profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New England

      Thanks for taking the time to read and follow! :) You're so right, moral support often means more than 1000 words.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Lana. I agree, sometimes the best way to be empathetic is just to not say anything but offer your moral support to the person. Thanks for this sharing, and I share too.


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