Given the title of this blog, you would think I have dozens of compulsions, if not an outright diagnosis of OCD. Amazingly, I am a fairly functional person, and I think my compulsions fall into the normal range. Well, OK, the high-normal range! Wouldn’t you expect that from a librarian?
Without any reference materials, not even wikipedia, I’ve decided to do a little analysis of how compulsive I am. (I’ve just resolved that issue, haven’t I?)
Some examples of common compulsions:
- Hand washing
- Double checking that the door is locked or the stove is turned off
- Separating all the foods on a plate or eating them one at a time
- Checking on a sleeping baby
- Responding to all texts immediately
Then I started thinking: what is compulsive and what is just a routine? For instance, if I wash the dishes every night and never leave them until the next day, it just feels like a routine. Likewise, if I always separate the garbage, the compost and the recycling, is that compulsive? So there must be a “community norm” that we are comparing ourselves to. Somewhere in our heads, we have a sense of what is “normal” and what is not.
Habits are compulsions that can go right or wrong! If we go out for a smoke every two hours, we don’t call it a routine – we call it a bad habit. If we always walk up three flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, it’s a good habit. Of course, habits can become addictions – like gambling. It must be the biological pull that classes it as an addiction.
Next I thought about superstitions. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Breaking a mirror was bad luck. You would always bless someone who sneezed. Nowadays I find all of these things somewhat ridiculous. But at work, there are always colleagues who “knock on wood” or who don’t talk about how sunny it’s been lately in case they “jinx” the weather. It can cause people deep discomfort if their rituals are challenged – it just doesn’t “feel right!”
Then there are rules. My dad was a safety officer and I grew up with hundreds of safety rules. I thought this was unusual, but Rom grew up in the UK where they had an extreme safety culture, typified by the creepy “Charlie Says” series of TV adverts. Some of it makes perfect sense to me, such as looking Left-Right-Left before crossing the street (in North America), or always keeping cupboards and drawers closed. Too many warnings can cause fears and phobias, though.
Unfortunately, some “rules” become counterproductive when they’re too ingrained. I am thinking of values and life lessons in particular. If I had disregarded axioms like “forgive and forget” and “let the little things go,” I probably would have untangled myself from a previous bad marriage much sooner.
Finally, some things we do can be described as practices. They can be religious or spiritual practices, a training regimen, or any serious lifestyle commitment. In my circle, that can be training for a marathon, eating a gluten free diet, practicing yoga, being a Big Sister, observing Lent, or visiting someone in a care home daily. It’s perplexing to think about where the line is drawn between normal and obsessive here, isn’t it? One person’s discipline is another’s tyranny!
About myself. I can think of three things I do that are little compulsions. They all have to do with an over-developed sense of symmetry.
First, I am always straightening things. I have piles of clutter around my house and office, but I can’t abide a picture hanging crooked on a wall, or a shirt slipping halfway off its hanger, or books scattered on a table instead of stacked.
I have a strong preference for even numbers. When Rom and I get tickets to a show and we buy Row J, seats 9 and 10, I always take 10. I don’t care if I sit on the right or on the left of someone, though. Just don’t mess with my numbers!
Related to that, I try to start or end activities at some juncture that is significant to me, or makes me feel like it’s balanced or resolved. For instance, when I work out on my elliptical machine and do 30 minutes, if I have “travelled” 2.73 miles in that time, I will keep going until it says 3 miles…and then maybe I’m at 33.5 minutes and that isn’t even either…
Interestingly, I work in a management job in which “tolerance for ambiguity” is one of the highest values, and I’m fine with that. I don’t feel that my little quirks interfere with my work, and in fact, they don’t even carry over into the workplace.
You know how some reports suggest that children may have developed peanut allergies because their environment is so sanitized that they perceive something innocuous like peanuts as the enemy? Whether you hold with that theory or not, it says something about modern life. Rom and I just developed a theory that maybe people sleep with their phones and check them every 2 minutes, or wash their hands 12 times a day, because we no longer have work or play that fully occupies our mind and body. Our brains get caught in a loop, as Rom would say, because we either don’t have enough real-life things to do, or we want to avoid the ones we do have.
I don’t need research to tell me that quirks turn into obsessions when they are repeated needlessly, when they require effort they don’t deserve, when they feel absolutely necessary, and especially when they interfere with relationships and with life in general. If you genuinely feel compelled to do (or not do) something, it can be debilitating. The worst feeling must be if you believe something awful will happen if you don’t complete a routine, or if you experience anxiety and panic when it doesn’t go right. My heart goes out to those who are truly stuck in that loop.
Meanwhile, do not ask me to take Seat 9!