Use of the term OCD has become commonplace with people typically using these letters to refer in a light-hearted way to an over-attention to detail. However ritualistic behaviour can be so much more than simple quirks or minor compulsions and can seriously limit our ability to experience life to the full.
The Importance of Rituals:
Necessary rituals are focussed on things we feel we must do as well as things we must avoid. Many professionals use checklists to ensure everything is in place before they begin. Pilots carry out pre-flight checks and before surgical operations each of the specialist staff will have worked through their own checklist to make sure they are able to carry out their roles. These preparations are about safety and effectiveness and help people adopt the correct mindset for the task.
Many people involved in sports or entertainment add additional rituals to their preparations. While these may have their roots in religious or superstitious beliefs, it also promotes a mindset that gets them in the zone where they perform at their best.
Most of us take part in religious rituals even if our faith is not particularly strong. Marking births, marriages and deaths with dedicated ceremonies reminds us of the cyclical nature of our lives and reinforces the power of community by creating opportunities for people to share and support each other in their joy and sorrow.
Types of Ritualistic Behaviour:
Many of us have developed our own personal rituals that feel very natural, though they might seem strange to others. We may even be unaware of certain behaviours that are necessary to us and that we might struggle to do without.
The more familiar types of ritualistic behaviour are based on issues around cleaning ourselves or our surroundings, checking locks and doors and that switches are off, or creating symmetry so that items in the environment are all carefully aligned.
Most of us are affected by these to a degree, but for some people failing to achieve the necessary level of cleanliness, security or symmetry can lead to overwhelming emotions which can have a significant impact on their ability to function.
Warding Off Catastrophe:
Routine checks are designed to keep us safe. They also give us a sense of being in control and not totally subject to external forces. For those with more complicated daily routines, fear may lie at the heart of their rituals with anxiety also having a role to play.
Experiencing trauma can create a sense of fear or anxiety that some people find difficult to overcome. This could be a single event, often described as a catastrophe, or a period of time when we did not feel safe.
A catastrophe comes out of the blue and rocks our world to its foundations. It can leave us feeling vulnerable and not knowing what we can do to prevent it happening again. Being under threat for a period of time can create in us a constant state of vigilance.
One response to both of these scenarios is to create a story around a set of actions that if followed strictly will help to keep us safe. This can establish a sense of order in a world we might experience as being out of our control.
Fire drills and safety checks have a clear link to the risks that we face. Repetitious handwashing or repeatedly checking doors and windows may have a less direct link as the perceived threat is more ambiguous, but the effect is the same as it gives some sense of security and helps to keep the fears at bay.
When Supports Become Millstones:
Many of us have going to work rituals that help us get into the right frame of mind. Others believe particular items of clothing bring them luck and getting ready for a night out can become an enjoyable part of the whole experience.
Everything changes when the preparations start to become more important than the event. When the gap between the ritual and any practical benefit starts to widen, there is a risk of the positive value turning negative. The first time you wash your hands or check the locks can be justified but every time after that brings no additional practical value.
Focusing on a repetitive action can be a helpful distraction from our fears and anxieties. When the ritual is so complex that failing to complete, which may happen often, requires a return to the start can mean you do not leave the house. Indeed it can become a way of ensuring that you do not have to leave the house.
When a ritual is a springboard for further actions then it continues to be useful. When it becomes an action in itself or holds us back from any further actions, the balance is starting to shift. We might start to question whether the emotional benefits we get justify the impact on our everyday lives and possibly on those around us.
Managing Ritualistic Behaviour:
These behaviours have a role and we need to think carefully before we do away with them. It may be helpful to look at managing them more effectively, while also considering their origins and the underlying feelings that gave rise to them.
Recognising their value in bringing peace of mind and considering the extent of any problem they pose allows us to appreciate the trade-off. Minimally invasive rituals that help us manage our trauma may seem like a reasonable exchange. This may be particularly true when the experiences are recent and feelings are still very raw.
Where our lives are adversely affected, there may be an advantage in looking for alternative and less intrusive means to achieve the same goals. Reducing the frequency of the behaviours will naturally reduce their impact.
The way we are is very often a direct response to what has happened to us. Our experience is unique and complex, and so is our response. Through unpicking our experiences it may be possible to identify the origins of our behaviours and begin to gently explore the underlying fear. Appreciating and understanding our emotions can reduce their disruptive power and as the fear recedes there is less need to manage it.
A skilled therapist can help us to manage the impact of ritualistic behaviours and support us as we explore the events in our lives that have led to us developing these complex defences against painful feelings.
© 2018 Michael Golding
About this blog ...
This is a collection of personal thoughts and observations on issues that many people are facing every day.