Compulsions: The 6 Things you should know when writing a character with OCD

Hi! This is just a reminder that although I’m a psychiatrist, this blog is intended to help an author respectfully create a realistic a character with OCD. This is not to diagnose or provide actual advice for actual people with actual OCD. If you are in need of help or find the blog triggering please contact the Crisis Text Line for more support: Text HOME to 741741. Please stay safe.

Compulsions: There are two kinds of compulsions you must understand if you’re writing a character with OCD

Compulsions are what most authors think of when writing a character with OCD. The stereotypical character comes to mind who can’t stop washing their hands or adjusts all the apples in the pyramid display.

But compulsions are so much more than that!

There are two types of compulsions that you, as a good author should know in order to write about OCD realistically:

1.) compulsions that follow an obsession and

2.) ritual compulsions.

Compulsions that follow obsessions

Obsessions are really terrible thoughts or images that will rocket a character’s anxiety sky high (like thinking of being caught in a mass shooting or stuck in a broken elevator). To cope with the gut-wrenching anxiety, the character might do something to feel calmer…that’s the compulsion that follows an obsessive thought.

Say, for example, a character might think about their mother slipping in the bathroom and dying on the cold white tiles. They might be compelled to hold their breath until something happens (such as the dog moves, or their boyfriend talks, or the commercial ends). If they successfully hold their breath until then, then the universe might protect their mother. If they don’t successfully hold their breath, then, well, it was just a silly thing to do but maybe they could try holding their breath again…

So, in the last post we talked about how upsetting obsessions can be. The thing to note here is that compulsions are not upsetting. Your character wants to do the compulsion. Compulsions actually decrease anxiety…usually. There are two exceptions which I’ll get to at the end.

Compulsions that are rituals

You might be thinking, but wait! Do you mean to tell me that when Monk touches all the lampposts that he’s doing it to counteract a bad thought? No. TV shows and movies typically focus on ritual compulsions—no obsession required. A ritual is something that your character does in a routine way. They might not even be aware that they’re doing it unless it’s pointed out to them.

(By the way, any of the below ritual compulsions could ALSO follow an obsessive thought. For example, if your character thinks about someone breaking in, then it’s going to trigger their checking ritual.)

Here are six ritual compulsions that you should mull over and decide which of them (if any) your character has…

  1. Checking

Your character might need to check that the stove is off before leaving the house every day and at night before bed. He might check the locks on the windows—maybe first by staring at them and then feeling the lock to double check. He will probably have to check the door, too. As he goes upstairs, he might doubt that he checked the stove well enough. He remembers checking the stove, of course, but what if he was remembering from a different night? Or maybe the angle was wrong and it just looked like it was off? He’ll need to go back and check again. And maybe he should check the windows again, too. And take a picture on his phone of the stove…and the windows. And maybe, just maybe, he should ask his wife to check on her way to bed as well.

Checking doesn’t have to be limited to stove and doors. If your character is a checker, they’re going to check on anything that is really important or has the potential to be dangerous. What do I mean by that? Your character might need to drive around the block to make sure that she didn’t hit anybody with her car. She might need to circle the block a second or third time to really make sure.

2. Cleanliness

The working checking character might be reading and re-reading those emails, texts, tweets, and posts one, two, twelve times before hitting send.

This is a super common compulsion. Think washing hands…a lot. Or using hand sanitizer…a lot. Maybe a few showers a day or changing clothes every few hours. All-you-can eat buffets could be hard for this character. Think about all those sneezes on the protective shield, the hundreds of unwashed hands holding the meat tongs, the little kids grabbing things with sticky fingers.

This one is also commonly triggered by an obsessive thought. Your character could merely think about something dirty or unpleasant and have to go for the hand sanitizer.

3. Repeating words

Your character might feel compelled to repeat a phrase, mantra, or prayer throughout the day. The phrase might not have anything to do with the situation. It could just be a string of words that felt right to your character at some point in their life and it stuck.  Although some characters might be able to think the phrase silently in their mind, other characters might need to say it out loud (and under their breath). This could be particularly difficult for a character who is giving a presentation and needs to repeat a phrase…but is wearing a microphone.

4. Organizing

If your character is an organizer, they might not even be aware that they’ve lined their phone up with the edge of the table, that they’re spacing their fork and knife perfectly on the napkin, that they’re sorting their M&Ms into different colored piles. Getting the Thanksgiving table just right could be a gut wrenching ordeal.

5. Symmetry

This one is a little less common. If something touches your character’s left knee, they might have to touch their own right knee to balance out. If they step on a crack on their left foot, they’ll need to step on a crack with their right.

This one is particularly troublesome for me! I despise crosswalks because the interval of the striping is the same as my pace length which means that whichever foot stepped on the painted line, it will touch every painted line and the other one will step only on asphalt—which feels so wrong. On a good day, I walk the crosswalk. On an ok day, I walk halfway across the crosswalk then do a skip-hop to switch my legs and balance out on the other half. On a bad day, I walk in traffic (yes, I know…yikes!).

There are lots of ways your character could get into problems due to symmetry. Think for example, maybe your character wants to take karate but the dojo floor is made of mats puzzle-pieced together. That’s a lot of cracks for your character to mind while learning a kata.

6. Numbers

Your character may have a very special relationship with numbers. Maybe they have a favorite number…let’s say it’s three. Maybe then they have to take three sips, three bites, three swallows. Maybe they have to order the third dish on any menu. Maybe they have to “like” every third post on Facebook.

 Or maybe they have a thing about even numbers. A character could insist on watching only even numbered TV channels, or listen to even numbered volume settings.

Or maybe your character is a counter. Counting steps. Counting letters in words. Counting shower curtain rings.

Some things to know about compulsions

Some characters will be able to hide their compulsions. Your character might want to do a compulsion but, because it’s something weird and totally not socially appropriate, they might be able to train themselves to substitute something invisible. For example, if your character gives in to the compulsion to clack their teeth together incessantly at work, it could jeopardize a sale, so, maybe they learn to clench their toes in their shoes or touch their tongue to each tooth instead.

Your character could have one compulsion, or two, or fifty-two…or none.

Just as a reminder from other posts, neither compulsions nor obsession can make your character dangerous or cheat on their partners. See the post nuts and bolts here:

When compulsions cause anxiety

Alright, I said I would get to the two cases where compulsions cause anxiety.

The first one? Compulsions cause anxiety and distress whenever they mess up your character’s life. For example, if the need to fix the tassels on the rug gets your character fired because it always makes them late to work, or if they spill hot coffee in their lap because they just had to line up the lid with the seam, or they skip the meal because the hand sanitizer is dry. So, anytime that a compulsion interferes with a character’s ability to live their best life, it’s going to cause them a ton of frustration.

And the second situation when compulsions cause anxiety? If your character tries to resist the compulsion. Resisting is a huge source of anxiety. And, at some point, because you are an excellent writer, your character will have to try to resist a compulsion, like when they have to give a big speech at a wedding and have to bite back their mantra, or when fighting the bad guy and they’re trying to step over the cracks in the sidewalk, or trying to make the perfect dunk but a spectator’s shirt is inside-out. And it’s going to be really, really hard for them. And they’ll probably fail the first time. And the second time. And, depending on your character arc, maybe the third time, too.

Does your character have a compulsion? I’d love to hear about it. Or, if you’re wondering if your character’s compulsion is realistic, comment down below and I’ll let you know.

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