Do you have a loved one who suffers from OCD? If so, do you know you could be unknowingly enabling their disorder? You may think you are helping them by accommodating their compulsions or going along with their rituals, but in reality, you are only reinforcing their unhealthy behaviors.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that causes people to have obsessions (recurrent, unwanted thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors/mental acts that they feel compelled to do to neutralize their obsessions).
OCD is a potentially crippling condition that significantly interferes with a person’s ability to function in daily life.
What is Enabling?
In the context of OCD, enabling refers to any behavior that helps the person with OCD avoid their fears or ease their anxiety by engaging in compulsive behaviors. Enabling can take many different forms, but some common examples include:
- Allowing the person with OCD to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety
- Doing something for the person with OCD that they are afraid to do themselves
- Making excuses for the person with OCD’s behavior
- Tolerating the person’s OCD rituals
- Giving in to the person’s demands
- Giving verbal reassurances
Why Do People Enable OCD?
OCD symptoms can make a loved one’s life miserable and lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and embarrassment. This may drive you to try “fixing” their OCD or make it go away.
Unfortunately, your efforts to protect and rescue a loved one from their fears can actually make their OCD worse. While it’s important to be considerate, supportive, and loving to someone with OCD as they work towards recovery, it’s also crucial to draw a line between healthy support and enabling behavior.
Enabling may provide a reprieve from obsession and compulsions but will ultimately reinforce their fears and prevent them from learning healthy coping skills.
Consequences of Enabling OCD?
Enabling OCD can be consequential in more ways than one. It can reinforce the disorder, strain relationships, and impede recovery.
As noted, enabling OCD only serves to reinforce the disorder. It teaches the person that compulsions and rituals are the solutions to their fears or anxiety. This strengthens their belief that they must engage in compulsive behaviors to “feel better.” In turn, this can also make OCD symptoms more severe over time.
The person with OCD may become increasingly demanding as their disorder progresses, which may come across as manipulation. This misunderstanding can put a strain on even the most supportive and loving relationships.
Enabling OCD can also impede recovery. OCD treatment requires a person to face their fears and learn healthy coping techniques. But if they are being shielded from their fears by someone else, it becomes hard to overcome the disorder.
So What Can You Do Instead?
It may take time and effort to change how you respond to your loved one’s OCD, but with patience and practice, it is possible to support them without enabling their disorder. Here are some steps you can take if you think you may be enabling OCD:
The most critical step in helping someone with OCD is encouring them to seek treatment and ensuring they follow through to the end. This may mean helping them find a qualified mental health professional, accompanying them to therapy appointments, or helping them stick to medication.
OCD treatment mainly involves exposure and response prevention (ERP), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy where the patient is gradually exposed to their OCD triggers in a safe and controlled environment and taught healthy coping skills to prevent compulsive behaviors.
Your doctor may also prescribe some antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to prevent the symptoms from interfering with daily life or hindering treatment.
Learning everything you can about OCD will help you better understand your enabling behaviors and why you should avoid them. It will also give you the tools to help you need to disintegrate from enabling behaviors while still being loving and supportive.
Support Healthy Coping Skills
Encouraging healthy coping habits like exercising, relaxation techniques, and healthy eating can also go a long way in helping someone with OCD overcome their symptoms and reduce their reliance on compulsions or ritualistic behaviors.
The Bottom Line
OCD can be a debilitating condition that significantly interferes with a person’s ability to function in daily life. Learning to support a loved one with OCD without enabling their disorder is a vital step in supporting their recovery.