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How to help a loved one who suffers from OCD?

How to help a loved one who suffers from OCD?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a problem that not only affects those who have it but also their family and loved ones. If you know someone who suffers from OCD it might be that you would like to help him/her but that you don’t know how. Then this article is for you! It is not always easy to know how to help someone. That’s why in this article we’ll explain what to do and what not to do when you want to help someone who has OCD.

Listen instead of giving advice

When we want to help somebody, many times we tend to give quick advice. For example: “Try to think about something positive” or “Just do something fun to distract yourself”. However, this is usually not the best way to help someone with OCD (or any other disorder in fact).

You have to think that people who suffer from OCD usually feel very ashamed about their problem and that it can be very difficult for them to share their problem with you. If on top of this we give quick advice, they can feel like you don’t understand them. That’s why it’s better to ask and listen instead.

You can ask them questions like “What is this like for you?”, or “What can I do to help you?” In this way, your loved one will feel more supported by you. And don’t worry if you think that you’re not helping the person by just listening to him/her: Emotional support is key in overcoming OCD.

Yet, there is one exception to not giving advice: the suggestion of looking for professional help. OCD is very difficult to overcome without help from a professional, and therefore this is the best advice you can give to someone who suffers from OCD. It is important though to give the other person time to adjust to the idea. It is not easy to accept the fact that you need help, but you can help him/her tell him/her that it will help him/her to free himself from OCD and to live the life that he/she wants.

Avoid being part of the rituals

Try not to accommodate or help your loved one to perform his/her rituals. You’re not really helping him/her. Instead you’re unwillingly maintaining the problem. This happens because the implicit message you’re giving him/her is: “It’s necessary to carry out the ritual because otherwise something negative will happen. That’s why I’m helping you”.

Nonetheless, the rituals (and the obsessive thoughts) are a way of expressing that the person is suffering from a high level of anxiety and /or stress. That’s why it is very important to find the cause of the anxiety/stress, and to start implementing changes. This is not easy and usually requires help from a professional.

What you can do when you see that the other person is performing a ritual is saying: (without blaming him/her) “I noticed you’re doing this ritual (describing it), “Is there something bothering you?”, or “Did something happen to you?”. You can also ask if you can help him/her, or mention the possibility of getting professional help. In this way you can help the person to become more conscientious of what’s happening without maintaining the problem.

Don’t focus on mistakes

Not focussing on mistakes is important both in order to free oneself from OCD as well as to prevent it.

In our family and our personal relationships, we tend to focus on “how we can improve our loved ones”. This can seem like a very positive way of taking care of someone. However, it can have a negative effect on the other, since we’re sending the implicit message that he/she has a lot to work on. Since we’re focusing more on the mistakes than on his/her positive characteristics, this can affect our loved one’s self esteem.

Because of this it’s crucial not to focus on errors. Try to laugh about them and avoid saying things like “you always do this”; or “you’re so…”. This doesn’t help the person to learn something from what happened.  Rather than doing that you could say: “This has also happened to me. I solved it this way…”, or “Don’t worry, next time you’ll know how to do it better”. These words help to make the other person feel more relaxed and it can also teach him/her that it is allowed to make errors and that you can overcome them.

Be patient.

In order to cure OCD it is necessary to make radical changes. These changes are not made in a day. To you it can seem like the other person is not making a real effort. This can be very frustrating. However, in order to make important changes he/she might need to prepare him/herself and every person has its own rhythm.

You have to think that even the smallest steps are an advance and they can serve as a preparation to make bigger and more important changes later on. Try to appreciate every small change and remember that your loved one wants nothing else than to cure him/herself. It can also be very motivating for your loved one if you can congratulate him/her on even the tiniest progress. You could simply say “How good that you managed this” or you can give the other a small gift (for example a magazine he/she likes, cook his/her favorite dinner, give a massage). This will motivate your loved one to keep on going.

Help the other person to be him/herself

Many times people who suffer from OCD feel like they have to be “good” or “normal” or that they have to live your life like everybody else. They have gotten used to a life with jobs they don’t feel passionate about, and/or they don’t express parts of themselves out of fear for what others might think. This can be very limiting for the person who suffers this and it can cause a lot of stress. That’s why it can be very liberating when you show him/her that there are more ways of living and that they are all equally valid.

But helping your loved one to be him/herself is more than that. It’s also about being accepting and open-minded when your loved one wants to do something you don’t approve of or when he/she feels attracted to something that scares you. This is not easy to do but if you can manage to create an accepting environment, you’re helping your loved one to free him/herself from OCD.

Like we said in the beginning of this article; it is not easy to know how to help someone who suffers from OCD, but there are many things that you can do! If we all take this step then we can help to make the lives of people with OCD a bit easier together.

Lisette Zeeuw

Clinical Psychologist