OCT. 14, 2015

By Luna Greenstein

At what point did it become socially acceptable and even trendy to use obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as an adjective for being particular, meticulous or organized?

What started off as a small trend has turned into a part of every day language. Companies even use it for branding—one beauty company has named itself Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. And social media and news sites use it to be entertaining, such as the Twitter profile OCD Things and Buzzfeed articles with titles like “33 Meticulous Cleaning Tricks For the OCD Person Inside You” and “5 Types of OCD Friends You Know and Love.

At the same time, I think people are starting to realize that living with OCD is often very challenging and distressing for people. It is not something that they would liken with being trendy. If someone were to start using physical illness such as cancer in the same context, most likely, no one would view it as cute. To make up for the many articles Buzzfeed has posted extrapolating the misconceptions of OCD, they have also posted a video compiling anonymous confessions about what it feels like to have OCD and another video called “Why we Should Stop Using Words like OCD and Bipolar.”

The truth is that OCD isn’t just eccentricity that someone has. It’s an illness that causes a person to have frequent, intrusive thoughts that lead to irrational and excessive behaviors that are unwanted and often emotionally, and sometimes physically, painful. Examples of the kind of obsessions people living with OCD face may include unpleasant sexual thoughts, doubts about having done something—such as locking the door, turning off the stove, etc.), thoughts about harming someone or the fear of saying inappropriate things in public.

So now I ask the question, is it harmful for anyone who lives with OCD to see society constantly using this type of phraseology?

I ask this question not to shame those who are guilty of following this trend or to say that we should discuss mental health in serious and hushed tones. I’ve often referred to my actions or myself as OCD, and I would usually say these comments in a way that was bold or cheeky rather than serious. Even if there were times when I was genuinely unsure about whether my thoughts and actions might have been symptomatic, I would slip OCD into conversation casually in order to get my point across.

After doing some research about the symptoms and hearing stories from people who live with OCD, I realized that there appears to be a large and growing misconception about what they are and what people who live with OCD have to contend with. If OCD simply caused people to want everything to be neat, organized and color-coded all the time, than it would not be an illness.

I asked NAMI’s Facebook community what they thought on the issue, which led to a variety of responses. On one end, people found it hurtful (It frustrates me because OCD is a disorder, not a personality quirk and it has caused a great deal of suffering both in my life and in my father's life.”). On the other end, some people felt that it wasn’t an important issue (“If we get upset over every faux pas in language, we are in for a Hellish existence.”)

Other people saw this trend as a potential outlet to teach people about OCD. “While it can be frustrating, I see it as an opportunity to educate. People rarely have any idea what OCD is or looks like. So far people have been receptive and have been interested in learning more,” Lauren Schimming wrote.

For example, while the obsessions and fears people living with OCD are sometimes related to cleanliness, it is very common for them to be completely unrelated. “[These type of remarks] unfortunately perpetuates [sic] the idea that OCD is only about cleanliness, or numbers, or organization, or repetitions. For some of us, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Ruminating thoughts manifest in all different ways,” commented Lauren Kirk.

There is another type of behavior called pathological grooming that does relate more to cleanliness and organization and shares traits of OCD, but they are distinct conditions. While pathological groomers also engage in excessive behaviors such as washing hands repeatedly, they do not do so out of fear. In some cases pathological groomers actually enjoy their excessive behaviors. Someone living with OCD does not engage in compulsive behavior because they want to, they do it because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t.

I say all of this as a person who is completely guilty of this growing trend, but willing to admit that it also perpetuates misconceptions about OCD. I believe it’s important to raise issues like this because the misuse of words like OCD can distort our understanding of an illness and make us forget that OCD can’t be solved by reading a listicle on Buzzfeed—even if that listicle was pretty useful. What do you think?


APR, 25, 2017 07:07:29 PM
An OCD sufferer
OCD is scary, OCD is crippling, and OCD is not something that should be trendy and glorified.

MAR, 17, 2016 10:07:53 PM
A person with OCD
I used to take offense to people saying "omg I am soooo OCD," but now I also see the unintended benefit of it. Though they are minimizing a serious condition, people who equate OCD with a cute/positive personality quirk are, albeit unintentionally, eroding the stigma associated with this particular mental illness by normalizing or even "trendifying" it.

NOV, 01, 2015 07:34:24 PM
Carol Drozdyk
You ask:
"So now I ask the question, is it harmful for anyone who lives with OCD to see society constantly using this type of phraseology?"

Absolutely, without question - it is VERY harmful. There is no other illness whereby the language of complacency, ignorance and absurdity is applied. Not once have I heard anyone use such words towards any other disease. It is extremely berating, disrespectful and unsympathetic to all who suffer from mental illness.

OCT, 29, 2015 07:04:09 AM
c j buechler
I heard a serious conversation on Christian radio refer to the contrasting aspects of .New TEstement.the Lord's Prayer (my shock was profound) as schizophrenic. Part was this way; part was that way.

OCT, 14, 2015 08:47:36 PM
Caroline Garry
Thank you for this post. This is a topic I have been wanting to write about for a while, and I appreciate you doing so. I have lived -- diagnosed -- with OCD for the better part of my life, which is to say at least 20 years of my 33 so far. That's a long time, and my OCD will be something I have to manage for the remainder of my life through active treatment, both through exposure response prevention therapy and medication. OCD is something that many people, like me, live with in shame -- the fact is, people who have OCD are the least likely in the population to say "I'm SO OCD about such-and-such" -- we have tried to go through 99% of our lives hiding the very thing that others glorify a la "I'm so neat and tidy." There are so many types of OCD, too, many of which have -- as you said -- absolutely nothing to do with cleanliness. Some are exclusively intrusive thoughts, or "pure O", some are with checking, some are with contamination, some are harm-focused, and others scrupulosity. And there are more. Point is, it's not one-size-fits all, and the more we integrate OCD as slang into daily language, the more we do those who live with it a disservice. Cancer isn't cancer isn't cancer. There are many forms, and we respect that. We'd never say, "I'm so cancer-y about such-and-such." It would be a disgusting thing to say. It would make light of someone's struggle, and quite frankly, their life. I think that the moment we downplay the severity of OCD, which can be debilitating, is the moment that we denigrate the entire context of what it means to live with a "hidden disease" such as mental illness. To put it out there, I'll share that at one point my OCD was so severe that I would not go into my bedroom without holding my breath because I was afraid if I even spoke, or literally breathed, that I would "ruin" every single object in there. I didn't sleep in my own room for years. I know, it's out there. Arguably "weird" just reading it. But THAT is an example of "OCD" -- at least the type that I have -- and an example of something that nobody would ever say in slang. I think that it's good for folks to be comfortable and real with talking about mental illness and the different forms to the point that it comes up in regular vocabulary, but not in the context that they make it sound like a personality quirk. Again, cancer is not cute. Neither is ALS. Neither is MS. I realize that the "difference" here appears, at first blush, to be physical vs. mental but I think we are living in a very small box if we refuse to recognize and advocate for the implications -- some physical -- many life-threatening -- that mental illnesses have on the people who live with them. Thanks again for the post.

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