As I recently wrote about on my blog, I approach what we refer to as obsessions and compulsions (OCD) from a different, more depth-oriented model than is currently seen in psychological culture. Mental obsessions arise from anxiety and compulsions erupt as a misguided attempt to control a world that is largely out of hands. Both are seen in highly sensitive people who are more acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life, attuned to nuanced change, and prone to perfectionism.
Highly sensitive people are driven by an exceptionally high moral compass that is sometimes applied to the inner world, which means we try to avoid making mistakes and desperately want to “get it right”. This applies to relationships (“I don’t want to choose the wrong person”), health (“Ignoring a symptom might result in a catastrophic outcome”), safety (“If I don’t check the stove I might burn the house down”), and several other common and archetypal hooks.
What’s essential to understand before delving a bit further into the common compulsion of checking is that I don’t view these obsessions and compulsions as a “disorder”, which is why I’m reluctant to use the term “OCD” at all in my writing. Rather, I see them as the psyche’s brilliant attempts to exert order and control over fundamentally out-of-control inner and outer experiences. Without healthier options, which our culture fails to provide, the psyche has no other choice but to create obsessions and compulsions in its attempt to process the enormity of being human in an ever-changing world that includes the reality of loss, emotional pain and death at its core.
If we lived in cultures that offered time-honored rituals, stories, and ceremonies that connected its members to their ancestral lineage and the greater invisible web that weaves around us and between us, we would likely see a drastic reduction in obsessions and compulsions. Our souls need to be grounded in ritual in order to feel safe. Our spirits need to tap into ribbons of Creative Breath in order to feel connected. When we’re rooted in earth and connected to sky we feel a sustainable and enduring safety and the need to control abates. When we feel woven into the poetry of life seen and unseen the soul exhales and we can let go of the misguided attempts at control and safety that are at the root of obsessions, intrusive thoughts, and compulsions.
This is what we explore in depth in my Grace Through Uncertainty course, where we also seek to create healthy maps and rituals to replace the unhealthy ones. Along these lines, I want to share a beautiful exchange with a member from the August 2018 round of the course that occurred on a thread called “Portal Practices” in which I invite participants to share their healthy practices on the forum, including ways in which they feel more vulnerable when leaving the house, eating, and during other liminal times. This is an excerpt from the email I send out that corresponds to the prompt:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by transitions. Something inside of me has understood that transitions are liminal zones when we’re more vulnerable, where we can either bolster our inner strength or fall prey to anxiety. My work started over two decades ago in the realm of the wedding transition, where we leave behind the identity of our single self and birth a new identity as a married person. But it quickly evolved into the transition of healing from a fear-based mindset to a more solid sense of Self.
Within this broader framework, and through raising my highly sensitive kids, it’s become clear to me that when you’re highly sensitive you have a thinner veil between the worlds. As I talked about in the first email, this means you’re more aware of change, the passage of time, and transitions – which all funnel down to an increased awareness of death. With this increased awareness of death in all of its manifestations, highly sensitive children and then adults are also aware of how vulnerable we are, how ultimately helpless we are to the fact that time and death will exert their will over our lives.
The Portal of Doorways: Leaving the House
Let’s take the example of leaving the house. We feel nervous about leaving our place of safety, comfort and protection where all of our worldly possessions reside. We feel anxious about entering the outside world, especially if we’re highly sensitive: What will I find? Who will I see? Will I feel okay about myself? Will I feel lonely, inadequate and judged or connected, happy, and secure? If we’re connected to an anchoring practice, it will provide the comfort we need in order to bolster ourselves through this liminal threshold (literally the threshold of the doorway). But in lieu of this practice, the anxious mind is left to try to find its foothold through attaching onto outward obsessions, like checking the stove and the locks.
You can create portal rituals that are aligned with your values and belief system. If you are already grounded in a religious tradition, you have an abundance of rituals from which to choose: you can read spiritual texts, recite prayers, light candles. And if you’re not religious, don’t let the word “ritual” scare you. Ritual simply means a meaningful act that you engage in on a regular basis. We all have rituals that inform our lives, but most of them lack meaning so they don’t serve the function of creating an inner anchor and protection system. We have bedtime rituals, like washing face, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, but they’re more rote routines than actual rituals.
One member wrote that she was having trouble connecting to a ritual around leaving the house that spoke to her. She said (shared here with permission), “When I leave, particularly when I’m leaving for an extended period of time, I feel very agitated and highly anxious and it manifests as a tight chest. I also feel angry at “having” to check things several times. My worst fear is the house setting on fire and losing precious memories of my Dad.”
“That’s a horrible fear and I’m sure one that many people can relate to. What happens when you stop, put your hand on your chest/heart, and say something like, “I’m scared because I miss my Dad so much. I’m breathing into my fear and my grief. Please keep the house safe and please help me hold onto my memories of my dad. Please help me let go of these misguided rituals that are protecting me from my grief and my fear.”
She began to practice this ritual, then wrote a few days later:
“I’m finding the portal prayer so helpful in leaving the house so far. The act of just breathing into the fear and grief is a tonic rather than trying to protect myself from it.”
Another member shared her portal practice (shared here with permission):
“I remembered a portal practice from my childhood of when we would leave or enter church (Catholic), people would dip their fingers in the bowl of holy water and cross themselves. I was thinking of a portal ritual for when I leave my home for work. I really like being in my home and wanted something to signify going out into the world and something to keep me grounded and connected to The Divine. I did some research on the church ritual for the holy water. I cried while reading it. I’m no longer Catholic but having read why people did this was so heart-warming and connecting with God.
“One reason was for the church portal ritual is that you are leaving the world and coming into the sacred. Another was to remember our baptism. I never knew those things as a child. I decided to put essential oil in a little glass dish of oil. As I leave for work in the morning, I dip my finger in just a little and make the sign of the cross on my forehead, lips and heart…and say “may Jesus be in my mind, on my lips and in my heart”. I feel the connection.
“The other thing I do which connects me with the Divine and brings me in connection with my body is I do the same thing a few times at work. I just make the sign of the cross on myself in those three areas. This has been very powerful divinely connecting ritual for me. I also notice that I naturally take a deeper breath when I do this and I can still lightly smell the essential oil. Note: I haven’t made the sign of the cross in over 30 years. Thanks, Sheryl, for inspiring me to connect with a meaningful part of my heritage.”
Sometime we’re led to revitalize rituals from our upbringing and find fresh meaning in them. Other times we’re called to create new rituals that arise from the depths of our own unconscious. Embedded inside anxiety, intrusive thoughts, obsessions, and compulsions is a call to connect with our lineage and our soul’s poetic language in a way the allows us to be held across thresholds and through the vulnerability of living and loving. At their core, the symptoms of anxiety are asking us to feel our deepest emotions and reconnect to soul and spirit, for it’s in the realms of emotions and soul that we feel abiding safety and have more tolerance for change.
While the examples above are specific to checking rituals that occur around leaving the house, you’re likely familiar with other manifestations of checking that center around your relationship, health, money, or sexuality. As a highly sensitive person, it’s also highly likely that you’re familiar with the struggle with loss, change, and death that are amplified during this time of great uncertainty. If that’s the case, I invite you to join me for this third live round of Grace Through Uncertainty.
Together we will chart a new course away from unhealthy rituals and toward healthy ones. I will help you discover your inner maps that will help you create your own protection system, one that can see you through this time in history and through your life as a highly sensitive person. And through these maps, you will rekindle your aliveness and love of life that are your birthright. The course starts on June 27, 2020 and I look forward to guiding you and meeting you there.