The optimistic induction: the argument that helps me grapple with OCD

(This is a distillation of one of the practical upshots of this prior essay)

I.

I am a near lifelong sufferer from OCD ranging in severity from mild to very. What works for sufferers of mental illness will vary greatly from person to person. For me five things have worked in terms of therapy :

A) Talking about my fears with others including therapists while being careful not to move too far into reassurance seeking territory.

B) Exposure therapy.

C) Medication

D) Lifestyle changes, especially exercise

E) The optimistic induction

This is an introduction to E) for fellow OCD sufferers. Some of what I have to say may be applicable to other forms of mental illness, including mood disorders generally. Then again, maybe this whole thing is only applicable to me and my condition. I am not an expert, and this is simply an account of what I have found helpful.

II.

The optimistic induction basically comes in two forms. the intrapersonal and the interpersonal inductive arguments for scepticism about OCD fears:

Intrapersonal

1. I have had many fears in the past that have, no matter how convincing they seemed at the time, later turned out to be false. This is true despite their variety, and despite the fact that I could not always see why they were wrong. This suggests that my fears are being generated by a fundamentally misaligned mechanism.

2. There’s no reason to think my current fears are anymore of an accurate guide to reality.

3. Therefore, my current fears are likely inaccurate.

Interpersonal

1.Many people around the world have OCD fears almost exactly like my own (believe me, this is true even for the most seemingly idiosyncratic fears).

2. Their OCD fears almost universally turn out to be unwarranted, and in many cases (such as harm OCD) ALWAYS turn out to be unwarranted, even across millions of cases.

3. Therefore, my fears are not a reliable guide to reality.

The trick for me was to accept a kind of epistemic learned helplessness. I haven’t always been able to see what was wrong with my disordered thinking, but these arguments show there must be something wrong with the reasoning behind my obsessions, and so I can take comfort in knowing they are wrong. Accepting that I don’t need to have all the answers about why my fears were wrong is difficult, but ever so important.

III.

Notice that this argument gives you excellent general grounds for scepticism of your OCD related fears. It does not rely on specific features of OCD fears, and thus gives you reason to briskly dismiss them, without being caught in a rumination trap.

Nor does it rely on you being able to explain what is wrong with your fears. You can dismiss them, as it were, by their source (and no, this is not necessarily fallacious).

As a pair , these arguments give you a very strong, simple, logical and generally applicable basis not to bother thinking about your OCD fears. My own experience is that the very same systematic parts of my cognition that perhaps made me vulnerable to OCD found the argument appealing. I hope at least one other person finds value in meditating on these ideas.

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