“You’re too fussy, Charlotte.” That’s what my Maths teacher said to me one day in primary school as as I aggressively scrubbed out and rewrote the answer on my worksheet over and over again, wanting to make sure that the numbers looked just right. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was the first time my perfectionism really started to cross over into something pathological.
My OCD likes to wear a lot of hats, and one of its favourites is moral scrupulosity. Moral scrupulosity OCD is what happens when the impossible standards of perfectionism collide with the real world. It means that you are excessively preoccupied by the idea that you’re a bad person based on past, present and potentially future actions. The best way I can describe this type of OCD is like this: imagine you’re walking on the world’s thinnest tightrope. If you lose focus of the precise, near-impossible standards you prescribe yourself for even a microsecond, that’s it. You fall.
There are so many times I’ll catch myself off-guard remembering a minor moral infraction. Maybe I slightly miscounted the till at work, or I might suddenly remember saying something snarky to a classmate in Year 8. At first appearance, you wouldn’t give these kinds of mistakes a second thought, and even I can look back and see that such concerns are completely irrational – but when your mind has its claws into you as deep as mine does, it’s hard to see anything beyond the pinprick tunnel vision it allows you to see.
When I get it into my head that I have acted anything less than morally perfect, I’ll cut myself off from the world, convincing myself that I’m unworthy of any joy, success or companionship. I’ll look in the mirror and see this twisted, abhorrent monster masquerading as the person people see me as when, in “reality”, I am nothing more than a fraud.
“When I get it into my head that I have acted anything less than morally perfect, I’ll cut myself off from the world, convincing myself that I’m unworthy of any joy, success or companionship.”
What makes it worse is that my self-imposed isolation and imposter syndrome will even extend to self-sabotage. I’ll feel unable to do things like speak to my friends, apply for graduate jobs or even complete coursework for my degree because I believe I don’t deserve to have any of these good things in my life. My OCD means that I both embrace and fear accountability – I feel like I need to punished for what I’ve done, but simultaneously I feel completely and utterly terrified of losing everything I’ve worked so hard for in the process.
A particularly cruel aspect of moral scrupulosity OCD is a phenomenon known as false memories. This is when our minds take an intrusive thought about acting immorally and convinces us that this thought is, in fact, the memory of this action happening. A part of us might know deep down that this memory never happened, but that doesn’t stop us ruminating for hours on end, painstakingly dissecting memories over and over again until we get a sense of definitive “proof” that this action never happened.
Unfortunately, this feeling of “proof” never lasts and within a few hours we’re right back where we started. If we obsess over our memories enough, the line between what’s real and what isn’t becomes blurrier, and there is no feeling more terrifying than the idea that we aren’t in control of our own minds.
Most people spend our most formative years learning to see the world in black and white. We’re taught clear boundaries between what’s right and what’s wrong. Watching Disney cartoons growing up, there was always the hero to root for and the villain to despise. Pure good would always prevail over pure evil, leaving no room for nuance. For most people, as they get older, they grow out of this binary way of thinking and learn to appreciate that life isn’t as it seems. It’s less clear-cut black and whites, and more of a menagerie of greys.
“If you obsess over your memories enough, the line between what’s real and what isn’t becomes all the blurrier, and there is no feeling more terrifying than the idea that you aren’t in control of your own mind.”
The problem with me is that I never grew out of this all-or-nothing pattern of thinking, meaning that a lot of my moral codes are based on absolutes. In my eyes, there is no such thing as bending the rules or telling little white lies. Everything is either definitively right or definitively wrong. And sure, that might’ve been a good approach to have when you were a five-year-old eating paint, but when it comes to navigating the complexity of adult life, thinking in this way is impractical and exhausting.
I haven’t always been able to speak about my OCD and this aspect of my life so openly. For a long time, I felt like if I somehow verbalised my fears about being a bad person, I’d be speaking them into existence. I was scared that by openly acknowledging my anxieties about morality, people might actually end up believing that I was that masquerading monster.
Even as I write this, I’m still in the throes of a long-term obsession in which I am struggling to distinguish intrusive thoughts from my memories. I spend each day thinking that this is the day that my terrible wrongdoings will finally be exposed, but then the day ends. Then another comes. And then another. Bit by bit, with the help of therapy, I am slowly learning to tolerate a world of greys. I still have a long way to go until I’ll feel fully secure, but I’m finally at a stage wherein for the first time in a long time, I feel hope.
Charlotte is a freelance journalist who has previously written for publications such as The Breakdown, The Independent, and iNews. @colombochar
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