In psychology, obsessions are repeated and unwanted thoughts that cause anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors people perform to temporarily relieve this anxiety.

For example, a person may have intrusive thoughts about germs or contamination. In response, they may feel the urge to wash their hands unnecessarily. The thoughts are the obsession, while the handwashing is the compulsion.

Obsessions and compulsions are key features of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but they can also occur outside of OCD.

In this article, we will explain the differences between obsession versus compulsion, give examples of each, and explore if it is possible to have one without the other. We will also discuss when a person should seek support.

A person washing their hands in a sink due to OCD.Share on Pinterest
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Obsessions are persistent and unwanted thoughts that cause significant distress, such as anxiety or disgust. They may be part of a person’s internal monologue, or they may manifest as mental images.

Obsessive thoughts can seem to come from nowhere, and once they appear, they are difficult to ignore. Because of this, people also refer to them as “intrusive thoughts.” Intrusive thoughts are a hallmark of OCD.

A person may or may not be aware that their obsessive thought is not rational. However, even if they know the thought is not realistic, they may still feel the need to take steps to ease the anxiety it causes, just in case.

Compulsions are repetitive actions, behaviors, or mental exercises that people perform in response to obsessions. They are a way of temporarily easing the anxiety of the obsession, but they do not provide long-term relief.

Some compulsions are easier to identify than others. For example, a person with OCD may feel the need to wash their hands excessively or check doors are locked repeatedly. These are overt compulsions.

But some compulsions are less visible or obvious, such as frequently seeking reassurance from others or performing “mental checks,” such as replaying an event over and over to make sure nothing bad happened. These are covert compulsions.

The relationship between obsessions and compulsions can also vary. For example, it logically follows that a person who is afraid of germs would clean excessively, but it is less logical for a person to line objects up in a certain order to prevent something bad from happening.

This is an example of magical thinking, which is when a person thinks their thoughts or behaviors have a bigger impact on the world than they really do. This is an aspect of OCD that can be more difficult for others to understand, but to the person with the compulsion, it makes performing their rituals feel very important.

There are many ways obsessions and compulsions can manifest themselves. In OCD, they often focus on similar themes, such as:


Obsessions about contamination involve a fear of things that could make a person dirty or unwell, such as:

  • visible dirt
  • germs and illnesses
  • bodily fluids
  • chemicals
  • pollution, radiation, and other environmental hazards

In response, a person may have compulsions such as:

  • following meticulous washing and hygiene rituals
  • avoiding touching specific objects
  • cleaning their house repeatedly or a set number of times
  • repeatedly checking the body for signs of illness or dirt

Imperfection or disorder

People with these obsessions may fear making mistakes or believe there will be consequences if they do not do things perfectly. Their thoughts may focus on:

  • symmetry or evenness
  • putting things in a specific order
  • doing things in a specific “correct” way
  • fear of losing or forgetting things

Examples of the compulsions they may perform include:

  • arranging objects in a specific way
  • redoing something until it feels “right”
  • redoing something a set number of times because that number feels “safe”
  • checking they have not forgotten things repeatedly


Some people can have intrusive thoughts of themselves doing something aggressive, sexually inappropriate, or immoral. However, it is important to note that in OCD, these thoughts do not represent genuine urges. Instead, they represent an unfounded fear they will do something bad, such as:

  • engaging in sexual activities that are illegal, harmful, or impulsive
  • harming oneself or others
  • offending others
  • immorality, sin, or damnation

These thoughts may be counter to the person’s personality and values, making them confusing and highly distressing. In response, a person may:

  • repeatedly review their actions to check if they did something wrong
  • ask others for reassurance that their behavior was OK
  • pray excessively
  • deliberately think certain thoughts to “cancel out” the intrusive ones


It is common for people with obsessions, or OCD, to feel excessively responsible for the safety and well-being of others. They may have intrusive thoughts about:

  • causing an accident, such as a car collision
  • making mistakes that indirectly allow harm to come to others, such as forgetting to lock a door
  • being held responsible for something that was not their fault
  • acting impulsively

Compulsions people may perform in connection with these thoughts could include:

  • checking doors and windows are locked
  • checking appliances are turned off
  • checking their work multiple times for mistakes

Usually, obsessions begin before compulsions. They are the thoughts that motivate the action. However, it can be difficult for people to identify thoughts as obsessive, which may mean they do not realize they have them.

Yes, it is possible for a person to have obsessions but not compulsions. This may be because they have not found a compulsion that helps yet, or because they do not act on it.

However, people with obsessions usually do want to perform some kind of compulsion, even if this is not possible in the present moment or it is invisible.

For example, some people identify as having a purely obsessional type of OCD known as “pure O,” but an older 2011 study of 201 people found that those who identified as such had mental compulsions, or compulsions that can seem like typical behaviors, such as asking for reassurance.

No, compulsions are not always a sign of OCD. There are other mental health conditions that can cause both obsessive thoughts and repetitive behaviors that a person uses to cope with them, such as:

Although they may look similar from the outside, obsessions are not the cause of repetitive behaviors due to:

Anyone who has concerns they may have obsessions or compulsions can seek support. If symptoms interfere with daily life, a person should speak with a doctor or mental health professional, particularly if the symptoms:

  • affect a person’s ability to work, go to school, take care of themselves, or maintain relationships
  • affect the safety or hygiene of their home
  • are harming their body
  • cause excessive concern about appearance or body weight
  • take up 1 hour or more of their time per day

Research suggests that people with OCD are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors than people without the condition. If a person has thoughts of harming themselves, they should seek immediate support.

With treatment, conditions such as OCD can get better, improving a person’s quality of life and well-being.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Obsessions are recurring unwanted thoughts that cause anxiety, and compulsions are behaviors a person performs to temporarily relieve this anxiety. Obsessions and compulsions are characteristics of OCD, but they can also occur in other conditions.

Obsessions can stem from a fear of many things, but in OCD, they often involve themes such as contamination, immorality, disorder, or excessive responsibility.

Compulsions may logically follow an obsession, such as cleaning to relieve anxiety about germs. Alternatively, they may be a result of magical thinking, such as saying certain words to prevent something bad from happening.

A person experiencing obsessions or compulsions can speak with a doctor or mental health professional for advice.