Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic medical condition, not a personal choice or a moral failing. Loved ones who want to be supportive must be mindful of the profound effects OCD can have on a person’s life and of the fact that it is not a choice.

The right type of social support, such as gentle encouragement, accommodations, and acceptance may help improve a person’s OCD symptoms. Support might even make it easier to seek or continue treatment.

In this regard, friends and family can be an important part of a person’s treatment and can either improve or worsen the odds of recovery.

Read on to learn more about what not to say to someone with OCD.

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The following types of statements can make OCD symptoms worse and disrupt relationships.

  • Blame: Try to avoid blaming someone for their OCD. OCD is not a choice. Blame can be alienating and may intensify intrusive thoughts and anxiety.
  • Shame: Well-meaning people may suggest something is not a big deal or is easy to manage. If this were true, the person with OCD would already be managing it. Try to avoid diminishing the seriousness of their OCD or their emotional challenges.
  • Criticism: Criticism and hostility can make a person feel worse. While research on their effect on OCD symptoms is inconclusive, they offer no benefits and may damage relationships for a person who is already struggling and vulnerable.
  • Annoyance: Avoid treating the person with OCD as an annoyance. Try not to tell them they make family time worse or harder.

What is OCD?

OCD is a chronic mental health condition that causes a person to experience unpleasant intrusive thoughts. These thoughts often involve fears of contamination, illness, or dangerous things happening to oneself or others.

A person manages these intrusive thoughts with compulsive behaviors they emotionally link to the thoughts.

For example, a person might excessively wash their hands or compulsively pray, count objects, or hoard possessions. The compulsions temporarily help with the obsessions, but over time, the obsessions become more intense, as do the compulsions. The compulsions may become the most visible part of the disorder, disrupting a person’s daily life or damaging their health.

Learn more about OCD.

No script can cure OCD. However, saying the right thing can assure a loved one they matter and that there is hope for the future. Some things to try saying include:

  • “What is your biggest obstacle to seeking treatment?”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “What can I do to make treatment easier for you?”
  • “What’s one thing you wish others understood about you?”
  • “I love you and want the best for you.”
  • “Can we develop a code word for when your compulsions feel overwhelming?”

Below are some guidelines when deciding what to say.

  • Validate their feelings rather than minimizing them.
  • Offer love and reassurance without indulging or participating in their compulsions.
  • Set boundaries. For example, do not answer the same question over and over again.
  • Remain calm and patient.
  • Focus on their practical needs.
  • Avoid letting OCD dominate every discussion and interaction.

Learn more about coping with OCD.

Here are some strategies that may help someone living with OCD.

  • Avoid participating in or enabling their rituals or compulsive behaviors.
  • Support them to access treatment. Offer to go with them or help them vet therapists.
  • Encourage them to persist with treatment. If treatment does not initially work, causes side effects, or a clinician seems abusive or ineffective, encourage them to find a new clinician rather than quitting.
  • Help them seek accommodations at work or school. It may be helpful to research local rules to advocate for them as a co-worker or to remind them they have a right to accommodations.
  • Try not to allow OCD to dominate everything. Talk with them about other things. Take them on fun and meaningful outings. Distract them with humor.
  • Avoid judging or shaming them.
  • Respect their privacy and only tell others about their difficulties with permission.
  • Ask them what they need most and what would make things easier and better.
  • Help them deal with the material realities of OCD. For example, if their house contains clutter because of hoarding, consider helping them clean it once they start treatment.
  • Avoid telling them what sort of treatment they need or should do. Finding treatment can be difficult, as can listening to loved one’s judgments about treatment decisions.

OCD treatment involves a combination of medication, therapy, and support. A person with OCD needs time to get better and may need accommodations at work, home, or school.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help them learn to manage intrusive thoughts and resist compulsive behaviors. Medication may ease the intensity of intrusive thoughts.

Doctors often prescribe a group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), though they may also prescribe other medications.

OCD is a chronic mental health condition. A person may need ongoing support to pursue and continue treatment.

However, treatment can greatly reduce and sometimes even eliminate symptoms. About 30% of people with OCD abandon treatment or do not find relief. The remainder find some relief, though about half will continue to have symptoms.

Living with OCD can be challenging, and supporting your loved one can help them. Supporting a loved one with OCD, however, can pose its own challenges. The International OCD Foundation offers a wide range of educational and support materials and local and online support groups.

In the United States, people who need immediate assistance can dial 988.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be very upsetting to live with and to observe secondhand. Compulsive behaviors may seem like a choice. Particularly when they harm others, they can be frustrating. However, people with OCD do not want to have these symptoms and do not choose them.

Gentle encouragement without judgment can help a person seek and stick with treatment. People with OCD need support and reminders that they are more than their diagnosis. Encourage a loved one to find meaning outside of OCD. Be the person who reminds them of all of the goodness they can offer the world and that the world can offer them.