STRATEGY #5 WHATEVER HAPPENS HAPPENS
Here is another very powerful strategy. It is particularly effective for one type of obsessions, yet not so effective for another. Remember that there are two basic forms of obsessional fears. The first involves a reasonable worry that become ridiculously exaggerated. An example is the fear of germs–a natural fear and a good fear. It leads us to wash our hands before meals. When we are washing two hours a day, however, the fear has become neither natural nor good. The second form of obsessional fears deals with thoughts that are from the start totally absurd, such as the thought of a loving young mother to harm her baby or the thought that God doesn’t exist for a devout Christian. Whatever happens happens can be very helpful as a heroic cure for exaggerated worries, but usually does not work, for violent, sexual, or blasphemous obsessions.
Here are some reports from my groups on this strategy. A patient named Raymond (one of my favorite OCDers of all time whose case is discussed in detail in Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals) caught on to this coping strategy after about a year of attending group. Encouraged by a sermon given in his church, he reasoned that since whatever happened was God’s will, he should be willing to accept anything. He imagined and “accepted” that he had hit someone with his car, that his son had contracted AIDS, and that everyone in his town had died from an epidemic that he could have prevented had he only taken notice of a spill of infected scrub water. This caused a marked decrease in the strength of his obsessions. Soon, Raymond became a proponent of this strategy. One day in group when a young woman shared her obsessive fears that the food she was serving her husband was contaminated, he offered her some rather blunt advice: “Look, you’re going to have to say to yourself: “I’m going to cook; and if he dies, he dies.” (What a great thing to say, one of the best group comments ever.)
Another group member offered this report. “I have this obsession that I’m going to have a bad day. It makes me terribly scared. Last year before I could leave my room I had to look in the mirror with a certain expression on my face and say to myself “I’m going to have a good day.” I had to repeat that over and over until I got it just right, and that could take a long time. It was wacky! But I fought that one and I won. Now, I say to myself: “Oh, well, I’m going to have a bad day. Bad days are part of nature. Everyone has them. You have to accept that it will happen. You have to be okay with it. If you do that, you can get past the obsession. Another of my obsessions is that I’m afraid of rejection. I’m zoning out all day and thinking the weirdest things to counter these obsessions about rejection. So now I just say, “Let the worst happen. Let them say: “Who the hell are you? You’re a moron!” I can deal with it. This has become my number one way of coping with OCD.”
Whatever happens happens can even occasionally be helpful for obsessions that are far from reasonable worries.One day a freshman student, Lindsay, who had been attending group for about a month, reported on what had been working for her OCD.
LINDSAY: I’ve had obsessions since seventh grade when I started waking up in the middle of the night afraid that I would go crazy and knife my parents. But my latest obsession is the thought of jumping out the window. I live on the fifth floor in the dorms, and the idea comes into my mind of running over to the window and throwing myself out. I absolutely do not want to do this. But a few weeks ago it got to the point where I was just breaking down and crying. I was on the phone every night with my parents. I was getting friends to tell me, “you’re all right, you’re not going to do it.” I was repeating to myself “I won’t do it, I won’t do it,” all day long. Sometimes I even told myself: “You’re on the first floor, you’re on the first floor”–even when I was on the fifth floor! I thought I was going to have to drop out of school. But I’m doing a lot better this week.
LEADER: What’s been working?
LINDSAY: Like we talked about here, I’m telling myself: “It is possible that I could jump out the window. I might get a brain tumor that would affect my brain, and I’d go crazy, and I’d do it. It’s a one in a billion chance but it’s possible. It could happen to anyone. I have to accept that.” This lessens the anxiety–the thought just doesn’t seem as frightening.
This is a venerable approach. Whatever happens, happens has been recommended by philosophers for over two thousand years. Epictetus, a famous Greek put it this way: “We must not try to anticipate or to direct events, but merely to accept them.” Marcus Aurelius, the most celebrated of the stoic philosophers, said, “Accept everything which happens, even if it seems disagreeable.” In the twentieth century, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, as well as the highly influential clinical psychologist Albert Ellis, have both emphasized the advantage of a world view that includes whatever happens, happens.