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OCD and Healthy vs. Unhealthy Doubt

OCD and healthy vs. unhealthy doubtWhen my son Dan was dealing with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, I would often watch over him like a hawk, taking note of all of his behaviors. Was this OCD? Was that OCD? Wait, maybe that’s normal behavior? I spent a lot of time trying to analyze all his actions. I finally realized my intense involvement in his life was doing us both more harm than good, and with some effort I was able to let go and just trust my son, who was working hard on fighting his OCD.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time is that sometimes those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder aren’t sure themselves if their thoughts and behaviors are related to their disorder. Because sufferers often have such insight into their OCD, I just assumed they knew when what they were thinking or how they were acting was OCD-based. However, from reading blogs and connecting with people, I realize this isn’t always the case. So how do we know if certain feelings or actions are related to OCD?

In his book When in Doubt, Make Belief, author Jeff Bell discusses healthy (intellect-based) doubt vs. unhealthy (fear-based) doubt. While theoretically it might be easy to distinguish between the two, Bell, by using an example of a man deciding whether to cross a busy New York street, shows us how complicated it can be. As he says, “…the same fear-based doubt that can distort our thinking is also quite adept at masquerading as intellect-based doubt.” (Bell, page 9).

In his book, Bell talks about the five questions he asks himself to help determine the source of his doubt:

  1. Does this doubt evoke far more anxiety than either curiosity or prudent caution?
  2. Does this doubt pose a series of increasingly distressing “what if” questions?
  3. Does this doubt rely on logic-defying or black-and-white assumptions?
  4. Does this doubt prompt a strong urge to act — or avoid acting — in a fashion others might perceive as excessive, in order to reduce the anxiety it creates?
  5. Would you be embarrassed or frightened to explain your “what if” questions to a police officer or work supervisor?

I think these questions are spot-on, and even though I don’t have OCD, I often refer to them when I go into one of my “what-if” modes. I especially like numbers four and five, as I believe that most of the time, deep down, those with OCD do know when their worries are irrational. They might just need to stop for a minute, step outside of their minds, and evaluate the situation. A little perspective can do wonders.

If you have OCD, and even if you don’t, why not give these questions a try when you find that your doubts are leading to intense worrying? If you find you answer “yes” to these questions, there’s a strong chance you are dealing with unhealthy doubt fueled by fear.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and the more those with OCD are aware of how their disorder operates, the better position they’ll be in to fight it. Of course, a competent therapist can go a long way toward helping us sort out healthy doubt from unhealthy doubt. Once the difference is obvious to those who are struggling with this sneaky disorder, OCD doesn’t stand a chance.


OCD and Healthy vs. Unhealthy Doubt

Janet Singer

Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder. Janet, who uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy, is the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, published in January 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Her own blog,, has reached readers in 167 countries. She is married with three children and resides in New England.

APA Reference
Singer, J. (2016). OCD and Healthy vs. Unhealthy Doubt. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Jul 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Jul 2016
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