This was also published on The Mighty: 3 Tips for Talking to Someone About Their Misuse of ‘OCD’
This semester of college I am taking a seminar called “Teaching College Science.” Each class, we discuss a research paper about education or learning techniques. Since I am TA-ing Introductory Biology this semester, and hope to be a professor one day, I am really enjoying the class.
One week we were discussing note-taking strategies, and the most effective methods for studying from your notes. Everything was going as usual, right up until someone discussed they’re personal note-taking habits and started to say “it.” And by “it,” I mean something related to being organized and color-coordinated.
After years of hearing them together, anytime someone says this, I brace myself for what is likely coming: “I’m soooo OCD.”
“I’m so OCD” doesn’t always follow a comment about being organized, but talking about being organized usually comes before an “I’m soo OCD.” And this time it did. My classmate said, “I take notes like an OCD freak.” Now I’ve heard a lot of people misuse OCD over the years, but calling us all freaks? That’s a whole new level of offensive.
From my interactions with the girl in class, she seemed friendly. I had a hunch she didn’t say it maliciously, and probably didn’t even know it was harmful. That being said, I still didn’t feel comfortable just letting it slide. The whole class had heard it…and laughed. If I said nothing, I know I would feel uncomfortable in that classroom for the rest of the semester.
So here’s what I did: I waited the remaining 20 minutes of class, trying my best to focus, though I was understandably distracted. I was even shaking a little, I was so offended. I was also nervous about approaching her. Even though I have approached countless others, it’s still frightening. Since I couldn’t really focus on the class discussion, I instead used that time to come up with a script I would say to the girl after class.
Then, when class ended, I waited a minute or two for a few people to leave the room. It was never my goal to embarrass her. Then I walked up to her, and quietly said something along the lines of this:
“Hi, [her name.] I noticed in class you commented that you ‘take notes like an OCD freak.’ I just wanted to confront you about this because OCD is actually a serious mental illness, and doesn’t really have to do with enjoying color-coordinating. I’ve actually had to take time off from school because of it, so it’s not the joke people think it is.”
And to my great relief, she took it really well. She was receptive and understanding, and even thanked me for pointing this out to her. She said she dislikes when people misuse the names of other diseases like this, but didn’t realize she was doing this with OCD, so would try not to do it again in the future.
Over the past few years, I’ve confronted a lot of people about misusing the term “OCD.” Most of the times it went pretty well, a few times it went not so well, and then there are the rare cases, like this one, that went exceptionally well.
I’ve though a lot about what made these most successful interactions go so well, and came up with three big ideas. I wanted to share them, in the hopes that it will help others have successful conversations about the misuse of “OCD.”
How to confront someone about misusing the term “OCD”:
1. Stay calm (at least externally).
What I’ve found is the more upset and angry and frustrated I am, the less receptive the person I’m talking to is. Rather than hearing out my argument, they’re likely uncomfortable about feeling so confronted. They then get defensive saying, “It was only a joke” or “It’s not a big deal.”
Yet, if I stay calm, and make it about my personal experiences rather than what is wrong with what they said, I think there’s a better chance they’ll listen.
That being said, you can be totally freaking out on the inside. As I said, I was shaking I was so offended about the “freak” bit. But on the outside, I did my best to appear confident and collected.
Now that I’ve confronted so many people, I have a general idea of what I will say to someone prepared. In this instance in particular though, I had 20 minutes to practice the script in my head, right before I said it.
Normally we won’t have this break before we get our chance to confront someone, so I recommend pre-practicing a script in your head or out loud. That way when the time comes, you won’t have to try to put together what you’ll say in the moment. You will have practiced it already, and will be ready.
3. Make peace with the idea that not everyone will understand.
I could have the most perfectly crafted argument, and I could deliver it with exceptional confidence and calmness, and yet, I know that doesn’t guarantee every interaction will be a success.
Unfortunately, not everyone has enough background knowledge about mental health to grasp why misusing “OCD” and other mental illnesses like this is harmful. Not everyone is able to see past the stigma of mental health yet to even engage in a conversation like this. There are a vast number of reasons why even if I do my very best, that doesn’t mean everyone will understand.
And because of this, there comes a point where I have to accept that trying my best was enough. It’s easy to get frustrated that someone wasn’t receptive, and to then carry this frustration with us. But that’s just not productive or helpful to our mental health in any way.
Be proud of yourself for trying, even if it was a bumpy conversation or a raving success. You’ve at least planted the seed in their mind. Every conversation still makes a difference.