A Ulysses Pact for OCD: Staying Committed to your Values Amid Second Thoughts and Difficult Emotions
Lane Brooke Fahy, PsyD
Neuroscience shows us that we make decisions based on both emotional and logical reasoning, and this is a good thing.1 We make better decisions this way. The problem in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is that you, the sufferer, rely too much on your emotions to make decisions when triggered. Since most people with OCD have insight, you probably understand on some level that your obsessions and compulsions are illogical or unreasonable, and you experience a disconnect between what you know to be logical and true and what you feel. When you are triggered, how you feel overrides any ounce of logic you might have. The disconnect between what you understand intellectually and what you feel and do is one very painful aspect of the disorder. It can lead to confusion, difficulty making decisions, and feelings of shame and guilt.
Fortunately, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), the treatment for OCD, helps you bridge the gap between what you know to be true on a cognitive level and what you feel emotionally. Simply put, ERP involves allowing, and often inviting, yourself to be triggered by whatever it is that makes you uncomfortable or anxious and then allowing the discomfort to exist or pass without doing anything to alleviate or avoid the discomfort. It involves confronting your worst fears without doing anything to make yourself feel better. Over time and with repeated exposure, your brain learns that triggers previously associated with danger are not, in fact, dangerous. A sense of safety develops as what you feel emotionally becomes more in line with what you know to be true intellectually.
The implementation of ERP often involves a good bit of nuance, though the basic premise of ERP is simple. It is simple, but far from easy. In the middle of a triggering situation, resisting the compulsions that your brain is telling you to do feels incredibly risky and irresponsible. So how do you stick with exposure when it feels so wrong?
I would like to share an idea, one that my therapist shared with me, and which I have found useful to keep in mind when obsessive, inflexible thinking starts to overwhelm my more reasoned self. It comes from Homer’s ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, which recounts the story of Ulysses, a war hero travelling by sea. During his journey, Ulysses is warned ahead of time that he will be travelling through an area in which many seafarers before him crashed their boats into rocks and died, lured away by sirens into dangerous rocky areas. Sirens were creatures with beautiful voices whose songs were so alluring that sailors could not resist veering off into the rocks to get near them. Since Ulysses knew that he would be just as tempted as those who went before him, he followed through with a plan to keep himself and his men on course: Ulysses’ men tied him to the mast of the ship and put beeswax in their own ears. As the crew steered the ship past the sirens, Ulysses cried out to be untied, but his men did not hear him, and Ulysses and his crew made it safely past an area where they might otherwise have perished.
Nowadays, a “Ulysses contract” is a commitment that a person makes with their future self, a decision to follow through with a particular plan or action despite future temptations which will be difficult to resist.2 I encourage you to think about what your own Ulysses pact might be. When you are triggered and anxious, obsessive thoughts will make compulsions seem necessary and difficult to resist. But you can decide ahead of time what you are going to do when you are triggered. You could make a plan for a specific circumstance or exposure, such as deciding ahead of time what compulsions you are not going to do in response to an upcoming triggering situation. Or, you can join me in what I have found useful: make a Ulysses pact with yourself about how you are generally going to respond to triggers. I know what my triggers are (though they sure can still surprise me!), and I also know what I value and what the non-OCD part of me has decided I want to do in order to live my life and do what I care about. When I am overwhelmed by anxiety, I find it helpful to remind myself of my commitment to live without “knowing for sure.” At any fork in the road, I won’t feel 100% certain that whatever choice I make is the correct one, and in the moment, I may feel strongly that I might be making a huge mistake with the potential to ruin my life. But that’s the thing about a Ulysses pact – it helps you stay the course even when you have second thoughts. After all, those second thoughts are sirens in your head, and you have chosen to forge ahead, no matter how tempting the sirens are.
1Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin Books.
2For an interesting discussion of Ulysses contracts, and the “team of rivals” that exists in the brain, see Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain. Pantheon Books.