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OCD and the Dizziness of Freedom

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher living in the early to mid-1800s. He had presented an interesting idea which reminded me of OCD, specifically themes that involve morality and harm. In Kierkegaard's 1844 works The Concept of Anxiety, he tells the story of a man standing on the edge of a tall building. When this man peers over the edge he experiences a fear of falling yet at the same time an impulse [thought/image] to jump. At this point, the man begins to feel dizzy [anxious]. Dizziness is a common symptom of anxiety, and anxiety is a common symptom for those who have acrophobia or a fear of heights. Having a fear of heights while being exposed to heights generally results in anxiety, dizziness, panic, [insert uncomfortable feeling here]. What is it exactly that caused this man to be anxious and dizzy? In short, it is the realization that he could fall. But it is not only this realization that causes his anxiety, it is the realization that he has the power of choice and is capable of voluntarily jumping. This ability to choose is his freedom, and truly acknowledging our freedom and capability (especially if we have OCD) can be difficult to accept. Our ability to imagine opens pandora's box of possibilities. As we all know too well, probability generally doesn't hold enough weight to trump possibility.

Now let us look at the above story with a twist. Suppose the man was standing blindfolded on top of a tall building but was told he was on a sidewalk. Unable to recognize he is on a tall building does he still become anxious? As Kierkegaard wrote:

He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when […]  freedom looks down into its own possibility […]. Freedom succumbs to dizziness.

The above scenario is a good example of the age-old saying ignorance is bliss. Never realizing we could actually jump from a high building is much more comforting than acknowledging it is a possibility. For many of us with harm related obsessions, we fear whether or not we will do or think a horrible thing. Or perhaps even fear whether or not we want or have a desire to do or think such things. These "things" can range from cheating and lying, all the way to murder and pedophilia. The frightening truth for those of us with OCD is that we do have the capability to do and think such things. Where we get stuck is in the idea of possibility. If jumping from a building is as simple as taking a step, then being a pedophile may be as simple as holding our gaze too long at a child. Or being a murderer-in-the-making may be as simple as enjoying a murder mystery show. We can spend hours looking at all the ways in which our fear isn't justified based on that which points to the contrary, but if this truly worked we would be able to move past our fear using thinking alone. With OCD, there is always a "yea, but..."

A helpful idea here is acknowledging we live with all sorts of possibilities every day whether we are aware of them or not. We could get in a car accident, it could be our fault, we could be robbed, we could get a terminal illness, the list goes on ad infinitum. One of two things generally happens here, we either develop new fears to obsess over or nothing because whatever the possibility maybe is not a focus of our OCD. For example, take the avid surfer who is in the ocean daily and could get attacked by a shark yet fears burning the house down in an electrical fire by leaving appliances plugged in.

If we take a look, it is clear that we generally hold ourselves to a double-standard. "This only applies to me" or "Yea but [this] makes me more at risk". We won't be able to think our way out of OCD, but we can act our way through it. Taking the action and living with the risk and uncertainty is the hard part. The best our logical brain can do for us is help guide us towards not doing what our feelings suggest, which is usually to compulse or avoid.

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