The idea of The Clean Slate is a rule that many sufferers of OCD and anxiety follow. It essentially says “You cannot move forward and enjoy your life until you relieve yourself of this anxiety, guilt, or distress and have nothing left on your mind that needs attending to.” You can think of The Clean Slate as a form of perfectionism. The sufferer feels their conscious (slate) must be completely cleared of any baggage before being able to enjoy something or proceed forward in life. In other words, the sufferer's slate needs to be “wiped clean.”
The clean slate leads us to believe that we can only move forward and live life once the slate has been completely cleaned. Items are cleared from our slate via compulsions (confession, reassurance, checking, etc.) There tends to be only a handful of items on the slate at any given time. Once the items are cleared from the slate the sufferer may feel the relief of finally having a clean slate, only to realize a short amount of time later that there are one or more items back on the slate. Now, those items must be cleared from the slate! The sufferer is in a perpetual state of wiping and re-wiping the slate clean, yet never being able to keep it clean long enough; as if trying to stop sweating by wiping the sweat off your face but continuing to run. Something (OCD) tells the sufferer that once he gets this last thing off the slate it will finally be clean and he can move on (which is a lie because there is always something else to take its place). The clean slate is essentially a false promise or illusion put forth by OCD, anxiety, and intolerance to uncertainty.
Below is an example of The Clean Slate in someone with OCD or anxiety:
Kat is afraid she may have flirted with the cashier at the grocery store because she smiled when the cashier said “have a nice day.” Kat is in a committed relationship and questions that her smile may have constituted her cheating on her partner. She feels a great deal of guilt because of this. Kat confesses her action and concern to her partner and feels relief as her slate is now clean. A day passes and then she recalls a past event when she “checked someone out” on her college campus. She can’t remember if this happened while she was in her current relationship or not. The uncertainty and guilt are eating away at her and she ends up confessing this to her partner as well. Kat can’t keep herself from confessing because she feels that her current relationship may be based on a lie of omission and therefore not be an honest relationship. Kat thinks "If my partner knew what I did then we might break up. If the state of our relationship comes down to whether or not I confess this, how am I supposed to enjoy the meal we are having now?!" Kat has remembered a past event that is troubling, confessed it, moved on briefly, only to repeat the cycle again, and again… and again.
The Clean slate is not an idea only people with anxiety or OCD buy into; many people who don’t consider themselves to have OCD or anxiety buy into it as well. Here is an example of a person not considered to have OCD or anxiety abiding by the rule of the clean slate:
Rob chooses to finish some paperwork at the office before leaving on vacation. This paperwork has no real deadline and doesn't need to get done prior to leaving. Rob, however, chooses to finish it because he doesn't want anything "hanging over his head” while on vacation. He feels the slight stress caused by knowing he would have to get the work done when he returns may interfere with his ability to enjoy his trip, so he finishes his paperwork, leaves on vacation, and enjoys his trip. A new item doesn’t appear on his slate shortly after finishing the paperwork at the office. He may remember on his flight to Hawaii that he forgot to do one other thing, but he’s able to say “Eh, I’m on vacation, I’ll get to it when I get back.”
How to work with The Clean Slate
It can feel stressful to have your email inbox piling up with emails faster than you can respond to them. It may feel like if you don’t address each email as it comes that you’ll fall too far behind and won’t be able to catch up. There might be some cases where this is true, however, in the case of anxiety, these emails only FEEL like they need to be replied to. Remember, OCD and anxiety makes us think that we have to keep a clean slate at all times. It’s great when our slate actually feels clean, but experience usually shows us that this is temporary and short-lived.
So what do we do?
Imagine an employee of a donut shop taking and fulfilling orders. The boss of this donut shop is mean, demanding, and doesn’t help out at all. It’s a busy Monday morning and people want their coffee and donuts. The employee is working as fast as possible (trying to keep her slate clean) except the line only becomes longer. The employee is becoming more and more stressed. She takes care of one customer only to have another one take his place. She realizes working this way isn’t sustainable and decides to take a break. The line continues to build and the customers grow angry. The boss starts yelling at her to "Get out there and serve the customers!" The employee is becoming even more stressed and considers going back out there and trying to get the line cleared up, but she holds out a bit longer. Customers are banging on the counter, her boss is yelling, but she doesn’t give in. In fact, she decides to quit the job. With no one to serve them, the customers begin to realize that they aren’t going to get their coffee and donuts and eventually go to another donut shop.
Ok, that may not be the greatest example, but I hope the point is clear. We need to let our obsessions accumulate. What!?!? I know, I know. It sounds scary. Remember, the mind is good at working with one or two things at a time. As long as you use this approach with OCD, the mind will attend to whatever obsessions it is presented with. If we let the obsessions accumulate, they typically diminish in time.
If you’ve played Tetris you know how stressful it can be trying to organize all the pieces as the ceiling comes closing down on you. That’s what it’s like when we try to tackle our obsessions as they arise. Rather, we need to stop playing Tetris altogether, let the pieces build and hit the ceiling, and let the game end.
*The clean slate can exist in countless forms and is only limited by the vastness of the mind.