What?! Being polite is OCD? Now that just can’t be right. That has nothing to do with being a neat freak. Yes, yes. I’m invoking the OCD stereotype. I’m doing it for a reason and that is that sometimes OCD can present itself in ways that people would not recognize as OCD. Even people who have OCD sometimes don’t initially recognize some of their symptoms as being OCD. That’s because many OCD symptoms can present in ways that are far, far away from the stereotypes people often have of OCD sufferers being neat, organized, germaphobes who go around checking that the stove is turned off. It can sometimes present in the form of one very polite and seemingly grateful individual.
I started thinking about OCD and politeness after I read Janet’s post on “OCD and Apologizing.” She wrote about how apologizing could be an OCD compulsion, a true expression of remorse, or any number of other things. Usually we think of an apology as a positive thing, but, at times, it can be something else entirely.
As I read her post, I recalled a time when Blake did something that would normally be seen as a welcome expression: he thanked people. That should be good, right? Well, imagine this. We’d go to a restaurant. The server would give him water. Blake would say, “thank you very much.” The server would give water to Michael. Blake would say, “thank you very much.” The server would give my hubby and I water. Blake would say, “thank you very much” twice more. The host would seat another family. Blake would say, “thank you very much.” Are you getting the picture? Blake incessantly thanked others, even for things that had nothing to do with him. It became maddening to me and I dreaded hearing his next “thank you very much.”
So How is Saying “Thank You” a Symptom of OCD?
I am often complimented on what a polite young man I have. I am proud of him for being appropriately polite. It is a wonderful thing to have a flight attendant, a teacher, or another parent notice that your child has good manners. Saying “thank you” for the purpose of being polite and respectful is one thing. Saying “thank you” incessantly because you fear that maybe you weren’t respectful enough, thankful enough, or kind enough is something else entirely.
And that was exactly the case for Blake. He felt like a terrible person if he missed the opportunity to say “thank you.” He became incredibly anxious if he thought he hadn’t been thankful enough. It started with just saying thank you for things for himself. That wasn’t enough for his OCD, though. It moved on to saying “thank you” for things that others did for the rest of our family, and it continued right on growing as he had to say “thank you” for any kindness that he saw being done for anyone within eyesight. He had to be constantly vigilant. He had to be ready with his “thank you’s.” That’s not politeness; that’s private torture. That is OCD.
What to Do When the Problem is “Thank You?”
My hubby and I grew weary of constantly being thanked. We felt like the most ungrateful parents in the world. Imagine explaining to other parents – or to teachers – “Our son says ‘Thank you’ too much.”
Luckily, or perhaps understandably, Blake’s therapists understood what all this thanking was about. It was scrupulosity, which, before then, I had thought was just about OCD playing itself out in religion. They explained to me that it also is about worrying that one may have committed a moral sin or violation. Blake was worried about not being perfectly moral. Therefore, he had to be perfectly thankful. What could be done about this?
Well, in keeping with the principles of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a very effective treatment for OCD, Blake needed to be in situations where he’d be tempted to say “thank you” and not be able to perform his ritual. That is, he had to let people do nice and considerate things for him without saying thank you. I remember during that time that we had assignments to go out to eat and Blake was not allowed to thank servers for anything they did for him (or for anyone else). When it was our family, in private, his exposures pushed back at OCD a little harder. Not only would he not thank us, he was directed to be un-thankful.
“I do not appreciate this,” he would say to us. Perhaps it would be, “I am not grateful that you’ve done this.”
It was actually kind of funny, and we had some fun as a family being ungrateful together. The thing is, when you can poke at OCD and find some humor in it, you can conquer it. Very soon, this OCD symptom was a thing of the past. Blake’s therapists were not completely done with him on this one, though. A person cannot go on forever not expressing thanks or gratefulness. I guess they could, but there is something to be said for being polite, and it’s not good to be a young teen who never says a thankful word. The problem was in giving him back his ritual words too soon. What if he started saying, “thank you” again and went right back into OCD mode with them?
When it came time for expressing gratitude again, the words “thank you” were banned from Blake’s vocabulary. He had to find more creative, thoughtful ways of expressing his appreciation.
“I really appreciate this.”
“That was so nice of you.”
It took a new kind of creativity to find words and ways to say, “Thank you” without actually uttering the words. Ultimately, Blake was able to go back to expressing thanks in whatever way he wanted to. The anxiety around not being perfectly thankful was gone.
In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post, yes, being polite can be a form of OCD. First, there must be some sort of intrusive or upsetting thought that a person cannot seem to be rid of that focuses on a fear of not being polite enough or good enough (or something similar). In answer to that, the person feels pressure to behave in polite ways. This is how they relieve their anxious feelings. In many cases, the initial ways of being polite won’t be enough and the person will have to keep adding more to their routine. Sadly, there isn’t true gratefulness behind this kind of politeness. It is an expression motivated by fear and discomfort, and it robs both parties of the opportunity for a real and connected exchange.