OCD can be hell, but as Winston Churchill, who reportedly had OCD, famously said, "If you’re going through hell, keep going."
Jonathan Abramowitz, a clinical psychologist and OCD researcher at the University of North Carolina, says "The advantage of having OCD, is learning how to get over OCD."
But there may also be a hidden benefit to learning to live with an manage OCD. Leaders and entrepreneurs with OCD can leverage the skills they use to manage their condition to their unique advantage in business environments. Here's how.
When people with OCD commit to keep going about life, despite having irrational thoughts and fears in their peripheral vision, this refocusing creates new grooves in their minds. "The focusing of attention away from OCD changes the wiring of the brain," says Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of the bestselling book on OCD, Brain Lock.
"People with OCD can use their perfectionism to refocus more effectively. When you practice refocusing on something constructive—pursuing your passion—it’s somewhat easier to fight off the OCD and do what you need to do," says Schwartz.
"Howard Hughes flying the airplane and becoming so interested in aviation that he became a founder of the aviation industry is an example of how you can use an activity that really interests you and take the perfectionism of OCD and focus it in a way that is productive. It’s a model for that," says Schwartz. Schwartz was a consultant on the movie the Aviator and coached actor Leonardo DiCaprio on his portrayal of Hughes’s OCD.
Unfortunately, Hughes did not pursue treatment and his OCD became increasingly disabling. For those who learn to manage their OCD, the skills they pick up along the way are immensely valuable, in life and in business.
Those who recover from OCD have practice taking action despite risk and uncertainty. "There is a reasonable degree of uncertainty that we all experience. When you have OCD, that uncertainty feels amplified," says Abramowitz.
Abramowitz referenced an example: someone with OCD who is bothered by germs touching a doorknob. People who recover from OCD accept uncertainty when they grasp a doorknob. They’re willing to take the risk that the doorknob could be coated in illness-causing germs; they use the doorknob anyway. Whatever one’s trigger, people with OCD get better by facing their fear and accepting uncertainty, over and over and over again. In time, a new mentality—that uncertainty is bearable, or even a welcome challenge—becomes part of one’s lifestyle.
"This mindset also improves ability to tolerate ambiguity," said Neil Stroul, a leadership coach and professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business. "People will be that much better in a leadership role. People will lead more effectively if they don’t get held hostage by their need for certainty."
"It’s not being paralyzed by a lack of clarity. It’s knowing you’ll move ahead anyway, and you’ll figure it out. You can manage complexity," said Kelly Ebner, leadership coach and CEO of the Nebo Company, a Washington, D.C.-based professional development consulting firm.
People with OCD have to discard a worldview where there is always something to worry about and instead look for proof that their surroundings (and most situations) are friendly. "Our emotions and how we feel are tied in large to the way we think," says Abramowitz. People with OCD must consciously decide to change their narrative about their environment. "Instead of thinking, ‘Something bad could happen, therefore the world is an anxiety-provoking place,’ it’s a new way of interpreting situations," says Abramowitz. People who leverage their OCD tell themselves a new story; they write a new, better script.
Winston Churchill was prime minster of the United Kingdom during World War II. The mantra the government encouraged British citizens to bear in mind during an era of air raids was, "Keep Calm and Carry On." Says Ebner, "That seems like Churchill’s self-talk to me." For people with OCD, "Keep calm and carry on" can be the foundation of a thriving lifestyle, where OCD is simply a nuisance guest at the party.
Liz Funk is a freelance writer and author who covers entrepreneurship, productivity, careers, and how professionals can figure out what they're passionate about. Her website is www.lizfunk.com. She blogs about life with OCD