When you think of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you might think of Hercule Poirot, Sheldon Cooper, or Monk: interesting characters whose disorder makes them good at their jobs and more than a little bit eccentric. These media portrayals of mental illness are often funny and are sometimes even glamorized, making OCD seem like nothing more than a cool quirk. But in reality, life with OCD is tough. I’d know: I have OCD. Editing is tough too. I’d also know: I’m an editor. When you put editing and OCD together, you get one tough job. But, if you can learn how to accept and make peace with your OCD, to live with it in a way that serves you in your daily work, you can use it to become an even better editor.
So how do we do that? That’s what we’re discussing in this article. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what OCD really is.
Let’s start with what OCD is not. OCD is not as simple as having quirks, preferences, or routine habits, like checking that your door is locked when you leave your apartment or wanting all your pens to be organized on your desk. But sometimes people reference OCD when they have these kinds of routines or quirks saying things like, “I’m so OCD.” I’m sure that before I knew had I had OCD, I probably said those kinds of things too. In reality though, OCD is a challenging anxiety disorder.
As OCD UK says on its “What’s not OCD!” page (last checked June 5, 2018), “When people use the terms ‘obsessive’ and ‘compulsive’ incorrectly, it leads to misunderstanding about OCD and belittles and trivialises the true suffering that the disorder can bring. As the internet and social networking websites have become more widely used, there has been an ever-increasing trend for people to refer to themselves as being a ‘bit OCD’. However, these obsessive or compulsive quirks, that last a brief moment and rarely cause distress or any anxiety do not warrant the label or a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which can actually leave a person debilitated for hours at a time.”
And that’s really the key difference between having everyday, general anxiety and an anxiety disorder like OCD. If you had OCD and you checked your door before leaving your apartment, the routine might look a little different from just checking it once. You might check the door 20 or 30 times. And then you’d step away to leave and think, “But is it really locked? I’ll check one more time.” And then you’d check it five more times. You might even get out of your apartment building, but you’d still be thinking about whether the door was locked, regardless of how many times you’d checked it. Then you’d go back inside, check the door again, and try to leave again, only to get caught in another round of checking 20 or 30 times, or however many times it takes to make you “feel” like the door is really locked.
Do you see the stress spiral that I’m describing there? That’s indicative of OCD. OCD makes people prisoners in their own minds. On a more clinical note, on its “What is OCD?” page, the International OCD Foundation defines OCD as: “A mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life, and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.”
Regarding the door-checking example: if you’re checking your door like that, you might have an obsession that the door is unlocked, so you have a compulsion to check the door. And checking is just one potential manifestation of OCD. Some other common obsessions are fear of contamination, wanting things to be in perfect order, and fear of hurting yourself or others even if you have no intention of doing so. The common theme between all these obsessions is that the thoughts about these things cause distress and then you take certain actions (i.e., compulsions) to try to relieve that stress.
I’ve been living with severe OCD for several years. There have been ups and downs with my OCD, and one of the challenging ways that OCD affected my life was in my editing. My OCD symptoms were especially difficult because, as an editor, you’re already expected to have such a high level of detail. With OCD, this attention to detail is very heightened, and I felt even more pressure to make sure everything was “perfect.” You may have experienced similar symptoms, even if you don’t have OCD, especially if you’ve had a stressful period at work or in your life, in general. For me, some of my editing-specific symptoms were:
All of these symptoms were specific to my OCD, but I wanted to talk about them because even if you don’t have OCD, you may have experienced similar issues as an editor, albeit to a lesser degree. As editors, we have so many different kinds of stressors related to our work: we have tight deadlines, we work with difficult writers (or maybe even other editors), we may not receive clear messages on what type of editing people need, clients may have unrealistic expectations of an edited piece, and we might even be juggling multiple editorial styles. Editing is tough, so it makes sense that we’d be stressed.
When you’re feeling stressed, you may find yourself exhibiting some symptoms that are similar to what a person with OCD experiences. You might be more perfectionistic; you may be more likely to see editorial issues as black and white; it can be hard to focus, so you might feel the need to check your edits more than once; you might notice all the things you’re supposed to edit and get overwhelmed by how much you need to do, and so on.
At healthy levels, these same behaviors can be good things! For perfectionism: if you know when to let things go, then your attention to detail is valuable and not a hindrance. If you sometimes see editorial issues as black and white: well, sometimes you need to see editorial choices that way because you’re expected to make a call. If you can keep a flexible mindset while also being able to make solid editorial calls, that’s really valuable. If you feel the need to check your edits more than once: checking your work, in a healthy amount, is a good quality-control measure. If you notice EVERYTHING: that may be a burden at times, but it’s also super awesome! If you take it one edit at a time, one page at a time, then you’ll be less likely to be overwhelmed, and you’ll catch a lot of great stuff.
With that in mind: that we can use some of those “weaknesses” as our strengths if we keep them in check, the question is how do we do that? How do we keep our anxiety at a healthy level so that we can be the best editors and the healthiest humans we can be?
There are a few general concepts that I think can help us:
In my experience, one of the most important parts of keeping anxiety at a healthy level is acceptance. One of the hardest things about having OCD is not necessarily the intrusive thoughts (going back to the door-checking example: the thought that the door is unlocked)—it’s the distress that you feel because of the intrusive thoughts. And it’s the same way about stress, in general. How many times have you been stressed because you’re stressed, and then that makes you more stressed, and then you stress about that, on and on. It’s a vicious cycle!
But, if we can stop that cycle in its tracks and reset our line of thinking by accepting the situation, this can go a long way in helping our anxiety, and, in turn, helping us be better editors. When you’re anxious, see if you can adopt a mentality of “I’m feeling anxious about this project right now. I don’t know if I can finish editing this document in time for my deadline. I’m really anxious about this.” And then take it one step further and think, “And that’s OK.” That practice goes so far.
It’s so easy to look ahead at things we need to get done in the future or to ruminate on something that happened in the past—maybe an editorial call that backfired or an error that you made in a manuscript. But if you can stay focused on what’s happening right now in this moment, life becomes much less overwhelming. Mindfulness can help us do that. Made of Millions, a nonprofit that promotes a more positive perception of mental health, describes mindfulness saying, “Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on present moments in a nonjudgemental way. It is an exercise in self-awareness and self-acceptance. Being mindful means that you notice what’s going on around and within you, and learn to accept it.”
Now this is probably the most obvious thing I could talk about, but it’s so important, and it’s so easy to get out of balance. My therapist has always told me that there are three areas that are most important to focus on for your overall health: getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating right. Wellness starts with these three things. Obviously there are other more detailed aspects of health, but if you can keep these three areas of your life in balance, then you’re well on your way to living a healthy, happy life and managing stress, whether it’s stress related to editing, or life in general.
Regarding a support system: professional help (e.g., therapy) can be incredibly beneficial, and I also think it’s important to develop a personal support system in your life outside of professional help. Your support system may be your spouse or partner, or maybe it’s another family member or a close friend. Whoever your support system is, it’s important to have one. A strong support system can support your mental health and help you be the person you want to be overall, including being a fantastic editor.
Now that we’ve talked about a few key concepts for being healthy, let’s talk about some practical tips that you can use in your everyday life, specifically when editing, to try to stay healthy and deal with anxiety.
These are just a few items, but they’re simple examples of facts you can look at to convince yourself: “Hey, I’m a good worker. I do great work. I’m awesome.” And stop worrying.
As editors, we’re no strangers to stress, but our stress doesn’t have to own us. If you can learn to accept anxiety as part of your life and manage it through mindfulness, a healthy lifestyle, and a strong support system, your anxious tendencies can be turned into strengths and make you an even stronger editor.