Cancel culture and OCD
Many people diagnosed with OCD have a fear of being “canceled,” or publicly ostracized for negative behavior. They fear that something they have said or done will be made public or come back from the past to “haunt” them.
Today many people feel social pressure and responsibility more than ever before. Social media and online environments can be valuable for people’s activities and connections, but they can also add higher levels of fear and anxiety to people’s daily lives. One extreme form of online social pressure is commonly referred to as “canceling,” when social pressure is used to change someone’s reputation or ostracize them from communities due to unacceptable behavior.
People with Responsibility OCD may experience recurrent fears about being “canceled” for something they did in the past, something they could do in the future, or based on false accusations. Their fear may also be based in another OCD theme known as Real Event OCD, in which they doubt details or events from the past, worrying that they may misremember important things.
A fear of being canceled may also exist in other themes of OCD, as well. A person with OCD will have unwanted and intrusive thoughts or images that relate to their fears and will feel compelled to engage in compulsions to avoid or reduce the fear that they will be canceled. As a result, a person with particularly taboo intrusive thoughts may be afraid to share their OCD experiences out of fear that people will judge them, or even that their OCD fears could lead to their “cancelation.” For instance, a daycare provider who struggles with Pedophilia OCD (POCD) will fear people finding out because they fear it could cause job loss or distrust among clientele. Let’s look at a case example to get a better idea of OCD that focuses on a fear of being canceled:
Rachel is a 45 year old teacher and mother of 4. Her 18 year old son is transgender and has been transitioning since 15. Rachel considers herself an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and regularly volunteers at the local Pride center and is celebrated among her colleagues in the school system for her advocacy on behalf LGBTQ+ youth.
Rachel was diagnosed with Postpartum OCD after the birth of her first child. Doing Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy was helpful and she has been largely free of OCD symptoms for about 10 years, but recently a new obsession, focused on the fear of being canceled, has started to cause distress.
Rachel worries that things she said about the LGBTQ+ population when she was a teenager will now somehow be made public and that her reputation will be ruined. As a teen, Rachel held different views about LGBTQ+ issues, and remembers engaging in private discussions with others, during which she said things she now deeply regrets. These memories return to Rachel as intrusive thoughts, causing her to worry that someone she spoke to as a teen will see her on social media and call her out as a fraud.
When those intrusive memories return, Rachel feels that she must remember every detail and ensure that no one could have any reason to publicize them. She tries to recall exactly what she said and who was present. She frequently checks the social media accounts of the people she knew as a teen to ensure that they aren’t making any posts about her.
Rachel has started to lose sleep over this. She struggles more and more with the shame she feels about her comments and views when she was a teenager. She feels it’s only a matter of time before she is publicly humiliated and worries she will have to leave her teaching position, or worse, get fired.
Common obsessions experienced by people with a fear of being canceled in Responsibility OCD are:
- Something said or did in the past will be made public and come back to “haunt” me, even if I don’t remember it.
- I need to check all of my social media posts to be sure I have never said anything offensive.
- What if one of my Facebook friends posts something awful? What if I’m canceled for being one of their Facebook friends?
- I am going to be exposed as a fraud or hypocrite.
- Something will come out about me that will cause public shame or humiliation.
- If people learn about my intrusive thoughts, I’ll be canceled.
People with a fear of being canceled in Responsibility OCD can be triggered by many things. Triggers are specific situations, objects, people, or thoughts that provoke obsessive fears. With a fear of being canceled, a person fears that they are always at risk of public humiliation and shame. They fear that being canceled will cause irreversible damage to their life and reputation.
Triggers for people with a fear of being canceled include:
- Memories of things one has said in the past
- Memories of poor behavior one may have engaged in at some point in their life
- Seeing other people publicly exposed
- Intrusive thoughts that are shameful or disturbing
- Social media posts about controversial topics
- Listening to a friend share views one finds immoral or shameful
- Sharing an OCD theme with someone
- Worries that one’s confidentiality may have been broken
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD focused on a fear of being canceled and not anxiety, cautiousness, or stress?
Somebody who struggles with a fear of being canceled can use several criteria to help determine if they have OCD. You can ask yourself the following questions:
Are you experiencing obsessions, or intrusive and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images related to the fear of being canceled?
Do you feel a strong urge to engage in compulsions, or mental or physical behaviors in an attempt to escape, reduce, eliminate, avoid, or neutralize your fear and anxiety?
Do obsessions and compulsions cause a significant amount of distress?
How much time do the obsessions and compulsions take? Do your obsessions and compulsions take more than one hour per day?
Do your repeated obsessions and compulsions interfere in your daily functioning?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you may be struggling with OCD, and it’s important to speak with a qualified OCD therapist for a proper diagnosis.
When people with a fear of being canceled in Responsibility OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions in an attempt to suppress, ignore, or “solve” their obsessions. These scary thoughts cause a great deal of fear, leading to an urge to repeat rituals, seek reassurance, avoid certain situations, check, and research to make themselves feel better. However, engaging in compulsions will only make the OCD cycle stronger over time, reinforcing the belief that obsessions pose a real danger.
Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people suffering from Responsibility OCD with a focus on fear of being canceled include:
- Checking social media accounts to feel safe about the content of one’s posts
- Monitoring one’s connections on social media
- Seeking reassurance from family or friends about past situations and what was said
- Rumination about what was said in conversation
- Severing connections with people one fears might say inflammatory or offensive things
- Avoiding people or places that one fears could cause controversy
- Avoiding sharing intrusive thoughts that feel taboo or disgraceful
- Disguising appointments for counseling as something else
- Googling one’s name to be sure nothing negative appears
- Avoiding social media entirely
How to treat OCD fears of being canceled
Responsibility OCD involving a fear of being canceled can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained therapist, there is hope for reduction of symptoms.
ERP is the gold standard treatment for all subtypes of OCD and has been shown to be highly effective. A therapist with specialty training in OCD will work with you to build a hierarchy of your fears, then build exercises called exposures to target these fears. The exposure hierarchy allows for graduated exposure to fear and anxiety, all while resisting the urge to engage in compulsions for relief.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of being canceled in Responsibility OCD might include:
- Writing a script about being canceled and reading it out loud
- Visiting websites that are against your values or views without deleting your search history
- Reading articles about other people who have been canceled
- Recording yourself saying something against your beliefs on your phone
- Telling someone about your taboo intrusive thoughts