Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

I’m afraid of my pencil

By Aaron Hensley, MSW, LCSW

Oct 21, 20225 minute read

Reviewed byTaylor Newendorp

It may be OCD

If you’re worried about or afraid of using your pencil or being harmed by it, that may be a sign that you have Harm, Contamination, or Just Right OCD. OCD can come in many different shapes and sizes, and several people could have similar obsessions, but their fears come from different themes.

In Harm OCD, a person experiences obsessions or intrusive thoughts about purposely or accidentally harming themself or someone else. A person experiencing Harm OCD may fear their pencil if they have intrusive thoughts involving harm done with pencils. For example, a person with Harm OCD may fear that they will stab someone with their pencil. They could also fear tripping and falling and accidentally injuring themself with a pencil. In Harm OCD it is also common for intrusive thoughts to come in the form of images—in this case graphic thoughts about the harm that could come to themself or others involving a pencil or writing instrument. This can cause anxious thoughts to persist: What does that image mean? If I have that thought, does that make me a bad person? What if I really want to act on this thought or image?

In Contamination OCD, a person has obsessions and intrusive thoughts about germs or contamination. A person with Contamination OCD may fear their pencil because OCD has convinced them that their pencil is dirty or contaminated, especially if they have dropped it on the floor, placed it on a desk, or another person has touched it.

In Just Right OCD a person will have intrusive thoughts about things not being or feeling right, and they may feel intrusive sensations or fixations. A person with Just Right OCD may fear their pencil because of feelings they have when they hold it or use it. In Just Right OCD there is often no rhyme or reason behind intrusive fears, fixations, and sensations. A person with Just Right OCD may also fear their pencil because of how much time they spend erasing and rewriting things to make them perfect.

What if my fears are legitimate?

One of the most important things to remember about OCD intrusive thoughts is that they are ego-dystonic. Ego-dystonic is a technical way of saying that the thoughts do not align with our actual beliefs, values, intentions, goals, or personality. This often explains our reaction to intrusive thoughts and the anxiety or fear that they can produce. We fear that they may be true or may pose a real danger. This is also why people with OCD will describe feeling like they are losing themselves when experiencing OCD—they can lose trust in their own thoughts and intentions, or feel like they are living at the whim of fears that they have no control over. Let’s look at an example:

Someone with Harm OCD who fears their pencil is not actually afraid of the pencil. They are afraid of what they might do with the pencil. Ego-dystonic thoughts create those fears: “What if I lose control and stab myself with the pencil? I can never be sure that it won’t happen.” These fears would then cause the person with Harm OCD to question if these thoughts or fears mean that they actually want to harm themselves, even though they never feel that way aside from the intrusive thoughts. They continually do things to reassure themselves or insulate themselves from the fear that the thoughts bring: they ask others if they have ever expressed a desire to self-harm, they only use a pencil when others are present, or they hide their pencils and other sharp objects out of view.

It is because of the ego-dystonic nature of intrusive thoughts that we can, in confidence, say that someone with say Harm OCD is not likely to actually harm themselves or others. Their thoughts cause so much distress because they are so far from the person’s real desires or intentions, and they have difficulty tolerating any uncertainty around their fears.

How to treat OCD fears involving pencils

If fears involving pencils are causing you to suffer, you can get better. The gold standard treatment for all forms of OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP uses a two-pronged approach that targets both a person’s obsessions (intrusive thoughts, feelings, urges, or images) and their compulsions (the physical or mental behaviors they engage in to relieve distress or avoid a feared outcome). The “E” in ERP, exposure, is what we use to target a person’s obsessions. Exposures are exercises developed with a therapist trained in ERP that target obsessions directly in a controlled, safe environment. The response prevention (RP) piece of ERP is what targets a person’s compulsions, and is ultimately what allows people to get better. A therapist guides the therapy member as they resist the urge to engage in compulsions like reassurance-seeking or avoidance, and instead learn to tolerate feelings of uncertainty or anxiety around their obsessions. 

Examples of possible exposures to treat fear of pencils

Harm OCD

  • Hold a pencil near people
  • Hold the pencil with its point facing up
  • Use pencil to write “I may hurt someone with this pencil”
  • Hold pencil in a threatening manner

Contamination OCD

  • Drop the pencil on the floor, and use it without wiping it down first
  • Use the pencil after someone barrows it
  • Touch the pencil and then touch the face

Just Right OCD

  • Hold the pencil in a “wrong” way
  • Make mistakes while writing with a pencil
  • Put the pencil in the “wrong” place
  • Break the pencil tip and leave it
  • Leave eraser shavings on a page

We specialize in treating Harm OCD

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