Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be tricky. So tricky, in fact, that it is not always easy to figure out if you or someone you care about even has the disorder. Some symptoms of OCD might not seem like symptoms of anything at all. For example, at least a year before I knew my son Dan had OCD, he stopped choosing which clothes to wear in the morning. “Just pick out anything for me; I don’t care what,” he’d say.

While I thought this behavior was a little odd for a teenager, it never once crossed my mind that Dan was consciously avoiding making decisions. I now know that this is not an uncommon symptom of OCD. If Dan didn’t have to decide what to wear, or what movie to go to with friends, or give his opinion on anything, then he would not be responsible for anything bad that might happen as a result of his decision. While intellectually Dan knew his thinking made no sense, there was always that doubt, another mainstay of OCD. “What if I wear my blue shirt and then someone I love dies?”

Reassurance seeking, such as asking “Are you sure everything is okay?” is a common compulsion in OCD. As a matter of fact, when Dan entered a residential treatment program, cell phone use was discouraged because so many clients would continually call home for reassurance.

I told Dan’s social worker that he never asked for reassurance, and that was true. But what he did do was routinely apologize for things most people would never apologize for. For example, he’d say, “I’m sorry I spent so much money at the supermarket,” (when he actually hadn’t). I’d response with “You didn’t spend that much; you have to eat.”

Now it is easy for me to see that Dan’s apologies were forms of reassurance seeking, compulsions done to make sure everything would be okay. My responses to him were classic enabling. As was often the case, I thought this odd compulsion was unique to Dan’s OCD only to hear from many others with the disorder who had the same symptoms: excessive, unreasonable apologizing.

But those with OCD are not the only ones who have issues with apologizing. In this post the author talks about six kinds of apologizing and what he feels they mean. The gist of what he says is that people apologize for all sorts of reasons, such as to alleviate their own guilt, to appease others, or to just be polite. Still others apologize because they are forced to do so. For example, a parent might say, “Apologize to your sister” to one of their children, but it is easy to recognize this doesn’t necessarily mean the child is actually sorry. The only apology that is a real apology, according to the author, is what he calls “apologizing from love.” He describes this type of apologizing in detail, but to summarize, it is a genuine apology.

So why all this talk about apologizing? Well, I think it’s important to try to understand what is actually going on when we apologize, and then we can hopefully figure out if we are dealing with an OCD compulsion, a genuine expression of remorse, or something completely different.

What makes something like apologizing so complicated in terms of OCD is that it is something we all typically do, so it might be harder to recognize it as a compulsion. For example, if a person with OCD turns his car around multiple times to make sure he hasn’t hit anyone, it is obvious to many that this is a compulsion. It is not typical behavior. If a young girl has to turn her light switch on and off fifty times at night or else “something bad will happen,” this too is an obvious compulsion. But apologizing? Most of us do it, and even if we apologize excessively, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have OCD.

When I finally realized Dan’s apologizing was a compulsion, I was able to stop enabling him by not reassuring him; there was a little less fuel for OCD’s fire. Once again it comes back to the fact that the more we understand about all aspects of OCD, the better equipped we will be to fight it.

Apology image available from Shutterstock