You’ve probably heard that people with OCD clean compulsively, and are extremely neat, and orderly. This is not always the case.

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There are many pervasive myths about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). One of the most common ones is that every person with this mental health condition is extremely focused on cleaning and organizing everything around them.

But this isn’t accurate. In fact, many people with OCD are quite the opposite.

You wouldn’t realize this if you learned about the condition from movies and television shows. A classic example is a character like Adrian Monk from the television series Monk, who compulsively washes his hands, maintains symmetry, and struggles to cope with the disorder.

This portrayal of the condition might have influenced how some people sometimes trivialize it in everyday scenarios.

They might tease their ultra-neat friends as being “so OCD,” or they could refer to their own cleaning habits as OCD. Inadvertently, this distorts and dismisses the complexity of the condition’s formal symptoms.

Some people with OCD do have compulsions around cleanliness and order. However, this is not a diagnostic requirement nor the only way OCD manifests.

It’s important to acknowledge this because people living with OCD who aren’t focused on cleaning might find it difficult to look for and accept their diagnosis.

Yes, you can have OCD and be messy or untidy. Everyone’s different, so this behavior might result from the disorder or just an aspect of your personality.

As a formal diagnosis, OCD is characterized by two main symptoms: compulsions and obsessions.

Obsessions or obsessive thinking refer to intrusive, unwanted, and distressing thoughts, images, or urges.

In response to these persistent thoughts, someone with OCD feels the need to repeat certain actions to decrease the distress. This could include cleaning, arranging objects in a particular order, or repeating mantras (mentally or out loud). These would be compulsions.

If you live with OCD, you might think that following your compulsions will stop obsessive thoughts, neutralize a potential threat, or relieve anxiety.

In this case, your obsessions and compulsions might relate to cleaning or they might not.

For example, some common obsessions include:

  • fear of being contaminated by germs (called contamination OCD)
  • fear of doing something imperfectly, leading to a disastrous event
  • fear of losing items you might need
  • fears around superstitions
  • thoughts that feel immoral or bad (sometimes sexual or violent in nature)
  • thoughts that feel blasphemous (which can become scrupulosity OCD)

Common compulsions may include:

  • cleaning or washing
  • checking things excessively (such as verifying if the doors are locked or if the gas is off)
  • constantly apologizing or asking for reassurance from others
  • strictly adhering to certain superstitions
  • pacing
  • praying excessively
  • hoarding

This isn’t a complete list. There are many kinds of obsessions and compulsions, and everyone experiences OCD in their own way.

While some people may clean and organize constantly, someone else with OCD may engage in hoarding, for example. This can lead to a cluttered or seemingly disorganized environment.

For many years, hoarding disorder was classified as a type of OCD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), which is used as a guideline for diagnosing mental conditions in the United States, specifies that hoarding disorder is now considered a standalone condition.

But hoarding, as a compulsion, can also be a symptom of OCD for some people.

The impact of misconceptions and trivializing language

There are so many common misconceptions about OCD. Often, the term is used trivially.

Most of the time, OCD is conflated with cleanliness and neatness.

We refer to pedantic friends as being OCD. If we go out of our way to clean our houses, we might refer to ourselves as OCD.

Though you may not intend to belittle anyone, language matters. These expressions dismiss the complexity of OCD symptoms. They may also perpetuate the idea that OCD is only about cleanliness or wanting to be neat.

This could marginalize many people with the condition who may or may not know they have it.

For example, if you live with OCD but don’t fit into this stereotype, you might find it difficult to figure out or accept your diagnosis.

In fact, you might not identify your compulsions as compulsions in the first place. This, in turn, could lead to you not seeking or accepting help.

People with OCD who aren’t focused on cleaning might also become hesitant or frustrated if others don’t believe their diagnosis because they don’t meet the condition stereotypes.

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The symptoms of OCD vary from one person to the other.

To figure out whether you have OCD, a health professional will look at your symptoms and see whether they fit into the diagnostic criteria for the condition.

These criteria are determined by the DSM-5:

  • you experience obsessions, compulsions, or both (these can be about numerous themes)
  • obsessions and compulsions take up at least an hour of every day
  • they are significantly distressing and negatively affect your functioning and the way you see yourself and others

If you think you’re experiencing distressing thoughts or compulsions, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist, even if you don’t fit the above criteria.

Cleaning, washing hands, and organizing can indeed be a part of OCD for some people.

Contamination OCD can involve worrying about germs or sickness, feeling “dirty” physically or mentally, and having a compulsion to clean or wash items excessively.

You might also have specific washing rituals — in other words, you clean things in a specific way or for a specific number of times.

Sometimes, someone’s compulsions relate to their obsessions. For example, you have persistent thoughts about bacteria making you sick, so you clean your dishes in a certain way.

Some other times, however, there might not be a direct connection between your fears and the actions you perform to cope with them.

For example, you might have constant mental images of hurting someone or being hurt. As a response, you might pace up and down intensely to neutralize this thought.

In this sense, cleaning-related compulsions are not always based on a fear of germs.

You might have a persistent thought about hurting someone. Your corresponding compulsion may be to wash your hands or clean your house.

Another form of OCD that’s often represented in popular culture is a focus on orderliness and symmetry.

If someone is particular about the positions of items on a desk or in their home, it might just be that they’re meticulous, but it might also be that it’s a compulsion. Only they and a mental health professional can determine this.

You might have a compulsion to create order and symmetry without having a related obsession. You might think, “If I line up everything neatly on my table, I won’t fall ill later,” or “If I don’t have the exact same number of cushions on every couch, I’ll get into an accident later.”

In the same way, you could have these thoughts, but your compulsion is about moving your hands in a certain way for a specific number of times.

Everyone is different, and this includes those who live with mental health conditions, including OCD.

Everybody experiences OCD differently. For some people, it might involve compulsions that relate to cleaning, order, and symmetry. For others, it can look totally different.

In this sense, it’s possible to have OCD and be messy or have what may be considered a regular approach to cleaning.

If you have OCD or suspect you have OCD, it’s highly advisable to seek professional support, preferably from someone who has experience treating OCD or similar conditions.