The fear of harming others can be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a neurobiological condition that is associated with repetitive, intrusive, distressing thoughts that can’t easily be dismissed.
Fear of Harming Other People On Purpose
Some aggressive obsessions involve the fear of harming others intentionally. In my last post about the fear of hurting other people on purpose, I identified several specific examples of harm obsessions. These included the fear of losing control and murdering your child, the fear of stabbing a loved one, and a variety of other fears involving violent, murderous, or criminal acts. In some of these examples, anger was a trigger for OCD obsessions.
Fear of Harming Other People By Accident
Other harm obsessions involve the fear of causing accidental harm, usually through negligence or carelessness. Individuals with these fears often feel that if they notice a situation that might be dangerous or harmful, they are morally obligated to act “responsibly” in order to avert potential danger.
Many years ago, I treated a student who would carefully remove all sticks, rocks, and other assorted debris from the sidewalks and hallways leading to and from his classes. He felt that if he noticed a rock that could potentially cause someone to trip and fall and did not move it out of the way, he would be responsible if someone got hurt. This was further complicated by the fact that the floors in the student’s school were very scuffed and worn, and it was hard to tell the difference between scuffs and actual debris. Because of this, he felt compelled to kick each scuff just to make sure that it wasn’t really a stick or rock. Before treatment, on good days, the process of walking to class took many minutes. On rough days, it could take hours…causing him to be late or miss class entirely.
For this individual, and for many other people with OCD who fear harming others through negligence, an inflated sense of responsibility leads one to take excessive precautions and to be conscientious to the point of sacrificing one’s own welfare. For some people, failing to prevent harm can feel almost as bad as causing that harm directly.
Other situations where people worry about causing harm through negligence include the following…
Fear of Accidentally Hurting Other People (Examples)
- Fear of insufficiently cleaning dishes, pots and pans, baby bottles, toys, or cooking/cleaning surfaces, which might result in illness or death.
- Fear of accidentally contaminating food with chemicals or poisonous materials.
- Fear of leaving your car unlocked and having a young child climb inside and get trapped, causing death or injury.
- Fear of leaving household doors or windows unlocked, which might result in violent crime against a family member.
- Situations involving turning off stoves, unplugging items with electrical cords, and other checking-related fears.
- Fear that someone might slip and fall on the bathroom floor if it’s not completely dry.
- Fear that someone might trip over items left on the ground – clothing, uneven rugs, towels, etc.
- Fear that items might shift or become dislodged from shelves/closets, resulting in items falling on or crushing family members.
- Fear that leaving electric razors, curling irons, electric toothbrushes, etc. plugged in might result in accidental electrocution.
- Fear of having potentially dangerous items in the household in case someone might get hurt–knives, firearms, chemicals, etc.
- Fear that someone else might commit a violent crime using one of your possessions.
- Fear that someone might choke on food you’ve prepared.
- Fears related to hit and run OCD (e.g., hitting pedestrians while turning right on red, backing up, driving in outer lanes).
Fear of Hurting Other People: Compulsions/Rituals
As with all forms of OCD, the fear of hurting other people through carelessness is strengthened by avoidance and compulsive behaviors (rituals). Compulsions include:
- Removing debris from sidewalks, stairways, rooms, hallways, or other public walkways.
- Excessively cleaning items in the kitchen.
- Checking inside the oven, microwave, washing machine, or clothes dryer.
- Listening intently for sounds of someone who has been injured or is trapped.
- Monitoring the news (TV, radio, internet) to make sure that someone hasn’t been injured or killed in locations you’ve visited.
- Revisiting locations to make sure that nothing bad has happened.
- Reminding other people to “be careful” and providing repeated warnings about potential danger.
- Repeatedly calling, texting, or contacting others to make sure they’re okay.
- Trying to convince yourself that you’ve been 100% responsible and that nothing bad will happen.
- Reviewing your memory to make sure that you’ve been thorough.
- Asking other people for reassurance that everything is going to turn out okay.
- Praying rituals designed to keep bad things from happening.
- Checking items for stability, including tapping, shaking, and repositioning.
- Repeatedly drying bathroom, bathtub, and shower floors.
- Driving-related rituals.
It’s important to note that an inflated sense of responsibility can be “deflated” through active efforts on your part.
This is neither simple nor easy, but it’s a critical component of taking your life back from OCD.
Basic knowledge about how OCD works can be helpful in this regard. Knowing how compulsions are related to obsessions, that efforts to not feel anxious today can paradoxically lead to greater anxiety tomorrow…is essential information. It’s also important to become aware of the various mental traps to which our minds are susceptible — jumping to conclusions, emotional reasoning, mind reading, mental filtering of information, over-generalization, as well as a variety of other cognitive distortions…
Unfortunately, knowledge alone isn’t sufficient for freeing yourself from OCD’s clutches. You must also back up this knowledge with your behaviors.
As your behaviors shift and begin to challenge OCD-based beliefs, you will inevitably experience some doubt, guilt, and fear in the process of recovery. However, this temporary spike in fear and doubt is an investment in your future. When these emotions are activated intentionally as part of a healthy recovery plan, you gain something in return: mastery and control over OCD.
OCD tells you that you can never be too diligent, careful, or thorough. It tells you that you must do everything in your power to prevent harm to other people.
It’s easy to embrace these statements. They seem obvious and self-evident. After all, who wouldn’t want to avoid harming other people?
However, if you can learn to look behind the seeming appeal of these statements, you’ll notice that there actually are some good reasons to give up efforts to be “perfectly responsible.”
Most importantly, what has it been like trying to live up to these ideals? Has it worked?
Your experience tells you that no matter what you do, OCD is never satisfied. It always demands more. Whatever preventative action was sufficient to please OCD in the past is now completely insufficient for getting OCD off your back. Rituals that you used to perform one time only are now rituals that you must perform at least ten times. Somewhere along the way you’ve fallen into the habit of using your emotions as a metric to tell you how many times you need to do something.
OCD treatment involves recalibrating your belief system and creating experiences to teach the emotional part of your brain what the logical part of your brain already knows. Recovering from the fear of harming others doesn’t mean that you have to promote harm or actively endanger people, it just means that you have to work on disentangling yourself from the OCD parts of your behavior. It means embracing the philosophy of doing things in a way that is “good enough” rather than “perfect”.
Recovery from the fear of accidentally harming others involves learning to live less responsibly…and learning to be okay with that.
Questions? Comments? Struggling with the fear of hurting others through carelessness or negligence? Sound off below.
“However, this temporary spike in fear and doubt is an investment in your future.” I love this comment in reference to undergoing treatment for OCD.
Great post, and as you say, so much goes back to the issue of hyper-responsibility.
What a truly great article. I love your explanations at the end of what is needed to overcome this hyper-responsibility. For me, it has been harder to overcome the fear of harming others than it has been to overcome the contamination issues I struggle with. It just seems like the stakes are so large. If someone gets hurt, there is no going back. However, you are right – living like this has not worked for me. Thankfully, I have made some strides in this area.
I’m glad you’ve made some strides, Sunny! Exposures involving anxiety are bad enough…exposures involving fear, guilt, and responsibility can be especially difficult. Keep working, and you’ll get there.
Great article Steven, I have experienced pretty much everyone of those types of OCD, always amazes me when you think ” This obsession is weird not even other poeple with OCD will have this”, only to find out that it is very common. I have had it all, water on floor, objects falling, driving etc etc, one which you didn’t mention (although it is covered under contamination) is the fear of contractng AIDS or believing you already have it and will pass it on, this forms a huge part of my OCD,
That’s so true, Flossie. Thanks for pointing that out. Many additional symptoms may involve accidentally spreading illness, disease, or unwanted characteristics.
Great article!!! But I would like to ask you.. Is OCD only when you think you can harm people(just a thought)..or even if you think you have done it in some way..for example is that OCD when I suffer because I really think I caused death to someone; that was many years ago, and my memory is unreliable..how can I live with this guilt?? Congrats for all your posts, are very helpful!!!!
OCD can also involve getting stuck on analyzing the past, such as in the hit-and-run example you described previously.
Thank you for your article!
I have had the fear of hurting people for a while, but not quite in the ways you talked about. It’s more…indirectly I guess. For example, if I like a status of someone who has cancer, I think “what if this causes them to die?” then I usually think something like “it won’t hurt them.”
I’ve had similar situations while trying to help suicidal people. It’s scary, and last night I was like, I wish I could go back to how I was a while ago..I was better at giving advice and stuff and I didn’t think violent thoughts..
It sounds like you’re having superstitious obsessions associated with specific feared outcomes. Because you can’t control the obsessions (i.e., they’re intrusive and spontaneous), you have to work on desensitizing yourself to them as well as resisting the reassurance rituals.
I have found this comforting – its so accurate re my situation- it could have been written with me in mind – I don’t like the thought of anyone out there suffering with this – but at least I feel less alone – having read this!
Hello! I am a Romanian citizen, and I confronted this problem almost 2 years and a half ago. I went to a psychiatrist and for more than 2 years I took Zyprexa. I had this fear of not hurting the ones around me, eg. my parents,my friends…but, I have noticed throughout this period that I sometimes still have this fear.At the moment I live in Italy, and I intened to go back to Romania and I noticed that my fear tends to appear.
I really need a piece of advice! I feel that this fear is connected to my going back home, because in Italy it seemed not having it as long as I lived here.
It all began with a piece of news that I was listening on TV that scared me alot, it was about a woman who stabbed her boyfriend while he was asleep. Nothing happened to me during the afternoon, but when I went to sleep I began to tremble and a thought came to my mind: I began to fear about the fact that I could hurt someone close to me.From that moment, I coudn’t sleep anymore, I couldn’t eat. Do you consider I might need the help of a specialist again?
Best regards, Raluca-Ioana!
I have been having these thoughts since I was 10 year old, I’m 45 now , it’s been with me since then , fear of hurting others , where the worst for me,
Then I started working on myself , when these thoughts would come , I would not fight it even thou the fear , anxiety, fast heart beat, and all other feelings would be so strong , I would. Tell myself : You know you can’t hurt anyone. , you know your a kind loving person that feels the pains of others, then I would trust myself that me hurting other is just a FEAR OF HAVING THIS HORRIBLE FEAR COME BACK , that’s it. It’s not hurting people That I fear. I fear the thoughts them self because thes thoughts will make me fear again , a bit like: oh no , the thought of hurting is back , now am just waiting for the fear. ,to paralize me again , all this is happening I less than two seconds , so you don’t realize it’s the fear your panicking about , you think it’s the thought of hurting , but it’s the fear itself that make you panick , And that is because I am hyper responsible, I have had these fears for 35 years ,
I have never hurt anyone , SO. START TO TRUST YOURSELF ! Speak to yourself. , look at the good points in yourself , judge yourself as a human. Not as a perfect machine , accept that you don’t have to be the best, or to succeed in every things , understand that your fears comes from you being super sensitive. To others suffering , a great sage. Once said : this world is like a narrow bridge , don’t scare yourself. , he did not say. DON’T BE SCARED. He said. Don’t scare yourself , it’s the source of our troubles
, if your scared of hurting other , then you’ll be the last to do it, cause it proves your heart is at the right place , it proves you care about others
I have been suffering for about 2 years now from these exact same issues. I constantly feel afraid that I have hurt people in my past and that I may hurt someone in the future. It honestly makes you feel like you should get locked up in order to protect the people around you. I had these same issues when I was younger and now they resurfaced in my early 20’s. I have so much to be thankful for and every reason to be happy, but these thoughts are so intrusive that they ruin my life. I just wanted to thank everyone for posting their comments because it helps me to know that I’m not a freak and that I’m not the terrible person that I often feel that I am. I am currently seeing a psychologist, but if anyone knows any techniques that helped them please let me know. I mostly fear that I have hurt others in past situations, usually due to some kind of negligence on my part.
Psychotherapy and Zoloft is very efficient, it will help u a lot, but first u have to ask ur psychiatrist, not psychologist, the psychiatrist can suggest u the special treatment u need!
Best regards, Raluca!
Wow, this piece of writing is fastidious, my sister is analyzing these kinds of things, therefore I
am going to convey her.
My name is Rebecca. I am 33 years old and I live in Martins
I thought I was the only one who has these fears, nice to know I’m not alone and there are ways to overcome them.
I am so glad I found this page, I thought I was alone. I am not sure that I really fall in the OCD category, but I am tormented by the thought that I almost accidentally killed people. Long story short, years ago, I forgot to turn off the gas when I left my apartment for a whole week end. I was lucky enough that nothing happened and that no one was hurt, but I can’t shake off the fear and the guilt of being so careless. I know that I did not mean to hurt anyone, and that no one was hurt, but I can’t forgive myself and I keep having obsessive thoughts about the event.
This was the kind of OCD I suffered from. What helped was not logic (I’m kind of surprised to see you using logic here…I didn’t find it possible to think my way out of this). What worked for me was a combination of exposure therapy and medication. But I love how you describe the symptoms so perfectly here.
Thank you so so much for this page. I’m a young teen with EXTREME anxiety to the point that I’ve been on medication for it since I was 7 years old. Being able to read and relate with others helped me so much, and I’m very greatful for that. Thanks!!!
Thanks for reading! 🙂
I feel so lost at the moment. I have harm ocd towards my 6 year old son. I’m afraid I’ll act on it but I love him. This is absolutely terrifying. I need some help. I had it about 3 years ago but it went away, now it’s bsck with vengeance. Please contact me
This type of OCD can feel overwhelming, but it does respond to treatment — particularly ERP and mindfulness-based strategies. If you haven’t already, it might be helpful to meet up with a local therapist who can guide you in this process.
I currently am experiencing Harm OCD and have been diagnosed Zoloft/attend therapy weekly. It started with hit and run OCD. Now I have found a way to not drive it was becoming too much for me. I have learned though no matter what I do I cannot escape these thoughts. If I walk anywhere I picture myself somehow hurting a child. If I ride a bike I will get a similar image. It is very intrusive and causes me great distress each day.
I am now trying to combat the compulsions because they do not solve the problem but only add to the pile. However, it is almost like my anxiety is worse now. I imagine this is part of the healing process? Should I start by ignoring all compulsions or is it best to take baby steps. I have been trying my best to do baby steps but I am stubborn. I go this is one I can ignore.
It is unbelievable to me that everywhere I go without 0 evidence that I believe I leave a swath of destruction behind me. It is quite debilitating.
Thanks for your articles. It made me feel not alone on this issue.