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.