Teddy pumped the sanitizer bottle for the second time in three minutes. “I know, I know, it doesn’t help when I haven’t touched anything else, but I want to be sure. You never know these days, right?” Freda waits to enter gatherings and meetings until everyone else has shown up- “It just helps me know I won’t run the risk of embarrassing myself.” Hassan skips driving over tall bridges. “Maybe it adds time to my commute, but I once heard of a bridge that collapsed, so you never can be too careful.”
Clinically, Safety Behaviors (aka “False Safety Behaviors”) are “unnecessary actions taken to prevent, escape from, or reduce the severity of a perceived threat” (APA PsycNet, 2020). Pursuing safety in a healthy context is valuable and will keep you alive- this is why work sites have a key motto: “Safety First.” However, notice the word “unnecessary” in the definition of a safety behavior.
If you feel fatigued, are a procrastinator, overwhelmed, anxious all the time, or just "stressed out," safety behaviors may be at play. When people start to have problems with my opening examples, they may still think that their behaviors aren't necessary to consider or aren't harmful in any way. I know! It's really tricky to differentiate at times, especially when many things we do, depending on context, can be helpful OR harmful. But imagine if there's 1,000 little examples in a day of double-checking, reassurance seeking, second-guessing- every extra second spent, movement taken, or second-guess made leads to extra stress, processing, and/or energy. When a person has a disorder like Generalized Anxiety, PTSD, Specific Phobia, Social Anxiety, and more (in OCD call them by a different term: compulsions), safety behaviors must be addressed for robust recovery.
We can categorize safety behaviors into several different types.
Any of the above might be healthy for any one person. It must be functionally assessed (what is the function of a behavior or thought?) to determine if it’s helpful or pathological (disordered). Using sanitizer after touching doors in a pandemic looks different than outside the pandemic. Checking in on your Amazon order status with an important order may help you plan your day. Having a baby monitor you look at for fun or in case of emergency can offer flexibility and safety. But for every positive example of these, there's an example that feeds fear: compulsive sanitizer use, online checking, or obsessive fear about a baby's health. You have the opportunity to evaluate your own head and heart (and may I suggest having some help with friends in the know, a therapist, a mentor).
Let's take Social Anxiety Disorder. Jenny learned to "cope" with her social fears starting in adolescence by just saying she was shy when around people. She would avoid gatherings where she had to interact with people she didn't know well, get her family to talk for her, and always carried her phone in case she needed to put in ear buds and look down. When she got to college she began to realize that events and activities she wanted to do felt really difficult. Making friends was a substantial challenge and led to shame and anger at herself and others. She couldn't place her finger on it, but felt embarrassed when talking with others and would often feel hot, her face became flush, and she would slip on her words. Her answer was to avoid and go back to her dorm to listen to music, quickly feeling better. She would later replay interactions in her mind and would run multiple mental scenarios before any social interaction. Jenny didn't realize that these were avoidance, distraction, and mental rumination/checking. They are safety behaviors, and they made her anxiety worse- much worse.
In therapy, your history will be gathered and rapport ideally built with your counselor. People who come to see me are so often relieved they're not alone, crazy, weird, or bad for struggling. How treatment goes depends on the person and their condition being treated, but transdiagnostically, when safety behaviors impair or limit a person, well want to do three key things:
Here's a personal example of how I've integrated this CBT work into my own life. I have the actual ability to speak and teach in public, write articles, and provide quality therapy. At any given time, I have had/do have various triggers to fear. For example, I gave a talk that was highly rated by all attendees (5 stars by 95%). One person literally stood up and started openly disagreeing during the talk over one quote (from an evidence based source) I had shared. I still don't know what the problem was, because it was ultimately inconsequential to the big picture, but something apparently 'hit a nerve.' Though I was still friendly with the person came redirected to talk afterwards (they didn't take me up on the offer), I unfortunately let this impact me for a bit, avoiding talks for about 9 months after, ruminating on what I did wrong and could have done better, and scanning groups of people in case my "heckler" was ever there again. I was living in fear and giving into safety behaviors.
I had always expected my nerves would calm down a bit after giving talks for 5-10 years. But unfortunately, I hadn't yet integrated CBT work in safety behaviors into my life, and so my stress remained stagnant, though I did engage in my goals (which involves public speaking). At the almost 15 year mark of giving talks, I now work on cutting out rumination at times I don't need to be thinking (going to bed, in the bathroom before a presentation, etc.), saying yes to any talk that's within my goals and expertise, and so forth. And the result is striking. My most recent presentation I gave had me observing to my wife, "Hey babe, this is really cool- I had a couple hours this morning where I didn't even think about it!" Nor was I very stressed. This takes time and growth.
You don't require a clinical diagnosis to grasp the value and benefit of catching and releasing safety behaviors. In fact, there's so much potential for the tools that almost anyone can benefit from them, whether you want to learn to work quicker, be more gentle with yourself, increase your processing speed and/or general "bandwidth" of stress tolerance.
In Conclusion. So in our world (especially the Western world) where safety is everything, go ahead and take a pause and evaluate some of your thoughts and behaviors. Ask for feedback from someone you respect (or find someone who can speak honestly to you). Do you have any limits in any sphere of life from checking, reassurance, safety aids, avoidance, or mental maneuvers? Do people say you're "tightly wound," perfectionistic, demanding, or unrealistic? Are you overly cautious? Are most people around you doing things you'd like to do but just can't? Go find the ways you "play it safe" but don't need to, and your life will be better for it.
APA PsycNet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-52029-002
Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: exposure to corrective information. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 20–35.
Blakey, S. M., Abramowitz, J. S., Buchholz, J. L., Jessup, S. C., Jacoby, R. J., Reuman, L., & Pentel, K. Z. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of the judicious use of safety behaviors during exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Korte, K. J., Norr, A. M., & Schmidt, N. B. (2018). Targeting Safety Behaviors in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: A Case Study of False Safety Behavior Elimination Treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 71(1), 9-20. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20180001
Riccardi, C. J., Korte, K. J., & Schmidt, N. B. (2017). False safety behavior elimination therapy: A randomized study of a brief individual transdiagnostic treatment for anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 46, 35–45.
Salkovskis, P. M., Clark, D. M., Hackmann, A., Wells, A., & Gelder, M. G. (1999). An experimental investigation of the role of safety-seeking behaviors in the maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37, 559–574.
Schmidt, N. B., Buckner, J. D., Pusser, A., Woolaway-Bickel, K., & Preston, J. L. (2012). Randomized control trial of False Safety Behavior Elimination Therapy (F-SET): A unified cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety psychopathology. Behavior Therapy, 43, 518–532.
Telch, M. J., PhD. (n.d.). False Safety Behaviors: Their Role in Pathological Fear. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://labs.la.utexas.edu/telch/files/2015/08/Safety-Behavior-Handout-latest-8.1.15-1.pdf
Wells, A., Clark, D. M., Salkovskis, P., Ludgate, J., Hackmann, A., & Gelder, M. (1995). Social phobia: the role of in-situation safety behaviors in maintaining anxiety and negative beliefs. Behavior Therapy, 26, 153–161.
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
If you have obsessions on this topic, please set some boundaries up front as to how you will engage in this content, which can be distressing and triggering especially for those dealing with scrupulosity. You may easily worsen your fear if you allow yourself to obsess on the content or perform rituals surrounding it.
The unforgivable/unpardonable sin (also called the eternal sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit) can induce some level of fear for even the most convinced of Christians. To the person who gets stuck on the concept, such as in OCD, Generalized Anxiety, and/or scrupulosity, misery would not be too strong of a word to describe it. Personally, I suffered for several years in my childhood and for passing days in my adulthood with questioning my salvation- so I understand a lot of this on a personal and professional level. So what exactly are we talking about when we say “the unforgivable sin?”
What is the Unforgivable Sin?
Can there be a sin so terrible, horrendous and vile that it leads straight to hell without the option to ask forgiveness? Can this sin be accidental? Is it stated verbally, or through one’s thoughts, or confirmed by actions? Here are the 3 occurrences found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), describing the unforgivable sin:
What does it mean? I would like to offer you a simple explanation and definition that alleviates all fears. But I can’t, literally- I don’t have it. That would be pretty arrogant of me if revered church theologians since the time of Christ still lack a simple explanation. If you’re a super nerd like me, you may find it interesting to know that Martin Luther, John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin (lots of guys named John, right?), and more have all had slightly different takes.
Summarizing 4 key perspectives on what the unforgivable sin is:
Context of the unforgivable sin.
For the sake of brevity and the fact that there are a wealth of commentaries and studies that explore this topic, let me just say that we must look at the whole of Scriptures if we are to take Scripture seriously. A major problem in modern day interpretation lies in “sound bites” and quick references that disregard context. Rule #1: know your context. Context is something you will be unable to get or see if you are LOCKED up in fear. Fear narrows focus. Its purpose, when functional, is to place our focus to a pinpoint so we can appropriately respond. If you have a disorder involving fear, you likely get stuck on a whole host of topics (or one major one) that requires re-learning that those without disorders take for granted.
For those of you looking simply for more knowledge on defining the topic, feel free to check out the great resources I’ve provided at the end to dig into the Scripture passages above, look at original languages and the context, audience of the passage, and so forth.
A remarkable reality is that there is no example in all of Scripture wherein a person who asks God's forgiveness doesn't receive it (which is a large support as to the views espoused in the resources, namely that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit must be a person who has decisively turned against God and rejects the opportunity to be forgiven). There are of course temporary consequences to sin and poor decisions (e.g., Moses not getting to see the Promised Land, David losing a child, Martha missing out on Jesus' presence, Peter feeling intense feelings and shame about denying Christ, etc.).
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
If you suffer with the thought of the unforgivable sin and scrupulosity (like many saints throughout history), you'll need different tools to respond- rather than living in fear. 4 suggestions:
Many of you have come to this article to get "the answer" (to feel “just right” or get reassurance). The harder and necessary task of faith may be to discover how to not obsess or feed your fear (which is not God's desire for you, see "Fear Not"). If you came here today with a lack of information, then by all means go to the links below explaining some perspectives on what the unforgivable sin is. But if you're like me at times in my life, or like the clients I see daily in therapy who can get stuck on verses like these, I prayerfully ask that our Lord would grant you strength to sit with difficult Bible passages without reacting out of fear- whatever that looks like today for you, my friend.
For more information:
R.C. Sproul: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-unpardonable-sin/
John Piper: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-unforgivable-sin
David Jeremiah: https://www.crosswalk.com/slideshows/10-things-you-need-to-know-unforgivable-sin.html
The Guide above is provided entirely for free to newsletter subscribers.
One of my first questions to a professor in my earliest IOCDF BTTI (Exposure Therapy training) at Massachusetts General Hospital was, “What happens if someone actually gets sick after a contamination exposure?” I haven’t forgotten the simplicity of the answer that went something like this: “People get sick all the time. Yes, that might create some additional hesitancy to face exposures at first, but you have an incredible opportunity for learning.” Life involves not only facing bad things that don't happen, but also bad things that do.
Exposure Therapy involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. In the end, it can relieve a lot of suffering.
During this global pandemic of COVID-19, people actually are getting sick. One might not think the principles of exposure therapy would apply (i.e., "Don't you do exposure therapy for risks that don't happen?"). Quite the contrary. I believe exposure therapy provides one of the best evidence-based ways forward, helping us stand up to fear we need to squarely face. So today, whether you have a disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19.
This guide, "Thriving Mental Health Alongside COVID-19," is dedicated to my clients and the IOCDF and provides a thorough summary of the main steps of Exposure Therapy with me, with key tips for general mental health. May you be enriched by this!
Whether you have a mental disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Now, more than ever, we need stable footing to stand on. People go to every extreme. You don't have to. Mental health is about being grounded in reality, insomuch as we can grasp it.
Getting sick will happen. Yes, people die. Relationships break up and fail. Businesses go under. We might get it wrong. However...many people can experience health. Some people live with purpose and to the full (which is not the same as perfect). Relationships can be incredible. Businesses can thrive. We can get things right.
When I utilize the method of Exposure Therapy in counseling (a subset of Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), it involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. It is Gold Standard treatment for OCD & Phobias, and is a first line treatment for all Anxiety Disorders and PTSD. What we think happens is that relearning occurs, which for most increases confidence and decreases disruption in life when they follow the treatment. Exposure, then, gives us two opportunities:
2. To learn we can face it anyway.
Its principles connect us to some of the best of life: face the thing you have reason to face; gain the opportunity to live more fully.
This guide is a very brief summary of the main points of the exposure therapy process with me, particularly with clients who have OCD and Anxiety. Many of my clients actually are faring better in this crisis than people I have talked to and seen in the general public- and why wouldn't they?! They've been training and learning- and now it's game-time.
Click "Read More" for a Summary
Thanks to Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash for this beauty!
Perfectionism and OCD
What is perfectionism? Oxford dictionary defines it as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” That’s automatically problematic. Perfectionism leads to a circumscribed focus, stress, and suffering for not only individuals, but for loved ones nearby who feel the weight of being perfect.
Is this the same as OCD? Nope. OCD and perfectionism often get confused. They both can affect and drive distress in one another, but they are separate. OCD involves unwanted (intrusive) thoughts, urges, and impulses that cause distress; furthermore, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that attempt to reduce distress or prevent something bad from happening. Perfectionistic manifestations of OCD, often referred to as “just right / not just right” fit this categorization. Separately, in Perfectionism, someone pursues “perfect” thought, behavior, or action initially out of interest or enjoyment (rather than to suppress an intrusive thought/urge/impulse, like in OCD). There are typically problems that go with this, however. So a difference between the two is that OCD is ego-dystonic and Perfectionism is typically ego-syntonic (you can check out my video here explaining the difference).
Examples of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors[4,5]:
I am a "recovering" perfectionist. And it’s a problem when I’m not, well, “recovering” from it. One of the mechanisms that keeps perfectionism going is the belief that it is helpful (this is a “Positive Belief” about perfectionism, and it is a cognitive distortion). When I succeed at a task- and especially if I get a lot of praise, it is a natural reinforcer that I must be doing well. However, if I spent 8 hours researching, writing, and proofing this blog today, that is problematic for me at this point in life (and I easily can spend that much time). What is a problem or not sometimes depends on the person and their situation- maybe a journalist would spend that much time or even more, but I am a full-time clinician with a family, church, volunteer involvements, and hobbies. If I make this post “perfect,” in my perfectionism, I will seriously miss out on other things.
This pursuit of perfection doesn't stop with one blog post. It will always generalize if allowed. So if I let it, the pressure of perfection will continue (and does, at times) to move on to other things like caring for my home, caring for people in my life, my relationship with others, my diet, exercise, my spiritual walk, my car, money, and so on. And being honest with you, these things are tied up in anxiety and simultaneously selfishness- attempting to control these things rather than to engage with them/others in a meaningful way by learning to lean into the fear and live based on what is valuable.
Parenting is probably the single biggest event that pressed me with the realization I need really challenge my perfectionism. There are two stark realities to me in life: I can either do my work/relationships/home life/etc. “perfectly” and end up in an ever narrowing scope of anxious overwhelm trying to keep all the balls in the air, OR learn to tolerate the distress that comes doing things "not just right" and focus on the big picture, growing towards what I love and value. And the reality usually is that in time, this fear habituates when not engaging in avoidance, rituals, or control strategies.
Whether in therapy or personal life, to change how I behave and think and respond in life, I need to be aware/monitor what it is that needs to change (good therapy, support, and resources such as on my website can help). Even if I know what needs to be done, if I can’t effectively observe and catch it when it occurs, I will not be able to change it. Next, I will need tools and strategies to effectively grow and mature. In therapy, some of these are Exposure Therapy, Cognitive Restructuring, and more. In essence, at the point of the problem I must be able to insert the solution- and consistently. Lastly, I want to continue to monitor and gain feedback to incorporate learning and solidify growth. I don’t want to oversimplify this- if you are having a problem with any of the areas I have discussed, please reach out to a competent trusted person and/or therapist.
Today I gave myself the time limit of 3 hours- start to finish- to research, write, upload and post. And it’s simultaneously stressful and joyous at the same time. I’m going to do a behavioral experiment and keep doing it- “testing” whether or not my choice(s) in leaning into my fear of failure a) doesn’t end up as bad as it feels like it will, and/or b) I was able to handle or face it anyway. We’ll have to see- I'm leaning in!!!
Justin K. Hughes
 First of all, it’s a whole mess to even get into a truly perfect standard- if I make and continue to make mistakes, I am not perfect. I cannot even begin to conceive what perfect is, then, since I would make a mistake in defining “perfect.”
 The Diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) may apply when a person pursues perfectionistic behavior to pathologically disordered levels.
 Grayson, J. (2014). Freedom from obsessive-compulsive disorder: a personalized recovery program for living with uncertainty. New York: Berkley Books.
 Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2015). Happiness is a choice: enhance joy and meaning in your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller
I don’t want to live my life being overly cautious, but rather appropriately cautious.
We are discovering in the research of anxiety disorders, OCD, and now depressive disorders, that possessing an Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU) is a common construct linked with higher anxiety and life disruption.
What is IU?
My favorite definition: “Belief that uncertainty, newness, and change are intolerable because they are potentially dangerous” (Steketee et. al 2005, p. 125). IU links threat with uncertainty.
But is uncertainty a threat? Take a moment and ponder one of your favorite memories. What did it involve? Was there any risk? Any vulnerability? Any chance of failure? Most of the best life stories I hear are of those that involve, well, all of these things.
A person who cannot tolerate not knowing actually misses out. How? Isn’t knowledge power?
What happens is this: the more control a person must have, the less control a person has. The more certainty that is sought, the more narrowly circumscribed life becomes. Quick examples:
Want to know how you handle uncertainty? Take the free IUS-12 assessment here. [Go to "Read More" below to find out how to score the assessment.]
Let’s be clear: everyone is uncomfortable with some uncertainty. And reasonable protection from risks is part of being wise- which can also be subjective. But the more you necessitate that certainty must exist, the following is more likely to happen:
In the research on IU, there are also two subset strategies identified: Prospective anxiety (desire for predictability) and Inhibitory anxiety (uncertainty paralysis) (Fourtounas et. al 2016).
If you struggle with any of these, the next questions is this: How do I live with uncertainty and anxiety, while also taking suitable precautions?
The solution is fairly straightforward, but not easy.
Once a problem area has been identified (along with what is reasonable, normative, or within your values), gradually and consistently gain ground by pressing into your fear without using a false reassurance strategy that reinforces the false threat of uncertainty.
In therapy, one of the most powerful tools that exists to deal with uncertainty is what we call Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This is the single most effective tool in treating OCD, and it is very valuable in other disorders. The reasons it usually has to be done in therapy are several:
I personally love Exposure because it helps me face life with a “bring-it-on” attitude rather than a “stumble-through-best-I-can.” ERP in therapy is very specific, very structured, and very powerful. However, even the person who is not in therapy can benefit from its principles:
“Some men storm imaginary Alps all their lives, and die in the foothills cursing difficulties which do not exist.” ~Edgar Watson Howe
So what uncertainty are you not letting yourself live with? When is ‘not knowing’ unacceptable to you? Uncertainty is not the problem. It is unrealistic to be 100% certain about most everything in life. Life has few certificates of guarantee, and those are only as good as what is backing them. Ready to face your uncertainty?
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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