vector image of pencils are symmetrically

Symmetry OCD

Obsessions that occur within OCD typically fall into the following categories:

  • contamination
    sex
  • responsibility for harm
    religion
  • aggression
  • symmetry and order

In this article, I shall talk about symmetry.

I read some helpful research (1) that noted, “there are many definitions of symmetry, which vary depending on context. Typically, however, symmetry refers to a characteristic feature of an object where one half appears to mirror the other half.”

The research highlighted how humans, for example, find facial symmetry as a sign of health and beauty. However, excessive or irrational concern with or preference for symmetry may also show psychopathology, which shall be the focus of this article, where the preoccupation with symmetry takes on the obsessive characteristic of OCD.

Symmetry OCD refers to a particular type of obsession where you may be preoccupied with

  • order and exactness
  • ideas that something is not arranged just right
  • need for left and right balance or
  • symmetry
    even or odd numbers

Triggers include items arranged out of order, messy handwriting, and one shoe tighter than the other.

Most people instantly understand things not set in order, but what about writing and shoes?

A person with symmetry OCD may painstakingly make sure that their handwriting is perfectly spaced, with the correct space between the letters and all the same height. Sprawly handwriting, without the due care to attention, can act as a trigger. The shoes are an example of left and right symmetry. In this example, both shoes would need to have the laces at the same tension to feel right in terms of symmetry.

What are the signs and symptoms of symmetry OCD?

You are concerned with items or actions being perfectly symmetrical.

You can think of this in terms of height and space—for example, perfectly lined objects, with all the spaces between them being the same.

These objects could be all the same height or ordered in an ascending or descending order.

Popular media often portray this obsession by showing someone with pens on their desk, displayed in perfect order, and having to adjust if someone touches them.

The obsession with symmetry can be less apparent and more like a feeling of symmetrical balance.

For example, when I was younger and stubbed my toe or did something when walking to make me aware of my foot, I had the urge to do the same to the other toe or foot for a feeling of balance.

Or if I scratched my finger on my right hand accidentily, I would intentionally do the same to the finger on my left hand to achieve balance; left right balance.

How to help yourself with symmetry obsessions

In this last part of the article, I shall discuss things you can do to help with your obsessions. If you are reading my writing, I assume you wish to get over OCD, and I shall explain some things that you can start on your own without attending therapy. All the strategies I list shall be part of either CBT, ACT or ERP and should be straightforward enough for you to try at home.

Most people I have worked with over the years want to get rid of their thoughts, but as you probably know, it is more complicated. Trying to stop the thoughts can often lead to what we (psychologists) call a rebound effect, where you continue to have the thoughts only stronger.

Rather than trying not to have the thoughts, I shall introduce you to specific ways to work with your thoughts from researched therapy models.

The key to a successful outcome in types of OCD is to tolerate distress when faced with an obsession and resist the urge to ritualise.

In other words, if the right shoelace is tighter than the left, resist the urge to repeatedly tie and untie it until it feels right. Or resist the urge to adjust an object that is out of place.

Suppose you want to be able to resist the urge to ritualise. In that case, you first have to expose yourself on purpose to your obsession to practice doing something else instead.

For many people, even the thought of doing this seems too much. However, I encourage you to start as, at the moment, you do not know how you will react or what it will feel like if you sit with the feeling of something not being just right.

See it as an experiment that you are setting up, which it is. It is a behavioural experiment. And will allow you to learn more about what symmetrical OCD means for you, how much discomfort you can tolerate, and the joy of realising that the discomfort starts dissipating.

How to set up the experiment

  1. Make a list of all of your obsessions relating to symmetry. For example, pens must be in order
    jumpers must be folded precisely and stacked neatly.
  2. Rank your list using a numbered scale to denote discomfort, where 1 means little discomfort and 10 is your maximum discomfort. For example, if a pen out of place would make you highly uneasy, you could rank this at the maximum of 10.
  3. Start with the item with the lowest score, which would cause you minor distress.
  4. Set aside some time; you can start with five minutes at first and slightly mess something up without correcting it. For example, move a pen out of place and not fix it. Instead, take note of what is happening to you. Do you feel anxious? How anxious are you on a scale of 1 to 10? Write this down. Then spend some time doing breathing exercises or mindfulness. How is your anxiety now? Write this down.

With practice, you will see that the anxiety starts to decrease, and you might be surprised to learn that it was easier than you expected.

Recap

Compulsions and rituals maintain symmetry OCD, like all forms of OCD. Suppose you can set up experiments and teach yourself to sit with the discomfort of correcting the symmetry. In that case, you are breaking the cycle of OCD.

References

  1. Symmetry symptoms in obsessive-compulsive disorder: Clinical and genetic correlates. Locher C, McGregor N, Hemmings S et al
    https://doi.org/10.1590/1516-4446-2014-1619