OCD & Superstitions: Understanding The Difference

The only pre-game snack I had was a banana. It was a cool, gray, and windy evening in July 2013, up north in rocky Newfoundland. The championship basketball game at the Canadian Nationals for U15 Women was minutes away.

Player Practicing A Free Throw OCD & SuperstitionsI was Team Ontario’s starting shooting guard, and I’d been playing okay all tournament. The caramel hardwood creaked in the old gym at Memorial University, trimmed with chipped red paint. The crowd crashed in waves, drowning out other sounds. My laces looped around my fingers to tighten each shoe, showering my nose hair with vinegar as I bent over them (I’d forgotten to air them out the night before). There wasn’t anything different about this game compared to others, but it changed the trajectory of my career. The only difference was that I ate a banana right before I stepped onto the court.

We won, and I played the best basketball of my life to that date, earning MVP. I went on to play for Team Canada the following summer, and Stanford University a few years later.

Was it the banana? Perhaps, and I continued to eat bananas before games with the hope that they might help me out.

A quote from The Alchemist has stuck with me since I first read the book many years ago:

"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

I’ve found hopeful, spiritual comfort in believing that this might be true — that we may be energetically connected with something bigger than ourselves. Not everything is a coincidence. Seeing meaning and engaging in openness to opportunities that may present themselves reinforces the strength of our spirit. (This is often the third wheel in ‘mind-body-connection’ conversations.)

What are superstitions?

Oxford Language defines superstition as “a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.”

When I first read this, it sounded eerily similar to OCD. But there’s a key difference.

baseball, sports and man throwing a ball during a professional game on a field with a team OCD & SuperstitionsBoth OCD and superstitions could be considered flavors of coping strategies. They spawn from a need to control the world around us. But there is a difference between seeking and waiving control. Personally, my superstitions felt like relinquishing it, lifting the barbell off my shoulders and onto someone else’s.

My superstitions are more deeply connected to my values. Often, they are performed in hopes of positive outcomes, rather than to prevent negative ones. Not doing them didn’t/doesn’t cause me distress. Eating a banana before every basketball game gave me a little pep in my step (or lay-up, I guess?). But my ability to function was not impaired if I ate an apple instead. I knew that eating more bananas did not decrease my chances of performing poorly.

Superstitions can also be tied to genuine beliefs. Meanwhile, folks living with OCD often know that their thoughts and behaviors aren’t logical. They don’t believe them (this is called insight). It’s critical to note that our anxieties and fears frequently defy logic. They don’t need to make sense to cause us harmful torment. Belief and behavior are not always causally linked.

The OCD experience

My OCD obsessions and compulsions were/are a very different breed of experience: fear of risking that an irreversible catastrophe might happen, and perhaps even further, fear of missing an opportunity to prevent it. Nearly every time, I don’t believe anything will happen, but I’m still afraid to risk that it might. Succeeding obsessions and compulsions provide temporary relief and reassurance, but that’s the catch, of course. There is very little in our lives that we can be 100% sure about. And thus the spiral begins.

I used to sum up my teammates’ jersey numbers (on the basketball court during practice and games) to relieve anxiety that I wouldn’t perform well enough if I didn’t. I did the same thing with food, due to the fear that I might not eat enough carbohydrates or protein to perform adequately. This caused me to gain weight and fall into a cycle of binge eating, guilt, shame, and fasting.

To this day, I reschedule meetings (often) to relieve anxiety about conversations and speaking. I’m afraid that my inability to have “perfectly crafted” conversations will cause irreversible harm to the person I’m speaking with. I schedule-send nearly every email to the next “perfect” number on the clock (I’m writing this at 1:51 pm, so would schedule it to send at 1:55 pm) — rather than just clicking send.

Without that buffer, I’m afraid that I won’t have time to realize or notice a dangerously wrong message that I’ve written. For longer or more important emails, I often schedule them hours away or for the next day.

These behaviors temporarily relieve my anxiety. But they are misaligned with my values. They are tied to an irrational, feared outcome and sense of responsibility. They are unwanted and intrusive, seeking to prevent versus encourage.

Key questions

So, when I get myself in a knot about the difference between superstitions and OCD (more of an Eldredge knot for those of us who experience both), I ask myself a few key questions.

  • Are relationships and functioning impacted (disrupted or impaired)?
  • Do they cause distress or take over?
  • What is my anxiety level? How is my ability to allow thoughts to be present without inducing behavior?
Black male runner about to start a race.
Thomas Smalley Stretching an Athlete
Soccer players kicking a ball