Friday, August 20, 2010

Email and the OCD Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing

I must be getting old...

Email was like a miracle. I went to graduate school in 1993, and one of the perks was an email address. Since making phone calls filled me with dread, email was like getting released from jail, or pardoned. I loved its asynchronous nature whereby I could send a message and the other person would read it without my having to witness it, or respond to it in real time, and vice versa, when I received an email I could spend as much time as I needed to get my response right.

Of course, my OCD loved email, because I could delay actions that caused me great anxiety, like spontaneous speaking, but slowly I began to realize that email had its own set of anxieties. Email didn't erase my compulsion to making sure I didn't say the wrong thing, and most likely strengthened my fear of making a mistake. Writing email consumed a lot of time, because the using the "Send" command began to feel full of trepidation. Once I sent my email, I couldn't take it back. Pieces of messages would pop into my head, as I retraced all the nuances. I dreaded this reconstructive process, because it aggravated all my fears of saying something wrong, every time I listened to my own message in my head.

Responding to email was exhausting. The written word has a permanent quality, an inflexibility, especially in email where there isn't tone of voice(I certainly didn't know anything about "smileys") or facial expression, and I interpreted emails as if they were a holy text. What does this mean? What should I say in response? Will this correspondent think ill of me? But I chose email to communicate 90% of the time(7% consisted of real paper mail, which in a pre-computer era, involved lots of rewriting, and discarding whole pages if I made a mistake in expression, and the other 3% was on the phone under duress).

I chose email even when I started to realize that in some cases I would save a lot of agonizing by calling the person, but even though I could see that the email would turn into a convoluted dance of "Did I say the write thing? Have they gotten it yet? Why aren't they responding? I really need to know the answer to this question. Am I going to have to call, and then they will think I'm weird for emailing and then calling?" I started fearing opening my email, because of anticipating negative responses to my messages, and the longer I left a message unopened, the worse the anxiety became, until I assumed that it must be dangerous to open my emails, or why would I be so scared?

One of the exposures I did in OCD therapy was opening messages right away, especially ones that I was afraid of. I gritted my teeth the whole time, but I'd seen how my anxiety escalated the longer I waited. I also practiced writing "inadequate" responses--short, quick, unrehearsed. Which, actually is what email is--somewhere between formal letters and phone calls. I'm never going to be a person who enjoys talking on the phone(unlike my friend J. who enjoys phone calls so much that even if calling was less efficient than looking up info on a website, would still call, just to talk to people), and like Miss Manners I do agree that the phone ringing is not a "command" to pick it up--I can decide when to take calls--but I need to keep an eye on the OCD which will find a million ways to avoid saying the "wrong thing" as if we can definitively ensure that, as much as we might want to.

Related Posts:
Telephone Phobia: Fear of Making Phone Calls
Ritualizing in my Head: Retracing


  1. Oh, man! I should have written this post! I'm so jealous! I would painstakingly write and edit my e-mails forever before hitting the "send" button. Then I would re-read them over and over again until I got a response. Months later I would still do that. Took me forever before I one day went through and deleted all received and sent e-mails, after re-reading them upteen times, of course!

  2. This mirrors my own experience so closely! It's amazing that the little things I thought were just quirks at the time (like re-writing letters over and over until they were perfect) are actually things commonly shared by others with this same condition that I have. That is just so validating! And I understand exactly where you're coming from. Thanks for writing this post. :) (I tend to use smileys waaaaaaay too much.)

  3. I could've written this post. I'm so much better about it now, but I used to get so "stuck" in writing an email, and re-reading, erasing, re-typing, etc. Often times it would take me hours or days to write an email and when I was having a really hard time, after those hours of editing, I'd just delete it entirely, figuring I would never get it right, so it wasn't worth sending it. There were actually a few emails that, as I started battling this, I would write (to Lilah, my counterpart) and end with "I am going to send this before I lose my nerve, one two three GO" and literally as soon as I finished typing that, would just make myself press "SEND" because I knew otherwise it would never happen. Of course then I'd get all of the after-effects ("Did I say the wrong thing? What if I sounded rude/mean/unkind/selfish/etc.?" etc. etc.) but it was a start! Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. Oh my can I relate to this! LOL! You know I find your posts so reassuring. I am such a late bloomer. I'm just now figuring out that I really have "difficulties" with things like this. I've come to hate e-mail because I waste so much time on communication that I never send. I do love to facebook, but again get very anxious that my humor will be lost in translation, and come across as bitchy. Just your talking about this helps to raise my awareness of an area that I can address with more directed intention. As my life gets more busy, this is so critical. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I love how you mention not having to witness someone read what you have written. I recently realized just how much anxiety being in that position can cause me. A few months ago I was having a friend read over a cover letter for me, and while I acted like I was reading something else while she looked over it, I was doing nothing of the sort. I couldn't! I was too anxious to focus on reading while she was pouring over my writing. So I pretended, all the while watching her face for clues to what she might be thinking. Oh my!

    In school, I knew others who liked to have their essays proofread by friends, but I rarely did this because it made me so anxious, and, in addition, I usually spent so long getting my essay to seem "just right" in the first place that I didn't want anyone to ruin that feeling with their comments, even if they would strengthen my essay. If there was something wrong with it at that point, I didn't want to know! Of course, this was only if I managed to finish the essay before the very last minute possible in the first place...

    I can definitely relate to the fear of writing the "wrong" thing in an email or having what I wrote interpreted incorrectly. It is only really since I have learned more about my OCD that I have begun to look back and see why I used to do certain things in certain ways as the result of anxiety. I remember my mother getting on me about responding to important emails or returning important phone calls. Now I realize that it was not out of laziness, and not for lack of caring, but rather because I was fearful of saying the wrong thing in the wrong way. I think developing my ability to recognize when it's anxiety that's the culprit, rather than assuming that it's just lack of will or sheer irresponsibility, has and will continue to help me be kinder to myself. Sometimes it seems like the default is to beat myself up for not doing things, to label myself as inadequate or defective. Learning to take a moment, recognize how I am feeling, and not immediately condemn myself, has been helpful in recovery, and will hopefully allow me to work on being kinder to myself, to retrain my brain to pause and take stock of the situation before jumping to negative conclusions about the way I am as I have often done for many, many years now.

    That said, though I, too, used to have a lot of anxiety about making phone calls and sending emails, it has gotten a lot better over the years the more and more I have done it. I also think the medications I started taking over the last year have helped me overcome some of the lingering social anxiety aspects. Where I used to prefer sending an email rather than making a phone call out of fear of blanking on what I wanted to say or awkwardly stumbling over my words, I now almost prefer it, especially when I want an answer sooner rather than later or when it seems like it's more trouble than it's worth to explain what I mean in writing. It's definitely gotten easier with practice!

    And now, of course, having been excited by your post, I have gotten a bit carried away and written a lot - about myself, which is something I always fear will come off as selfish and self-centered. But perhaps in the spirit of this post I will leave my super long comment as is and hope that it doesn't come off as being too terribly self-absorbed.

  6. I am truly grateful for all the comments people have shared about this post! It means a lot to me that I can communicate some of what it's like to have OCD, and that it resonates with others. OCD can be so incredibly isolating, especially if you are afraid to call, send an email or meet someone in person--so thank you all again!

  7. "Your HTML cannot be accepted: must be at most 4,096 characters."

    Hahahah - ohhhhhh. I just spent at least an hour writing a freaking book about this, with tangents about the problematic aspects of the internet as a social and historical phenomenon..


    It is probably just as well.

    It took me over an hour (myep) and it was long (well, I tried to edit it, then of course, it became very very long..)

    Let's just say that I am pretty passionate on this issue :L

  8. I know this is an old post but i just have say i totally relate! but with me, email was a godsend because i could "reread" what i sent and make sure i didn't call anyone any names, or tell them to go to hell! lol...and reread i do, over and over and over... I am also afraid of writing bad things in birthday cards - especially to those i am super fond of. (and i am a writer LOL) OCD is so maddening....

  9. This is a great post!

  10. A year ago I thought I was just a perfectionist. But more recently, I have noticed I sometimes dread opening my email when I am waiting for a reply. There are days when I feel I cannot handle a negative response and “take a day off.” I take forever to make my emails “perfect.” After sending an email or having a conversation, I dissect them in my head over and over again. Sometimes I have gotten out of bed to reread an email because I can´t sleep thinking I “said something wrong.” Life situations have caused above-normal stress in the last eight years. I wonder if this has triggered OCD. I have always been a perfectionist but lately this “communication business” has become a source of anxiety and fear. Hoping to better understand what was happening to me, I found this post. I am so thankful for it.

  11. Iam so happy I came across this post and comments.It is so comforting to know that I am not the only one that experiences this type of anxiety. I am terrified of talking on the phone or writing emails. I am so awkward on the phone. I am afraid that the person I am talking to will think I sound stupid or notice my anxiety. I try to sound cool, but I know how awkward I sound, especially when I am first greeting the person or wrapping up a call. I am cringing right now thinking about it. Also I am afraid I will be asked questions that I don't have the answer for. I am also scared of writing emails. I am scared of writing emails for two main reasons. First I don't know what to say. I feel like the email does not "flow naturally". It takes me forever to write one simple email. On average it takes me 30 minutes to write an email with 2_3 sentences, which is unacceptable to me. Another issue is grammar. I am not a native English speaker. So I am very self conscious about my writing. I have two American undergraduate degrees and a MBA and still I can't write a simple​ email. Sometime I wonder how did I get to where I am without appropriate writing skills. I feel so incompetent and discouraged. I am terrified that people at my work will find out how much time I waste writing an email. I feel like a complete fraude. If money was not an issue I would quit my job as an accountant and work as a cafeteria server or as a cleaning maid just so I would not have to deal with writing a email ever again.

    1. I'm sorry you are dealing with this anxiety! It did help me to know I wasn't the only person to have this fear, and hopefully it gave you some relief knowing it's not just you. OCD chips away at confidence and I encourage you to check out the International OCD Foundation. It is possible to face these fears and move forward!