Monday, February 21, 2011

15 Minutes at a Time: The FlyLady and Exposure Therapy for OCD

15 Minutes

In January, faced with increased difficulty finding things in my house, and general chaos, I remembered reading about the FlyLady, and went to her site. Just going there was an exposure for me, since my perfectionism starting raring up, but what I like about the FlyLady is an explicit acknowledgment of how much of the home clutter chaos stems from this very perfectionism. The fear that you have to do it "right" and all at once, and rip apart every closet and scrub every surface.

She advocates doing 15 minutes at a time, and then stopping. That's the hardest part for me. My perfectionism OCD gets entangled in this, and once I start a task, I feel anxiety at the thought of stopping before the task is done, even if there's no clear ending point, and so I keep going until I exhaust myself and it seems preferable to avoid cleaning at all. For someone with contamination OCD the feared consequence may be that nothing is clean enough after only 15 minutes.

The FlyLady is practicing a form of Exposure Therapy. She dares her readers to do housework imperfectly, incompletely, incorrectly. The irony of OCD is that it's all about the anxiety not about reality. Avoiding cleaning altogether is not more "perfect" than doing 15 minutes at a time. A refrain on the FlyLady forums is "I've got so much to clean up that 15 minutes isn't enough time." This kind of thinking is part of why I didn't start actually doing exposures right away when I finally found an Exposure Therapist.

I saw the enormity of my compulsions and anxiety, and I wanted to be better immediately because I was in pain, but also because my perfectionist OCD made it seem dangerous to have a learning curve, to proceed slowly, by trial and error, imperfectly, haltingly, erratically. I needed to do things instantly, the first time, or my feared consequence was that I was a worthless failure. Again, the reality is that avoiding learning or taking small steps serves to give a relief from the anxiety of facing the fear, and yet paradoxically, set me even further behind in getting better from my OCD.

What I have learned in therapy is that anything above zero is good. 30 seconds of resisting compulsions is good. 1 minute. 5 minutes. 15 minutes. It's all good. Exposing myself to something I fear, even if it is the least of my fears, is good. Perfectionism says that you either get better all at once, or you don't get better. This doesn't give me my life back. It keeps me trapped in my compulsions. In 15 minute increments I have cleared through the chaos of my house. The FlyLady motto is that you can do anything for 15 minutes, but for 2011 she's challenging us with a new motto: Let's Go for Seven in 2011

Seven minutes on the timer, because 15 minutes can still be too daunting. The FlyLady says that housework done incorrectly still blesses your family, and in the case of debilitating rituals, this is a powerful statement.


  1. "my perfectionist OCD made it seem dangerous to have a learning curve, to proceed slowly, by trial and error, imperfectly, haltingly, erratically. I needed to do things instantly, the first time, or my feared consequence was that I was a worthless failure." Took the words right out of my mouth. Perfectionism turns out to be a form of self-sabotage, which was a shock to finally understand. Now in this house our mantra is "Perfect is the enemy of the very good."
    Adventures in Anxiety Land

  2. Well once again you hit the perverbial nail on the head. And so funny - it has to do with housework. Sheesh - I'm focused primarily on dealing with my HOCD and ROCD. We'll get to the other areas of perfectionism later. (Hee hee) I totally do this with housework - just don't even start because I won't be able to finish it all perfectly. OR - even worse - when I do "complete" the task I can find so much "wrong" with it - it's just never truly done. What I really took out of this though is your comments about "I saw the enormity of my getting better from my OCD" paragraph. This mirrors so well with me right now - I'm sure you're aware of that! I'm so scared that if I don't get to a certain "point" with my OCD - that I won't be able to obtain the things I want in life (ie: relationship, marriage, etc). I am just not "good enough" yet. This fuels my perfectionism even more. I try to remind myself that it is a journey and to pat myself on the back for the positive steps that I have taken - but my mind so stubbornly wants to tell me that if I don't get to a 'certain spot" - that I'm worthless as a human being.

    P.S. Blue Morpho - I love your quote "perfect is the enemy of the very good".

  3. i just finished reading ur blog - every single entry and comment from the beginning (it took a few wks). i want to thank u so much for sharing ur life, insights, struggles and triumphs. i can't even begin to express how inspiring and helpful it has been for me. when i was having a rough day, i'd go to ur blog and it would always offer me something - a glimmer of hope, encouragement, connection or even just a smile. i even copy/pasted the parts that were especially inspiring and helpful onto a document that will be part of my arsenal against my ocd. (the document is quite long! :)

    i can relate to so much of what u write, especially the perfectionism. i thought my perfectionism was a whole other beast i had to tackle along w/my ocd, and overcoming the two together seemed like such a daunting feat. now that i know it's all intertwined, it seems a bit more manageable (a tiny bit, but i'll take it!).

    just writing this comment is an exposure for me because i feel like i have so much to say and i want to perfectly express it all and write perfectly, but i'm going to stop now before i start writing a book and rewriting and editing everything to death.

    but not before i say again - thank you.

  4. Blue Morpho--Yes, I relate the helpfulness of a mantra like "The perfect is the enemy of the good"!

    Pure O--Oh, yes, that "certain point" which I waited for and waited for. It has been so healing to discover that the perfectionist ocd voice can't affect my actual worth as a human being, that the worth is always there, even if I have trouble believing it.

    thejourneyeleven--Thank you so much for your message. I know how hard it must have been to write it! I can relate to things being a bit less daunting when realizing the perfectionism is part of the ocd, and not some separate thing I need to fix "perfectly." Comments like yours are very moving for me--I was alone for so long, and if I can help others feel less alone, I am very gratified!