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