I don’t normally watch Vlogbrothers videos. I know they’re the titans of YouTube and beloved by millions, but their topics don’t often land in my particular wheelhouse. (For me, Numberphile, Tom Scott, and Deep Sky Videos are where it’s at. And also CGP Grey when the planets align and he makes a vid.) But once in a long time the YouTube suggestion heuristic offers up a Vlogbro video that catches my eye, which was the case this past week: What OCD Is Like (for Me).
(No, I don’t know why I’m talking about this sort of oddball mental stuff two weeks in a row. It’s not a sign of any particular trouble on my end. Probably just random chance, or the result of too much introspection.)
I don’t know anything about OCD aside from the pop-culture depictions of it, so this made for an illuminating video. OCD is, as I suspected, badly portrayed in media. I do not have OCD, although I’d like to use this as a jumping-off point for a tangentially related topic…
John Green talks about how a particular idea will stick in his mind and he won’t be able to stop worrying about it. While I haven’t experienced his particular problem of ongoing vexation, I am familiar with the idea of having an idea that sticks with you for weeks and months and kind of grows on you despite it not having any practical value. In my case it’s a completely harmless personality quirk rather than a source of stress or dysfunction. Which is nice. But it also made me wonder if this is a common thing. Does everyone have a clingy idea or scenario that won’t leave them alone?
In my case the thoughts revolve around impossible hypothetical situations like:
What if unlikely disaster X suddenly happened? How would I handle it? What should I do?
What if I was somehow able to have a conversation with (usually deceased) person Y? What would I say to them and how could I use that time productively?
What if I was suddenly responsible for Z? (In this case, Z is usually an enterprise or business I’m ill-suited to run, not something I have a lot of experience in.) How would I handle it? Of course, the correct answer to “What if I was suddenly in charge of something I don’t know how to do?” is “abdicate and leave someone else in charge”, but these situations kinda run on dream logic where you’re inexplicably trapped in a situation and you need to make sensible decisions in a senseless situation.
I’ve been doing this sort of thing since I was a child. Adults used to call it “daydreaming”, but anecdotally I get the impression that daydreams are usually wish-fulfillment fantasies on the part of the daydreamer. These are not really that. They’re certainly interesting scenarios, but they’re not really wish fulfillment. If they were, I’d spend a lot more time thinking about winning a million bucks and being buff like Captain America and a lot less time puzzling over what I’d do if (for example) I found myself floating all alone on an unknown sail-powered boat on an unknown ocean with no land in sight.
These thoughts are sort of my default topic to think about. It’s what I think about when I’m in the shower, or waiting to fall asleep at the end of the day, or while waiting for Windows to finish updating. The exception to this is when I’m in the middle of a programming project. In that case, I think about the programming instead of the hypothetical. In this way, taking on a programming project is a good way to finally wipe the slate clean and stop obsessing over the dang thing. When I come up for air a month later, the scenario will have lost its hold on me and a new one will begin to form.
I can’t stop thinking about these things, but unlike someone with OCD it doesn’t seem to do me any harm. I get sort of sick of thinking about the same one after a few weeks, but it doesn’t cause stress, intrude on my relationships, keep me awake, or interfere with my work. I’ve tried to capture this mental fidgeting by turning a scenario into a novel or story, but it’s never worked out. The ideas might make for a good premise for a book, but there’s not enough substance to turn them into something interesting without adding characters, motivations, and a three-act story structure. As it turns out, I get sick of the idea long before that sort of structure develops.
Is this common? Hard to say. It’s really hard to find information on this kind of thing. What’s the average person’s daydream like? Is it normal to have the same one for weeks or months? I dunno.
Do you daydream? Is it wish-fulfillment or problem-solving? Do you ever find yourself thinking about something after you’ve become sick of it?
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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