DiscoverYour Anxiety Toolkit - It's a Beautiful Day to Do Hard ThingsEp. 284 6-Part Series: Managing Mental Compulsions (with Shala Nicely)
Ep. 284 6-Part Series: Managing Mental Compulsions (with Shala Nicely)

Ep. 284 6-Part Series: Managing Mental Compulsions (with Shala Nicely)

Update: 2022-05-13



In this weeks podcast, we have my dearest friend Shala Nicely talking about how she manages mental compulsions.  In this episode, Shala shares her lived experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how she overcomes mental rituals.

In This Episode:

  • How to reduce mental compulsions for OCD and GAD.
  • How to use Flooding Techniques with Mental Compulsions
  • Magical Thinking and Mental Compulsions
  • BDD and Mental Compulsions

Links To Things I Talk About:
Book: Is Fred in the Refridgerator?
Book: Everyday Mindfulness for OCD
ERP School:

Episode Sponsor:

This episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit is brought to you by is a psychoeducation platform that provides courses and other online resources for people with anxiety, OCD, and Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.  Go to to learn more.

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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 284.

Welcome back, everybody. We are on the third video or the third part of this six-part series on how to manage mental compulsions. Last week’s episode with Jon Hershfield was bomb, like so good. And I will say that we, this week, have Shala Nicely, and she goes for it as well. So, I am so honored to have these amazing experts talking about mental compulsions, talking about what specific tools they use. 

So, I’m not going to take too much time of the intro this time, because I know you just want to get to the content. Again, I just want to put a disclaimer. This should not replace professional mental health care. This series is for educational purposes only. My job at CBT School is to give you as much education as I can, knowing that you may or may not have access to care or treatment in your own home. So, I’m hoping that this fills in a gap that maybe we’ve missed in the past in terms of we have ERP School, that’s an online course teaching you everything about ERP to get you started if you’re doing that on your own. But this is a bigger topic. This is an area that I’d need to make a complete new course. But instead of making a course, I’m bringing these experts to you for free, hopefully giving you the tools that you need. 

If you’re wanting additional information about ERP School, please go to With that being said, let’s go straight over to this episode with Shala Nicely. 

Managing Mental Compulsions (With Shala Nicely) Your anxiety toolkit

Kimberley: Welcome, Shala. I am so happy to have you here.

Shala: I am so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Kimberley: Okay. So, I have heard a little bit of your views on this, but I am actually so excited now to get into the juicy details of how you address mental compulsions or mental rituals. First, I want to check in with you, do you call them mental compulsions, rituals, rumination? How do you address them?

Shala: Yeah. All those things. I also sometimes call it mental gymnastics up in your head, it’s all sorts of things you’re doing in your head to try to get some relief from anxiety.

Kimberley: Right. So, if you had a patient or a client who really was struggling with mental compulsions, whether or not they were doing other compulsions as well, how might you address that particular part of their symptomology?

Shala: So, let me answer that by stepping back a little bit and telling you about my own experience with this, because a lot of the way I do it is based on what I learned, trying to manage my own mental rituals. I’ve had OCD probably since I was five or six, untreated until I was 39. Stumbled upon the right treatment when I went to the IOCDF Conference and started doing exposure mostly on my own. I went to Reid Wilson’s two-day group, where I learned how to do it. But the rest of the time, I was implementing on my own. And even though I had quite a few physical compulsions, I would’ve considered myself a primary mental ritualizer, meaning if we look at the majority, my compulsions were up in my head. And the way I think about this is I think that sometimes if you have OCD for long enough, and you’ve got to go out and keep functioning in the world and you can’t do all these rituals so that people could see, because then people will be like, “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?” you take them inward. And some mental compulsions can take the place of physical compulsions that you’re not able to do for whatever reason because you’re trying to function. And I’d had untreated OCD for so long that most of my rituals were up in my head, not all, but the great majority of them. 

Exposure & Response Prevention for Mental Compulsions

So, when I started to do exposure, what I found was I could do exposure therapy, straight up going and facing my fears, like going and being around things that might be triggering all I wanted, but I wasn’t necessarily getting better because I wasn’t addressing the mental rituals. So, basically, I’m doing exposure without response prevention or exposure with partial response prevention, which can make things either worse or just neutralize your efforts. So, what I did was I figured out how to be in the presence of triggers and not be up in my head, trying to do analyzing, justifying, figuring it out, replaying the situation with a different ending, all the sorts of things that I would do over and over in my head. And the way I did this was I took something I learned from Jonathan Grayson and his book, Freedom From OCD. I know you’re having him on for this series too. And he talked about doing all this ERP scripting, where you basically write out the worst-case scenario, what you think your OCD thinks is going to happen and you write it in either a worst-case way or an uncertainty-focused way. And what I did was after reading his book, I took that concept and I just shortened it down, and anything that my OCD was afraid of, I would just wrap may or may not surround it. 

So, for instance, an example that I use in Is Fred in the Refrigerator?, my memoir, Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life was that I used to-- when I was walking through stores like Target, if I saw one of those little plastic price tags that had fallen on the ground, if I didn’t pick it up and put it out of harm’s way, I was afraid somebody was going to slip and fall and break their neck. And it would be on some security camera that I just walked on past it and didn’t do anything. So, a typical scrupulosity obsession. And so, going shopping was really hard because I’m cleaning up the store as I’m shopping. And so, what I would do is I would either go to Target, walk past the price tag. And then as I’m just passing the price tag, I would say things. And in Target, I obviously couldn’t do this really out loud, mumble it out loud as best, but I may or may not cause somebody to kill themselves by they’re going to slip and fall on that price tag because I didn’t pick it up. I may or may not be an awful, terrible rotten human being. They may or may not catch me and throw me into jail. I may or may not rot in prison. People may or may not find out what a really bad person I really am. This may or may not be OCD, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

And that would allow me to be present with the obsessions, all the what-ifs – those are basically what-ifs turned into ‘may or may nots’ – without compulsing with them, without doing anything that would artificially lower my anxiety. So, it allowed me to be in the presence of those obsessive thoughts while interrupting the pattern of the mental rituals. And that’s really how I use ‘may or may nots’ and how I teach my clients to use ‘may or may nots’ today is using them to really be mindfully present of what the OCD is worried about while not interacting with that content in a way that’s going to make things worse. So, that’s how I developed it for myself. And I think that-- and that is a tool that I would say is an intermediary tool. So, I use that now in my own recovery. I don’t have to use ’may or may nots’. It’s very often at all. If I get super triggered, which doesn’t happen too terribly often, but if I get super triggered and I cannot get out of my head, I’ll use ’may or may nots’. 

But I think the continuum is that you try to do something to interrupt the mental rituals, which for me is the ’may or may nots’. You can also-- people can write down the scripts, they can do a worst-case scenario. But eventually, what you’re trying to get to is you’re trying to be able to hear the OCD, what-ifs in your head and completely ignore it. And I call that my shoulders back, the way of thinking about things. Just put your shoulders back and you move on with your day. You don’t acknowledge it. 

What I’ll do with clients, I’ll say, “If you had the thought of Blue Martian is going to land on my head, I mean, you wouldn’t even do anything with that thought. That thought would just go in and go out and wouldn’t get any of your attention.” That’s the way we want to treat OCD, is just thoughts can be there. I’m not going to say, “Oh, that’s my OCD.” I’m not going to say, “OCD, I’m not talking to you.” I’m not going to acknowledge it at all. I’m just going to treat it like any other weird thought that we have during the day and move on. 

Your question was, how would you help somebody who comes in with mental rituals? Well, first, I want to understand where are they in their OCD recovery? How long have they been doing these mental rituals? What percentage of their compulsions are mental versus physical? What are the kind of things that their OCD is afraid of? Basically, make a list or a hierarchy of everything they’re afraid of. And then we start working on exposure therapy. And when I have them do exposures, the first exposure I do with people, we’ll find something that’s-- I start in the middle of the hierarchy. You don’t have to, but I try. And I will have them face the fear. But then I’ll immediately ask them, what is your OCD saying right now? And they’ll tell me, and I’ll say, “I want you to repeat after me.” I have them do this, and everyone that I see hates this, but I have them do it. Standing up with their shoulders back like Wonder Woman, because this type of power pose helps them. It changes the chemistry of your body and helps you feel more powerful. 

OCD thinks it’s very powerful. So, I want my clients to feel as powerful as they can. So, I have them stand like Wonder Woman and they repeat after me. Somebody could-- let’s just say we are standing near something red on the floor. And I’ll say, “Well, what is your OCD saying right now?” And they’ll say, “Well, that’s blood and it could have AIDS in it, and I’m going to get sick.” I’ll say, “Well, that may or may not be a spot of blood on the floor. I may or may not get sick and I may or may not get AIDS, but I want to do this. I’m going to stay here. OCD, I want to be anxious, so bring it on.” 

And that’s how we do the exposure, is I ask them what’s in their head. I have them repeat it to me until they understand what the process is. And then I’m having them be in the presence of this and just script, script, script away. That’s what I call it scripting, so that they are in the presence of whatever’s bothering them, but they’re not up in their head. And anytime something comes in their head, I teach them to pull it down into the script. Never let something be circulating in your head without saying it out loud and pulling it into the script. 

I will work on this technique with clients as we’re working on exposures, because eventually what we’ll want to do is instead of going all over the place, “That may or may not be blood, I may or may not get AIDS, I may or may not get sick,” I’ll say, “Okay, of all the things you’ve just said, what does your OCD-- what is your OCD scared of the most? Let’s focus on that.” And so, “I may or may not get AIDS. I may or may not get AIDS. I may or may not have HIV. I may or may not get AIDS,” over again until people start to say, “Oh, okay. I guess I don’t have any control over this,” because what we’re trying to do is help the OCD habituate to the uncertainty. Habituate, I know that’d be a confusing word. You don’t have to habituate in order for exposure to work due to the theory of inhibitory learning, but we’re trying to help your brain get used to the uncertainty here.

Kimberley: And break into a different cycle instead of doing the old rumination cycle. 

Shala: Yes. And so then, I’ll teach people to just find their scariest fear. They say that over and over and over again. Then let’s hit the next one. “Well, my family may or may not survive if I die because if I get a fatal disease and I die and my family may or may not be left destitute,” and then over and over. “My family may or may not be left destitute. My family may or may not be left destitute, whatever,” until we’re hitting all the things that could be circulating in your head. 

Now, some people really don’t need to do that scripting because they’re not up in their head that much. But that’s the minority of people. I think most people with OCD are doing something in their head. And a lot of people aren’t aware of what they’re doing because these mental rituals are incredibly subtle at times. And so, as people, as my clients go out and work on these exposures, I’ll have them tell me how it’s going. I have people fill out forms on my website each day as they’re doing exposures so I can see what’s going on. And if they’re not really up in their head and they don’t really need to do the ‘may or may nots’, great. That’s better. In fact, just go do the exposure and go on with your life. If they’re up in their head, then I have them do the ’may or may nots’. And so, that’s how I would start with somebody. 

And so, what I’m trying to do is I’m giving them what I call a bridge tool. Because people who have been mental ritualizing for a long time, I have found it’s virtually impossible to just stop because that’s what your mind is used to doing. And so, what I’m doing is I’m giving them a competing response. And I’m saying here, instead of mental ritualizing, I’d like you to say a bunch of ’may or may nots’ statements while standing up and say them out loud while looking like Wonder Woman. Everybody rolls their eyes like, “Really?” But that’s what we do as a bridge tool. And so, they’ve lifted enough mental weights, so to speak, with this technique that they can hear the OCD and start to disengage and not interact with it at all. Then we move to that technique.

Flooding Techniques for Mental Rumination

Kimberley: Is there a reason why-- and for some of the listeners, they may have learned this before, but is there a reason why you use ’may or may nots’ instead of worst-case scenarios?

Shala: For me, for my personal OCD recovery journey, what I found with worst-case scenario is I got too lost in the content. I remember doing-- I had had a mammogram, it had come back with some abnormal findings. I spent the whole weekend trying to do scripting about what could happen, and I was using worst-case scenario. Well, I end up in the hospital, I end up with breast cancer, I end up dead. And by the end of the weekend, I was completely demoralized. And I’m like, “Well, I don’t bother because I’m going to be dead, because I have breast cancer.” That’s where my mind took it because I’ve had OCD long enough that if I get a really scary and I start and I play around in the content, I’m going to start losing insight and I’m going to start doing depression as a compulsion, which is the blog we did talk about, where you start acting depressed because you’re believing what the OCD says like, “Oh, well, I might as well just give up, I have breast cancer,” and then becoming depressed, and then acting like it’s true. And then that’s reinforcing the whole cycle. 

So, for me, worst-case scenario scripting made things worse. So, when I stayed in the uncertainty realm, the ‘may or may nots’ that helped because I was trying to help my brain understand, “Well, I may or may not have breast cancer. And if I do, I mean, I’ll go to the doctor, I’ll do what I need to do, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now in my head other than what I’m doing.”

Some people like worst-case scenario and it works fine for them. And I think that works too. I mostly use ’may or may nots’ with clients unless they are unable through numbing that they might be doing. If they’re unable to actually feel what they’re saying, because they’re used to turning it over in their head and pulling the anxiety down officially, and so I can’t get a rise out of the OCD because there’s a lot of really little subtle mental compulsions going on, then I’ll insert some worst-case scenario to get the anxiety level up, to help them really feel the fear, and then pull back into ’may or may nots’. But there’s nothing wrong with worst-case scenario. But for me, that was what happened. And I think if you are prone to depression, if you’re prone to losing insight into your OCD when you’ve got a really big one, I think that’s a risk factor for using that particular type of scripting. 

Magical Thinking and Mental Compulsions 

Kimberley: Right. And I found that they may or may not have worked just as well, except the one thing, and I’m actually curious on your opinion on this and I have not had this conversation, is I find that people who have a lot of magical thinking benefit by worst-case scenario, like their jinxing compulsions and so forth, like the fear of saying it means it will happen. So, saying the worst-case is the best exposure. Is that true for you?

Shala: I have not had to use it much on my own magically. I certainly had a lot of magical thinking. Like, if I don’t hit this green light, then somebody’s going to die. But I think the worst-case scenario, I could actually work well in that, because if you use the worst-case scenario, it can make it seem so ridiculous that it helps people let go of it more easily. And I think you can do that with ’may or may nots’ too. I’ll try to encourage people to use the creativity that they have because everybody with OCD has a ton of creativity. And we know that because the OCD shares your brain and it’s certainly the creative stuff

And to one-up the OCD, you use the scripting to be like, “Gosh, I may or may not get some drug-disease and give it to my entire neighborhood. I may or may not kill off an entire section of my county. We may or may not infect the entire state of Georgia. The entire United States may or may not blow up because I got this one disease. So, they may or may not have to eject me off the earth and make me live on Mars because I’m such a bad person.” This ‘may or may not’ is in all this crazy stuff too, because that’s how to win, is to one up the OCD. It thinks that’s scary, let’s go even scarier. But the scary you get, it also gets a little bit ridiculous after a while. And then the whole thing seems to be a little bit ridiculous. So, I think you can still use that worst-case stuff with may or may not.

Kimberley: Right. Okay. So, I mean, I will always sort of-- I know you really well. I’ve always held you so high in my mind in just how resilient and strong you are in doing this. How might you, or how do you help people who feel completely powerless at even addressing this? For you to say it, it sounds very like you’re just doing it and it’s so powerful. But for those who are really struggling with this idea of like, you said, coming out of your head, can you speak to how you address that in session if someone’s really struggling to engage in ’may or may nots’ and so forth?

Shala: Yeah. Well, thank you for the kind words, first off. I think that it’s really common for people with OCD by the time they get to a therapist to feel completely demoralized, especially if they’ve been to multiple therapists before they get to somebody who does ERP. And so, they feel like they’re the victim at the hands of a very cruel abuser that they can’t get away from. And so, they feel beaten down and they don’t know how to get out of their heads. They feel like they’re trapped in this mental prison. They can’t get out. And if somebody is struggling like that, and they’re doing the ’may or may nots’ and the OCD is reacting, which of course, it will, and coming back at them stronger, which I always warn people, this is going to happen. When you start poking at this, the OCD is going to poke back and poke back even harder, because it wants to get you back in line so it can keep you prisoner. 

So, what I’ll often do in those situations, if I see somebody is really feeling like they have been so victimized, that they’re never going to be able to get over this, is the type of script I have them do is more of an empowerment script, which could sound like this: “OCD, I’m not listening to you anymore. I’m not doing what you want. I am strong. I can do this.” And I might add some ’may or may nots’ in there. “And I want to be anxious. Come on, bring it on. You think that’s scary? Give me something else.” 

I know you’re having Reid Wilson on as part of this too. I learned all that “bring it on” type stuff and pushing for the anxiety from him. And I think helping people say that out loud can be really transformative. I’ve seen people just completely break down in tears of sort of, “Oh my gosh, I could do this,” like tears of empowerment from standing up and yelling at their OCD. 

If people like swearing, I also just have them swear at it, like they would really swear at somebody who had been abusing them if they had a chance, because swearing actually can make you feel more powerful too, and I want to use all the tools we can. So, I think scripting comes in a number of forms. It’s all about really taking what’s in your head, turning it into a helpful self-talk and saying it out loud. And the reason out loud is important for any type of scripting is that if you’re saying it in your head, it’s going to get mixed up with all the jumble of mental ruminating that’s going on. And saying it out loud makes it hard for you to ruminate. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard because you’re saying it. Your brain really is only processing one thing at a time. And so, if you’re talking and really paying attention to what you’re saying, it’s much harder to be up in your head spinning this around. 

And so, adding these empowerment scripts in with the ’may or may nots’ helps people both accept the uncertainty and feel like they can do this, feel like they can stand up to the OCD and say, “You’ve beaten me enough. No more. This is my life. I’m not letting you ruin it anymore. I am taking this back. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what I have to do. I’m going to do this.” And that builds people up enough where they can feel like they can start approaching these exposures.

Kimberley: I love that. I think that is such-- I’ve had that same experience of how powerful empowerment can be in switching that behavior. It’s so important. Now, one thing I really want to ask you is, do you switch this method when you’re dealing with other anxiety disorders – health anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder? What is your approach? Is there a difference or would you say the tools are the same?

Shala: There’s a slight difference between disorders. I think health anxiety, I treat exactly like OCD. Even some of the examples I gave here were really health anxiety statements. With panic disorder-- and again, I learned this from Reid and you can ask him more about this when you interview him. But with pain disorder, it’s all about, I want to feel more shorter breath, more like their elephant standing on my chest. I want my heart to be faster. But I’m doing this while I’m having people do exercises that would actually create those feelings, like breathing through a little bit of cocktail straw, jogging, turning up a space heater, and blowing it on themselves. So, we’re trying to create those symptoms and then talk out loud and say, “Come on, I want more of this. I want to feel more anxious. Give me the worst panic attack you’ve ever had.” So, it’s all about amping up the symptoms. 

With social anxiety, it’s a little bit different because with social anxiety, I would work on the cognitions first. Whereas with OCD, we don’t work on the cognitions at all, other than I want you to have a different cognitive relationship with your disorder and your anxiety. I want you to want the anxiety. I want you to want the OCD to come and bother you because that gives you an opportunity to practice. That’s the cognitive work with OCD. I do not work on the cognitive work on the content. I’m not going to say to somebody, “Well, the chance you’re going to get AIDS from that little spot of blood is very small.” That’s not going to be helpful 

With social anxiety, we’re actually working on those distorted cognitions at the beginning. And so, a lot of the work with social anxiety is going to be going out and testing those new cognitions, which really turns the exposures into what we call behavioral experiments. It’s more of a cognitive method. We’re going out and saying, “Gosh, my new belief, instead of everybody’s judging me, is, well, everybody is probably thinking about themselves and I’m going to go do some things that my social anxiety wouldn’t want me to do and test out that new belief.” I might have them use that new belief, but also if their anxiety gets really high and they’re having a hard time saying, “Well, that person may or may not be judging me. They may or may not be looking at me funny. They may or may not go home and tell people about me.” But really, we’re trying to do something a little bit different with social anxiety.

Kimberley: And what about with generalized anxiety? With the mental, a lot of rumination there, do you have a little shift in how you respond?

Shala: Yeah. So, it’s funny that the talk that Michelle Massi and others gave at IOCDF-- I think it was at IOCDF this year about what’s the difference between OCD and GAD is they’re really aligned there. I mean, I treat GAD very similarly the way I treat OCD in that people are up in their heads trying to do things. They’re also doing other types of safety behaviors, compulsive safety behaviors, but a lot of people GAD are just up in their head. They’re just worried about more “real-life” things. But again, a lot of OCD stuff can be real-life things. I mean, look at COVID. That was real life. And people’s OCD could wrap itself around that. So, I treat GAD and OCD quite similarly. There are some differences, but in terms of scripting, we call it “worry time” in GAD. It’s got a different name, but it’s basically the same thing.

Kimberley: Right. Okay. Thank you for answering that because I know some folks here listening will be not having OCD and will be curious to see how it affects them. So, is that the practice for you or is there anything else you feel like people need to know going in, in terms of like, “Here is my strategy, here is my plan to target mental rituals”? What would you say?

Shala: So, as I mentioned, I think the ’may or may nots’ are bridge tool that are always available to you throughout your entire recovery. My goal with anybody that I’m working with is to help them get to the point where they can just use shoulders back. And the way that I think about this is what I call my “man in the park” metaphor. So, we’ve all probably been in a park where somebody is yelling typically about the end of the world and all that stuff. And even if you were to agree with some of the things that the person might say from a spiritual or religious standpoint, you don’t run home and go, “Oh my gosh, we got to pack all our things up because it’s the end of the world. We have to get with all of our relatives and be together because we’re all going to die.” We don’t do that. We hear what this guy’s saying, and then we go on with our days, again, even if you might agree with some of the content.

Now, why do we do that? We do that because it’s not relevant in our life. We realize that person probably, unfortunately, has some problems. But it doesn’t affect us. We hear it just like when we might hear birds in the background or a car honking, and we just go on with our day. That’s how we want to treat OCD. What we do when we have untreated OCD is we run up to the man in the park and we say, “Oh my gosh, can I have a pamphlet? Let me read the pamphlet. Oh my gosh, you’re right. Tell me more, tell me more.” And we’re interacting with him, trying to get some reassurance that maybe he’s wrong, that maybe he does really mean the end of the world is coming soon. Maybe it’s going to be like in a hundred years. Eventually, we get to the point where we’re handing out pamphlets for him. “Here, everybody, take one of these.”

What we’re doing with ’may or may nots’ is we’re learning how to walk by the man in the park and go, “The world may or may not be ending. The world may or may not be ending. I’m not taking a pamphlet. The world may or may not be ending.” So, we’re trying to not interact with him. We’re trying to take what he’s saying and hold it in our heads without doing something compulsive that’s going to make our anxiety higher. What we’re trying to do is practice that enough till we can get to the point where we can be in the park with the guy and just go on with our day. We hear him speaking, but we’re really-- it’s just not relevant. It’s just not part of our life. So, we just move on. And we’re not trying to shove him away. It’s just like any other noise or sound or activity that you would just-- it doesn’t even register in your consciousness. That’s what we’re trying to do. 

Now I think another way to think about this is if you think-- say you’re in an art gallery. Art galleries are quiet and there are lots of people standing around, and there’s somebody in there that you don’t like or who doesn’t like you or whatever. You’re not going to walk up to that person and tap on their shoulder and say, “Excuse me, I’m going to ignore you.” You’re just going to be like, “I know that person is there. I’m just going to do what I’m doing.” And I think that’s-- I use that to help people understand this transition, because we’re basically going from ’may or may nots’ where we’re saying, “OCD, I’m not letting you do this to me anymore,” so we are being really aggressive with it, to this being able to be in the same space with it, but we’re not talking to it at all because we don’t need to, because we can be in the presence with the intrusive thoughts that the OCD is reacting to, just like the presence of all the other thousands of thoughts we have each day without interacting with them.

Kimberley: That’s so interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. 

Shala: And so, that’s where I’m trying to get people because that is the strongest, strongest recovery, is if you can go do the things that you want to do, be in the presence of the anxiety and not do compulsions physical or mental, you don’t give anything for OCD to work with. I have a whole chapter in my memoir about this after I heard Reid say at one of the conferences, “We need to act as though what OCD is saying doesn’t matter.” And that was revolutionary to me to hear that. And that’s what we’re trying to do both physically and mentally. Because if you can have an obsession and focus on what you want to focus on, do what you want to do, you’re not giving OCD anything to work with. And typically, it’ll just drain away. But this takes time. I mean, it has taken me years to learn how to do this, but I went untreated for 35 years too. It may not take you years, but it may. And that’s okay. It’s a process. And I think if you have trouble trying to do shoulders back, man in the park, use ’may or may nots’. You can use the combination. But I think we’re trying to get to the point where you can just be with the OCD and hear it flipping out and just go on with your day.

OCD, BDD, and Mental Rituals 

Kimberley: In your book, you talk about the different voices. There is a BDD voice and an OCD voice. Was it harder or easier depending on the voice? Was that a component for you in that-- because the words and the voice sound a little different. I know in your memoir you give them different names and so forth, which if anyone hasn’t read your memoir, they need to go right now and read it. Do you have any thoughts on that in terms of the different voices or the different ways in which the disorders interact?

Shala: That’s a really great question because yes, I think OCD does shift its voice and shift its persona based on how scared it is. So, if it’s a little bit scared, it’s probably going to speak to you. It’s still going to be not a very nice voice. It might be urgent and pleading. But if it’s super scared, I talk about mine being like the triad of hell, how my OCD will personify into different things based on how scared it is. And if it’s super scared and it’s going to get super big and it’s going to get super loud in your head because it’s trying desperately to help you understand you’ve got to save it because it thinks it’s in danger. That’s all its content. Then I think-- and if you have trouble ignoring it because it’s screaming in your head, like the man in the park comes over with his megaphone, puts it right up against your ear and starts talking, that’s hard to ignore. That’s hard to act like that’s not relevant because it hurts. There’s so much noise. 

That’s when you might have to use a may or may not type approach because it’s just so loud, you can’t ignore it, because it’s so scared. And that’s okay. And again, sometimes I’ll have to use that. Not too terribly often just because I’ve spent a long time working on how to use the shoulder’s back, man in the park, but if I have to use it, I use it. And so, I think your thought about how do I interact with the OCD based on how aggressive it’s being also plays into this.

Kimberley: I love all this. I think this is really helpful in terms of being able to be flexible. I know sometimes we want just the one rule that’s going to work in all situations, but I think you’re right. I think that there needs to be different approaches. And would you say it depends on the person? Do you give them some autonomy over finding what works for them, or what would you say? 

Shala: Absolutely. If people are up in their heads and they don’t want to use ’may or may nots’, I’ll try to use some other things. If I really, really think that that’s what we need right now, is we need scripting, I’ll try to sell them on why. But at the end of the day, it’s always my client’s choice and I do it differently based on every client. For some clients, it might be just more empowering statements. For some clients where it’s more panicky focused, it might be more about bringing on your anxiety. Sometimes it might be pulling self-compassion in and just saying the self-compassion statements out loud. So, it really does vary by person. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but I think, I feel that people need to have something to replace the mental ritualizing with at the beginning that they’ve been doing it for a long time, just because otherwise, it’s like, I’m giving them a bicycle, they’ve never ridden a bicycle before and I won’t give them any training wheels. And that’s really, really hard. Some people can do it. I mean, some people can just be like, “Oh, I’m to stop doing that in my head? Okay, well, I’ll stop doing that in my head.” But most people need something to help them bridge that gap to get to the point where they can just be in the presence with it and not be talking to it in their heads.

Kimberley: Amazing. All right. Any final statements from you as we get close to the end?

Shala: I think that it’s important to, as you’re working on this, really think about what you’re doing in your head that might be subtle, that could be making the OCD worse. And I think talking and being willing to talk about this to therapists about putting it all out there, “Hey, I’m saying this to myself in my head, is that helpful or harmful?” Because OCD therapy can be pretty straightforward. I mean, ERP, go out and face your fears, don’t do rituals. It sounds pretty straightforward. But there is a lot of subtlety to this. And the more that you can root out these subtle mental rituals, the better that your recovery is going to be. 

And know too that if you’ve had untreated OCD for a long time, you can uncover mental rituals, little bitty ones, for years after you get out of therapy. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not in recovery. It just means that you are getting more and more insightful and educated about what OCD is. And the more that you can pick those little things out, just the better your recovery will be. But we also don’t want to be perfectionistic about that like, “I must eliminate every single mental ritual that I have or I’m not going to be in a good recovery.” That’s approaching your ERP like OCD would do. And we don’t want to do that. But we do want to be mindful about the subtleties and make sure to try to pull out as many of those subtle things that we might be doing in our heads as possible. 

Kimberley: Amazing. Thank you. Tell us-- again, first, let me just say, such helpful information. And your personal experience, I think, is really validating and helpful to hear on those little nuances. Tell us where people can hear about you and the amazing projects you’ve got going on.

Shala: You can go to and I have lots of free blog posts I’ve written on this. So, there are two blog posts, two pretty extensive blog posts on ’may or may nots’. So, if you go on my website and just search may or may not, it’ll bring up two blog posts about that. If you search on shoulders back or man in the park, you’ll find two blog posts on how to do that technique. I also have a blog post I wrote in the last year or so called Shower Scripting, which is how to do ERP, like just some touch-up scripting in the shower, use that time. So, I would say go to my website and you can find all sorts of free resources. I’ve got two books. You can find on Amazon, Everyday Mindfulness for OCD, Jon Hershfield and I co-wrote. And we talk about ‘may or may nots’ and shoulders back and some of the things in there just briefly. And then my memoir, Is Fred in the Refrigerator?: Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life, is also on Amazon or bookstores, Audible, and that kind of thing. 

Kimberley: I wonder too, if we could-- I’m going to put links to all these in the show note. I remember you having a word with your OCD, a video?

Shala: Oh yes, that’s true.

Kimberley: Can we link that too?

Shala: Yes. And that one I have under my COVID resources, because I’m so glad you brought that up. When the pandemic started, my OCD did not like it, as many people who have contamination OCD can relate to. And it was pretty scary all the time. And it was making me scared all the time. And eventually, I just wrote it a letter and I’m like, “Dude, we’re not doing this anymore.” And I read it out loud and I recorded it out loud so that people could hear how I was talking to it. 

Kimberley: It was so powerful.

Shala: Well, thank you. And it’s fun to do. I think the more that you can personify your OCD, the more you can think of it as an entity that is within you but is not you, and to recognize that your relationship with it will change over time. Sometimes you’re going to be compassionate with it. “Gosh, OCD, I’m so sorry,” You’re scared we’re doing this anyway. Sometimes you’re going to be aggressive with it. Sometimes you just ignore it. And that changes as you go through therapy, it changes through your life. And I think that recognizing that it’s okay to have OCD and to have this little thing, I think of like an orange ball with big feet and sunglasses is how I think about it when it’s behaving – it makes it less of an adversarial relationship over time and more like I have an annoying little sibling that, gosh, it’s just not going to ever not be there, but it’s fine. We can live together and live in this uncertainty and be happy anyway.

Kimberley: I just love it. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your experience and your knowledge. It’s so wonderful.

Shala: Thank you so much for having me.









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Ep. 284 6-Part Series: Managing Mental Compulsions (with Shala Nicely)

Ep. 284 6-Part Series: Managing Mental Compulsions (with Shala Nicely)