Don’t Label Me: Evolving Use of Language and “You’re so OCD/ADD”

Have you ever heard anyone say, “You’re so OCD!” or “That’s really ADD”? I assume that those who say it intend to use the phrase in describing precise/perfectionistic or distractible tendencies. But how do people who daily overcome the challenges of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – in all its forms – react to the use of this phrase? And what about the flippant use of “ADD” in reference to the distractibility which stereotypically characterizes Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADD/ADHD)? I know that language evolves and is used figuratively, but it’s still good to know where words and their meanings originate and how what we say affects other people.

About ADHD & OCD

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

According to the OCD-UK organization, “Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, often followed by repetitive compulsions, impulses or urges.” OCD can take different forms and is not only typified by the behaviors most people think of – hand washing, counting, and arranging. OCD-UK also explains that a person’s OCD will typically fall into one of the four main categories:

  • Checking
  • Contamination / Mental Contamination
  • Hoarding
  • Ruminations / Intrusive Thoughts.

People with OCD are generally unhappy with their situation and may feel agitated, fearful, or upset about the consequences of not performing the compulsive behavior.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)

In contrast, OCPD is not an anxiety disorder; rather, it is a personality disorder. People with OCPD are generally happy with their behaviors and view them as maintaining high standards. The OCD-UK further elucidates the traits that a person with OCPD may exhibit:

            “With OCPD, a person may be generally preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism and control in virtually every part of his or her life. But rather than be anxious about this, they have no interest in changing—in actual fact they see their behavior and thoughts as desirable traits. For example a person with OCPD may spend an extreme amount of time cleaning their home and communal areas of an apartment because they like a perfect appearance and want to consider it immaculately clean. But while this behavior may seem odd, or even be frustrating to others, the person performing the behavior truly believes that others are at fault for not maintaining that same level of cleanliness.” (para. 10)

Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

There are three types of Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder which are manifest in adults who have had symptoms since childhood. The organization, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (CHADD), describe the three types:

ADHD—Primarily Inattentive Type:

  • Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
  • Has difficulty sustaining attention
  • Does not appear to listen
  • Struggles to follow through on instructions
  • Has difficulty with organization
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort
  • Is easily distracted
  • Is forgetful in daily activities

ADHD—Primarily Hyperactive/Impulsive Type:

  • Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in chair
  • Has difficulty remaining seated
  • Runs around or climbs excessively
  • Has difficulty engaging in activities quietly
  • Acts as if driven by a motor
  • Talks excessively
  • Blurts out answers before questions have been completed
  • Has difficulty waiting or taking turns
  • Interrupts or intrudes upon others

ADHD—Combined Type:

Meets both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive criteria.

If you’d like to learn more about what constitutes OCD and ADHD, check out the recommendations for further reading at the end of this blog.

Drawing Parallels

We all know that language changes over time. We develop and adapt words to keep up with advancing technology (Google it, OMG, tweet); we incorporate foreign terms as “loan words” into our own language (bouquet, pizza, karaoke); and we come up with slang or fad phrases each generation (groovy, phat, peeps). One term that has evolved through the generations into a multiple meaning word with at least three different connotations is the term “gay.” This word has been the subject of much discussion because of its potential to offend. Although it started off meaning “happy or cheerful,” it was later used to mean “homosexual.” Now you’ll hear people nonchalantly throwing around the phrase “that’s so gay” to “describe something as inferior, not cool or rubbish” (Khairoun). McCormack has “developed a new model for understanding this changing use of language, which highlights how the intent, effect, and environment within which words are used are vitally important in determining whether homophobia is present or not” (para. 11).

Although not entirely parallel, it seems that the phrases, “you’re so OCD/ADD” mirror changes in language use similar to those of “that’s so gay.” While we recognize what people mean when using these phrases, they might still be used to degrade a person’s self-worth. As McCormack declared, the intent, effect, and environment do determine what attitude is present. So do we continue to use these phrases when our motivation is innocuous, or do we choose to refrain from saying them entirely out of respect for others?

It may be a simplistic illustration, but imagine that your words are wooden blocks. You can either build up another person’s block tower or you can knock it down. Remember how it felt as a kid when someone else knocked over your blocks? Ouch.


I choose to think about my language use and the words I use to address others. I want them to feel valuable because they are! And I don’t want what I say to ever crush the spirit of another. I choose to forgive myself when I slip up, to forgive others who hurt me, and to apologize when I’ve hurt someone else. Let’s keep an open dialogue, an open mind, and an open heart in the way we relate to each other so that everyone will receive the respect they deserve.


Recommendations for further reading:



One thought on “Don’t Label Me: Evolving Use of Language and “You’re so OCD/ADD”

  1. I didn’t know what OCD really entailed until my husband was diagnosed. It is debilitating to him. There are many days I have to force him to leave the house or threaten him to not spend anymore money on something his mind has focused on.

    When I hear someone jokingly say they are “so OCD” because they wipe their kitchen counters down everyday or want their desk in a certain way, I fight back the urge to scream at them. Just because you are particular does NOT make you OCD. There is so much more to it than wanting things clean or in order. I watch my husband struggle everyday and their is nothing humorous about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s