What Are Obsessions in OCD? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, impulses, or ideas that are recurrent and cause you to feel a high level of anxiety or distress. Learn about obsessions, compulsions, OCD, and more.


Imagine that you are attending your first course as a college student. You worry about whether you will be able to retain enough of the information from lectures in order to pass your quizzes. You also worry about being asked a question and not knowing the answer. To help calm your anxieties, you take detailed notes during each lecture and join a study group. You receive an 'A' on your first assignment and continue to take good notes and meet with other students. After this, you no longer worry about your grades and continue to maintain an 'A' average.

Suppose you have a friend who also has the same concerns and worries. She wakes up three hours before her classes every day to study and go over the class notes. She triple-checks all of her homework assignments and joined four different study groups. She rarely goes out anymore, except to go study at the library. She is dumped by her boyfriend of 11 months due to her isolation and lack of communication, and her job performance begins to decline. Even after she gets an 'A' on an assignment, she puts herself down and talks about what she should have done better.

You ask her why she spends so much time on her schoolwork when her grades are good, to which she replies that 'Good isn't enough; I have to be perfect or else I am a failure.' She said that she knows that her excessive studying is causing problems in her relationships, but she doesn't know how to stop.

In the examples above, both you and your friend have similar worries. Unlike your worries, the worries of your friend have gone past the normal fears and anxieties of being a new college student. Her worries have become obsessions, which in her case are related to her perfectionism.

What Are Obsessions?

If you have ever experienced persistent and intrusive thoughts, images, impulses, or ideas that are recurrent and cause you to feel a high level of anxiety or distress, then you have an obsession. We do not want to have obsessions, nor do we feel like we can control them. We may even realize that our obsessions don't make sense. Obsessions are very time consuming and can interfere with our jobs, relationships, and finances.

Common Themes

So what are the most common obsessions? They include:

  • Contamination
    • i.e., being contaminated with germs by touching a door knob
  • Losing control
    • i.e., fear of blurting out insults in a classroom
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts
    • i.e., recurrent sexual thoughts about a pornographic image
  • Religion
    • i.e., concern with offending God by not praying for an hour every day
  • Harm
    • i.e., wondering if you have done something that could harm another
  • Perfectionism
    • i.e., concern about not remembering everything that your professor said

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