Compulsions often arise from a desire to prevent harm, either to oneself or others, and can take many forms, such as performing a task a certain number of times or enacting particular rituals. Of course, doing everything four times, or tapping every lamppost you walk past, can't possibly prevent illness or death, and this kind of behaviour must seem ridiculous to other people.
Be that as it may, it's not so very different from the avoidance behaviour and rituals that arise from superstitions, which tell us the same thing: that bad luck or harm will befall us if we, say, walk under a ladder or break a mirror.
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Cultural differences come into play, of course. The Chinese consider several numbers to be unlucky, but particularly 4; apparently because the word is similar to the word for 'death'.
And some professions have developed specific superstitions, like those relating to sailors and fishermen, which some still observe. You may be familiar with many of these, such as no whistling or women on board, but did you know that bananas are also a no-no?
Individuals may engage in their own unique practices, as well. One friend recalls being told, as a teenager, that if you walk under a sign on a pavement - ie between the two posts holding it up - you should touch your head to ward off bad luck. She was also advised not to step on three manhole covers in a row, for the same reason. To this day, she tries to avoid walking under signs - or touches her head, if she does - and makes sure to hop over that third cover. She's a keen runner and even does this when exercising! She claims to have seen others do the same, although I've only found a couple of online references to either of these.
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David Veale and Rob Willson, in their book Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, say that they deliberately avoid superstitious behaviours, to encourage their patients to resist their compulsions. They make the point that these activities all fall on the same spectrum, with compulsions being more intrusive and upsetting.
So, the next time you find yourself touching wood or refusing to bring an open umbrella indoors, remember all of those OCD sufferers fighting their battles...and see if you can resist, too.
Oh, and don't panic, but Friday the 13th is coming to a calendar near you very, very soon...
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Are there any superstitions that particularly trouble you? And how easy would you find it to ignore them?