What is Outline Tracing Disorder?

This is an odd condition in which you are constantly drawing outlines of visible shapes with your eyes.

You may be sitting there at home, perfectly at ease, thinking about something or other, only to find that all the while you have been repeatedly tracing the outline of something, perhaps the lines of the wall around the windows, or the entire area of the ceiling. Sometimes the shapes you draw are so big that you move your head rather than your eyes.

That’s it. ‘Disorder’ may be the wrong word – it may be entirely benign. I am curious about this condition because I have been doing it for many years, probably all my life, certainly since I was at school 30 years ago. The action is so frequent and automatic that usually I am not aware I am doing it. In recent years I have become more self-aware and, on consciously checking, find that yes, indeed I have been drawing these outlines all the while, and, strangely, find that I have a clear memory of doing it as if I was perfectly conscious of the action at the time.

This picture shows some typical outlines I might trace in a room.

Modern-Living-Room-TV-Wall-Units-35-in-White-Color

Walls seem to obsess me particularly, especially the outline that things make against the wall, but that may be because I am most often indoors. Outside, it obviously happens less because shapes are constantly changing, but it still happens at every opportunity. My brain immediately seeks out and latches onto the shapes of things against surfaces and starts tracing them as if it is the key to some kind of discovery. I have a distinct preference for certain types of shape – they have to be irregular and ‘interesting’. I would not be interested in tracing the simple rectangular outline of the television, for instance.

I am the first to admit this is not entirely normal though I am in two minds whether it is pathological. It may well aid concentration – akin to jiggling the leg or pacing up and down. On the other hand, it is mildly annoying to catch myself doing it constantly, and the activity must be taking up cognitive resources (as it were a portion of computer memory), that may impede concentration on other tasks, even significantly. I don’t know.

There is no discernible anxiety connected with this. It doesn’t seems to happen more in tense situations than in others, but all the time, with any static scene and in the most relaxed environments. At the very least, it seems to indicate an over-alert mind, and may go hand in hand with a number of other obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as compulsive counting or restless leg syndrome, though I think (thankfully) it is much less intrusive than those. Perhaps I am the only person in the world afflicted by this outline tracing condition, but somehow I suspect I am not alone.

One thing I’m not interested in is talking to a doctor about this. I have never yet met a doctor who, when it comes to subtle areas like phobias and allergies, have much of a clue and I’ve met plenty who have been downright harmful with their ill-informed speculation. Even a specialist in OCDs, I suspect, will have little clue how to deal with this, if the specialist advice I have already come across is anything to go by. So please spare me that suggestion.

I have set up this website and coined the phrase Outline Tracing Disorder because I can see no mention of it in the medical literature and hardly any mention of it on the internet. The only reference I have come across is here: Mentalhealth.net where a few individuals mention tracing in combination with compulsive counting.

The aim is to pool available experience on outline tracing. It would be interesting to try to establish, among other things:

  • Whether the action is disruptive to normal everyday activity
  • Whether the action has any hidden (constructive?) psychological purpose
  • Whether it is linked to other conditions (such as headaches or anxiety attacks or the inability to concentrate) which together form a kind of syndrome
  • Whether there is anything can be done about it (I suspect not, beyond a lobotomy)

First though, is there anyone out there who recognises this condition? It would be interesting to hear from you. Just click on replies link below and there is a ‘Leave a reply’ box at the foot of that page.

I wish I could make this WordPress theme automatically show all the replies in full at the foot of the page, but haven’t yet mastered the technicalities of this. In the meantime, a list of the 10 latest comments is below, or you can click on the “replies” link (at the bottom) or the speech bubble (near the top) to see them all.

Update May 28th 2015:

It’s over two years since I set up this tentative web page on “outline tracing”. Since then 5800 people have visited the site and nearly 150 people have left a message – and I must say, everyone who replied came across as good-natured, intelligent, and articulate.

I have let the site run more or less unattended since then but given all those replies, now might be a good time to try to take our understanding of this issue a little further.

To try and contribute a little more to this, I have studied all of the replies and will try to summarise what we have learned so far.

  • Clearly this is not as rare as I thought – it may be reasonably common, assuming all of the thousands of visitors to this site came here in recognition of this condition.
  • This is a long-term condition with many people reporting it from childhood through to old age, and with some parents observing it in quite young children.
  • Many people keep it hidden, even from their partners.
  • The consensus is that the habit is largely subconscious, fairly uncontrollable, and quite frustrating.
  • Despite it being quite annoying, no one has said this condition in itself has significantly hampered their life. Clearly some very successful people have coped with it perfectly well.
  • Tracing is done by different people in different ways: using eyes, tongue, toes, teeth, frequently involving head movements or even whole body movements, with a wide range of personal preference regarding shapes or items that tend to be traced, and in tracing techniques, such as direction, systems, and strategies.
  • Tracers tend to be thinkers with active minds, often artistic or creative, and often perfectionists.
  • The correlation with other psychological conditions such as other OCDs (especially counting), depression, and anxiety would seem to be significant. Quite a number of people also reported having frequent headaches.
  • Tracing seems to be done mostly in sedentary situations such as watching television or driving.
  • It is obscure in that no one understands why they do it, and were frustrated by their complete inability to stop.
  • Some people (no doubt the severe cases) assume that it interferes with their ability to concentrate. Other people consider it quite harmless – even a relaxing recreation.
  • Some therapists are familiar with the condition and consider it an OCD.
  • A few people have found that they do it more often as they get older.

It’s surely fair to say we have by now established this as bona fide condition and no doubt it would be useful to have some more in-depth discussion. As WordPress is not really good for that, I have set up a discussion forum at:

http://outlinetracing.forumer.com/

Feel free to drop by there and contribute to the debate – the more the merrier.

I will leave this site up as it is now regularly attracting visitors via Google. Comments are still welcome here, but I hope everyone, having read this, will head over to the forum.

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312 thoughts on “What is Outline Tracing Disorder?

  1. Hello! this is my first time to comment online…i suspect i have a mild OCD so i checked articles on OCD but didnt find anything related to outline tracing…i studied drafting…so i thought thats how i got this habit after college. i do this all the time especially while travelling on any sort of transportation…i trace more horizontals and verticals like post, road signs, billboards etc…and doing it while moving my fingers. Sometimes i find myself consciously controlling it if i feel tiredness on my eyes and try focusing on something else…but eventually doing it again…i wonder if there’s cure for this?

  2. i feel like this is maybe ocd. i do have ocd and i never really noticed i traced things until i was thinking about my compulsions. i also do have anxiety and depression, so maybe this is a mental disorder? idrk but this article helped me and hopefully this feedback helps with your study!

  3. I do this too!!! And you’re right, it’s something you don’t tell anyone; you just do it and it feels normal! I’m always tracing objects without realising, or features, like eyes for example. It doesn’t bother me unless I’m paying attention to it and trying to stop it, but it’s automatic! Glad to know I’m not the only one 🙂

  4. I have traced visible, geometric shapes with my finger for over 30 YEARS! It happens when I am at rest, but conscious, and thoughtful. It happens when I am at church listening to a sermon. It happens when I am thinking about things but not otherwise bodily active. It’s good to hear others do this. I have felt a bit crazy but it doesn’t interfere with my life. My husband is the only one that has noticed it because I was accidentally tracing a shape when we were holding hands. It’s unintentional. I hope others don’t notice it.

  5. When watching Youtube videos I occasionally find myself tracing the outline of peoples’ faces and other things of the sort. I find it somewhat relaxing and don’t consciously initiate the activity. I know that I only do it briefly because usually I am watching educational videos and the act of tracing detracts somewhat from my ability to concentrate. (writen by young white male man) I very much appreciate you having put this page together David S.!

  6. When watching Youtube videos I occasionally find myself tracing the outline of peoples’ faces and other things of the sort. I find it somewhat relaxing and don’t consciously initiate the nativity. I know that I only do it briefly because usually I am watching educational videos and the act of tracing detracts somewhat from my ability to concentrate. (writen by young white male man) I very much appreciate you having put this page together David S.!

  7. I do this so much and I have no idea why. I’m 12 and started 4 years ago I’m pretty sure. Whenever I’m in a room I trace doorways cabinets and more. When I’m on a device like a phone or computer I bite my lower lip and start drooling while I do it it’s really weird and I cannot control it.

  8. Hi I’m Hazel. A welsh woman in my 40’s with a history of life trauma and anxiety which ruined my health and finally culminated with a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. I have a whole mass of health issues including frequent headaches, ibs and jaw clenching.

    I have been spelling words and drawing faces with my fingers for a very long time, although I couldn’t pinpoint when it started.

    I only ever use my right hand starting with my thumb and have to ensure the word finishes with my little finger, but the initial word could be any length so if I spell for instance ‘fingers’ I then have to think of other words to add such as ‘are great’ to ensure this pattern.

    I draw faces too with the eyebrows being traced with my thumb and little finger, the eyes with the two fingers next to them and a nose with my middle finger, the lips then traced using my thumb again.

    It’s dead weird, pathologically compulsive and as soon as I catch myself doing it I stop; but as soon as I stop thinking about it I start up again. Honestly it drives me nuts!

    I’m a typist by trade and sometimes posit that my fingers are so used to moving it’s hard for them to stop, but I don’t type, I write, in a particular style font too if you can believe it!

    I finally googled it for the first time and found your website and thought I’d get in touch, glad to see it’s not just me, although I do feel much empathy for those others compelled by this strange compulsion.

  9. My grandson started doing this about 6 months ago. He will b 6 in March. He had chronic ear infection finally tubes. It’s been hard to keep up with him since age 2. It’s like he is 20 steps ahead of us at all times. He gets extremely bored quick. He mastered an iphone showed his mom how to work it. But he has trouble concentration. He told me rhat he traces bug object just as you described.

  10. I trace faces houses cars everything ive traced it with my toes tounge fingers since I can remember I’ve been doing this its rare I do know…

  11. I’m 24 and I’ve been doing this as long as i can remember. It has never interfered with my life at all and I honestly don’t notice i’m doing it half the time. For me this usually only happens when i’m alone and when i’m doing something that doesn’t need my full attention. Like watching tv or waiting for something on a computer. I’ll trace out the characters on animated shows, logos, the lines on a browser or video, the lines on a suit, stuff like that. I think it’s just my brains default thing to do when i’m not mentally stimulated enough.

    • I should add that I have a low patience and I like everything to be organized and labeled. This is especially true when I am left on my own. Also I tend to learn things quick so it’s probably just an overactive mind. The interesting part is that this is a total 180 from my parents. But I am stoked that there are others that do this too.

  12. I first noticed when I was 15 that I trace outlines of words, like the outline of a word on the wall of a church sanctuary while listening to a sermon or some lettering in a class ppt lecture. Then, I noticed a few years ago that I couldn’t stop tracing the interesting neckline of someone’s shirt top. Seemed so strange to me. I also struggle with anxiety. I never looked this up before, but today was curious as to whether or not it is a sign of OCD and found this site! Wow, it is actually something lots of other people do, too!

    • I should add that I am perfectionistic and a pretty high detail. I haven’t noticed this habit as impacting my life negatively, but have always wondered about it. I am 43 now.

  13. I have noticed this from my 6 year old son. He gets so intent with it. His mouth drops open and you can see his eyes tracing the letters on something. Sometimes he even tells me to hold on and that he’s tracing with eyes. I’m curious what and why….?

  14. I just looked up people who like to trace things to see if this is a disorder. My son was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age 4 he is now 6.3. And I keep noticing his head moving in a circular motion. I started checking the tags weren’t left in any of his clothing by accident and just keeping an wya on him because if I bring it up to him and it is a new tic it will make it way worse. So just this morning he was doing it again and I nonchalantly said is your neck bothering you? He replied no I just like tracing stuff with my eyes. Now that I think of it I have noticed him doing this when he counts things. He is always counting windows ceiling tiles steps And if he’s counting and loses count he seems to be very upset and has to start back from the beginning. The other thing that is a little worrisome is he has been complaining about headaches for about three weeks almost everyday. I’m sad but I guess it’s sometjing I will have to learn how to teach him to cope with.

  15. I do this all of the time and seem to catch myself when I’m supposed o be listening to someone but instead I focus more on the shapes around me. I just lost my train of thought because I caught myself doing it.

  16. I posted a question about this like ten years ago on yahoo answers and no one understood. Now I’m 24 and I’m still tracing things with my eyes and my toes. Mainly it happens while I’m watching TV shows and I’ll be so focused on tracing the actors eyebrows or nose that I lose track of the dialog and have to rewind. Thankfully it doesn’t distrupt my personal life much. But I’ve always had a hard time concentrating.

  17. I trace what ever takes my interest visualy. I make a copy of the image with thumb movements and its comepletely subconsious.
    Although something I did much more as a child for fun and is concious, I walk and drag my finger on anything by my side and imagine that my finger is connecting everything in my path.
    I like to look out the car window and focus on one spot and trace the outlines of buldings with my eyes as the car moves.

    • If done this for years I am now 60 I have no control over it windows and doors shapes of rooms people’s noses and ears are my worse but I mentally draw everything all the time

  18. I have been doing the online traceing thing for years I thought I was going buggy at times it’s good to know I not the only one

  19. I have been tracing lines on objects for as long as I remember. It started in childhood tracing the wall paper beside my bed. The wall paper had orange and brown flowers and when you looked closer the flower shapes turned into scary faces and sometimes the faces smiled, which wasn’t all that often.
    Than to try and stop doing that I started tracing doors. My door had 6 panels, each panel was raised and when you look closer each raised panel had 5 sperate lines followed by a flat square which had 4 lines to make up the square. I would start on the frame and count over and over again until I was satisfied that I counted each square / line making sure I got the same number.
    I have now moved onto not just tracing and counting shapes but trying to devide shapes into half by a slanted line through the middle of each panel, than trying to focus on tracing the new shape in one go without crossing over any other line.
    The more I look at objects the harder it is to count as each object has a shadow, each shadow has a light and dark shade.
    That’s my story so far……

    • Omg. I’ve just read myself. I’ve done this all my life, or at least I can’t remember not doing it. I love tracing panels on doors for the very reason you said. I can never remember the total number though so do it repeatedly. It’s not the number that’s important but the action of doing it. I can hold a conversation and watch tv while doing it. I think it’s to do with order. I want everything to have order and symmetry.

  20. I can relate to this, mostly. Instead of tracing the outlines of objects, I can see “imaginary” lines extending off the ends of objects such as a wall, a door jam, computer desk, chair legs, cardboard box…just about anything that has a definite line to it. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what I see. As such, I do my best to avoid stepping along that line path. I have no superstition that anything bad will happen to me or anybody if I happen to step along that line, but it makes me self-conscious and I feel that I must take better care not to step along another line I happen to see. Similarly, I will not step on any cracks. I have gotten so good at adjusting my stride to avoid cracks in the sidewalk or building floor that it appears to fit within my normal stride. Also, if I happen to be walking down the sidewalk, what drives me crazy is that I cannot help but to count the number of steps I take within each slab of the concrete. For those that believe this happens to a certain demographic, I am a millenial Alaska Native born and raised here in Bristol Bay.

  21. I’ve been experiencing something similar to this, although rather than outlining objects, it’s more like i’m drawing lines straight through objects, back and forth, through different colors or surfaces. For example, lined paper. I find myself drawing imaginary lines from usually the top of one of the “lines” to the bottom, and then back up, but then it extends past that line into the white area (the writing space) above it, then back down once it hits the next line up, then going past that original line, through the next writing space until it hits the next line below, and so on. I have to consciously have to stop myself from doing this, and sometimes it doesn’t even work. It’s compulsive; an irresistible urge. It makes focusing incredibly difficult, and makes reading/schoolwork take much longer than it should, since i spend half of the time drawing those imaginary lines, looking at the text printed on the page (it happens with letters and numbers, too). It also strains my eyes and causes headaches since my eyes move along with the imaginary lines, following them as they move back and forth throughout whatever I’m looking at. I’ve tried looking this up but this is the closest thing I’ve found. Hopefully someone here knows what I’m talking about and can be of some help.

  22. I have just found this site although I believed there must be someone else out there doing this. I’m 66 and have traced outlines with my toes all my life. I move my eyes as I trace and am often asked what I’m looking at. As a counsellor I found concentration difficult and my work very tiring as part of my brain was dedicated to ‘tracing’. I have most of the symptoms you have outlined and while I have a degree of OCD, I believe the condition (disorder) to be related to autism. I would love to see a study done on this ‘disorder’.

  23. Yep I’m 39 and I’ve also done this forever. I catch myself doing it to road signs and traffic signals often. I guess my brain is fascinated with ceiling fan blades too. I’ll try to count the blades and trace the outline while the fan is spinning. Haha. I just assumed it may be a way my mind dealt with anxiety. I consider myself detail oriented also, so I also thought it my be just me looking at the details and seeing if there are inconsistencies in the shapes I was tracing. I even find myself tracing letters on a computer screen. It’s a bit weird. Funny there’s others out there doing it too. Hey y’all! Lol

  24. Trace things 24/7 with my eyes. Always have to move them in a fast sharp motion. Find myself tracing outlines trying to figure out if I can trace every edge of something with out having to move to different areas. Crazy lol.

  25. I am so glad I found your post! I am 36 and I have been tracing things for as long as I can remember. Mainly what stands out to me are faces, tv’s, pictures, and many more things. I thought something was wrong with me! I’m glad to see I’m not the only one! Thanks for your post!

    • I’m 30 and have been tracing for as long as I could remember. I want to stop but I don’t even know where to start. I even trace words and phrases. I trace doors and corners of rooms. Any and everything lol. It’s annoying. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one. I do have anxiety though and I notice that if I am in an uncomfortable situation, I’ll trace more frequently and faster. Do you have the same pattern?

  26. I am so so so so glad I finally found a website dedicated to this. I recently noticed this in myself. I am 22 years old and I can’t help but trace things. At first I noticed I would trace circles with my foot but then it started worsening and I started doing it with my body and then I was able to stop it and now I do it my head. When I force myself to stop bobbing my head in motions of shapes, my eyes will start doing it. I work with kids on the spectrum and I notice they bob their heads a lot and I thought maybe this way my way of calming myself but I always do it in calming settings so I’m so unsure of how this started.

  27. I’m so glad I came across this on a google search. I’ve felt alone on this for years!! I’ve done eye tracing and obsessive counting for as long as I can remember! I first went to a psychiatrist with this condition while I was in college and was told it was OCD and ADHD and I was medicated. I remember not being able to discribe exactly what I was feeling, doing and seeing and this forum put everything into perspective …as did reading everyone’s replies. I wish there were more research and material to understand a little more. I don’t think it affects my daily routine however I found it extremely distracting while driving and I’m lecture during college. I notice it’s definitely more apparent while driving and while watching TV…just like the author of this forum describes. I’m well educated, I have a successful career, definitely a perfectionist and I have taken tests that tell me I’m over analytical (lol)

  28. Oh my god i have always done this but now im middle aged it has got worse and I am stressng about it. Not sure if I have autism or something

  29. I have been doing this ever since I can remember! I’m glad I’m not alone. It seems to calm me and doesn’t interfere with my daily functions. I just get picked on when my husband catches me doing it.

  30. It is so cool to see that I’m not alone. I’ve been drawing patterns for years, tho not exactly sure when it started. At any point of the day I unconsciously begin drawing complex patterns with my fingers. I sometimes do it on a surface which the arm of the couch is my favorite because i like the feel of it and i can see the pattern. But most times it’s in the air. I never really thought it was weird or questioned why I do this until this morning. I was drawing a pattern with my toes on the bottom of the opposite foot and then I thought, I’m going to google this and see if it’s some kind of disorder. I am 38 yrs old, a analytical thinker, a licensed cosmetologist, I love to cook, I LOVE all things artsy an I am a PERFECTIONIST to the 10th power! I often think of my self as a weirdo but in the COOLEST way possible.

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