An ongoing need for orderliness, perfection, and control is the characteristic trait of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Because of this trait, individuals with this personality disorder have tremendous difficulty being flexible or open to different ways of doing things. Their perfectionism may lead to inefficiency if they spend excessive amounts of time obsessing on tasks to ensure they are absolutely perfect.
Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) will identify with at least 4 of the symptoms below:
- An ongoing fixation with details, rules, order, organization, or schedules that is so severe that it can ruin the enjoyment or purpose of the activity.
- An obsession with perfectionism that may make it difficult to complete a task because they keep scrapping their imperfect work and starting over. They struggle to meet their own unrealistic standards of perfection.
- They may be workaholics or obsessed with productivity. This generally creates a lifestyle that does not allow time for leisure activities, relaxation, self-care, or friendships.
- A rigid mindset about what is right and wrong; they “go by the book,” and tend to have black and white thinking.
- Difficulty throwing things away, even when they are worn out or broken, and even when they hold no sentimental value.
- A belief that their “way” is the only right way to do anything; they generally don’t want to delegate tasks or ask for help because someone else might not do it exactly like they want it done.
- Tendency to be “tight” with money; they may live on a miserly budget, spending as little as possible, while hoarding money and other resources in case of some future catastrophe.
- Stubborn and rigid in general
The Difference in OCD and OCPD
You may not be aware that there are two separate mental health disorders with very similar names. This article discusses Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). I want to be very clear that this is not the same as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While they do share some tendencies, the primary difference is that individuals with OCD actually experience true “obsessions” –distressing recurrent thoughts or urges that will only go away by doing a certain thing. That “certain thing” they feel they must do is the “compulsion.” For example, an individual with OCD might keep having an intrusive thought about germs which will only go away if they wash their hands. The thought is the obsession; the act of hand-washing is the compulsion. However, it’s not that simple. Compulsions are often excessively repetitive behaviors, so they may wash their hands repeatedly and excessively. Another example would be repeatedly checking that the door is locked in order to relieve an obsessive thought about home invasion.
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder does not necessarily involve true obsessions and compulsions. A person with OCPD will not generally engage in repetitive behaviors, but instead is just very rigid, stubborn, and inflexible about the way things “should” be done.
OCPD and Control Issues
Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder generally have control issues. They become upset very quickly when they are not the one calling the shots. They may insist upon being the leader, the person who manages the finances, the contact person, or the organizer. In doing so, they are able to make sure that things are done exactly as they wish. They may demand written rather than verbal agreements for things that others consider trivial matters. And, if you travel with them, they will probably insist on being the driver instead of the passenger. All of these are examples of how an individual with OCPD attempts to be in control.
Because of this need for control, they often develop very rigid schedules for themselves and expect others to comply as well. In planning a family vacation, an individual with OCPD may create and try to impose a minute-by-minute schedule indicating how every moment of the trip will be spent. If others don’t follow the schedule, the family member with OCPD will become extremely agitated — this is because they are not capable of spontaneity, and without everyone following the sacred schedule, they feel they have lost control. This becomes a dilemma because they cannot enjoy the trip without abiding by the schedule, but their family members cannot enjoy the trip if they feel forced to follow such an inflexible plan. Unfortunately, this often leads to conflict and an unpleasant time for everyone.
As you might imagine, individuals with OCPD are usually the dominant partner in relationships. This is directly related to their need for control. They tend to partner with passive individuals who will agree to submit to their rigid way of doing things.
Individuals with OCPD view all things as one of two extremes — if it’s not perfect, it’s a complete failure. And since none of us are capable of always being perfect, this creates problems. It is extremely difficult for them to accept anything as “good enough.” If there is the slightest flaw, it is unacceptable. They set unrealistically high standards for themselves and for others, and constantly find themselves disappointed when they are not attained. They are self-critical as well as critical of others, and it can seem that someone with OCPD is impossible to please.
When holidays, weddings, birthdays, and other special events roll around, the individual with OCPD will overplan and stress themselves out (as well as everyone else) by relentlessly insisting that things must be a certain way. They want every detail to be perfect and, if it isn’t, they will deem the entire event a fiasco or a disaster. They cannot be flexible enough to roll with the unexpected, improvise, compromise, or leave out something that was part of the plan. It makes it very difficult for anyone to actually enjoy the celebration when there is anger and obsession over minor details.
Difficulties with Work/Life Balance
Individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder are often referred to as “workaholics.” It is difficult for them to avoid over-working. This is partly because they spend a great deal of time in their relentless pursuit of perfection in all that they do. And it is partly because they may be extremely devoted to their work and may believe that they can’t take time off due to fear that others won’t take care of things according to their unrealistic expectations in their absence. They may prioritize work over relationships, self-care, and sometimes even their health. If the individual with OCPD is the boss, they may impose these unreasonable standards on their employees as well, which generally leads to difficulty retaining staff.
When individuals with OCPD do take time off work, they have difficulty relaxing and may devote that time to excessive cleaning at home or finding other ways to feel productive. They may have hobbies, but often get frustrated with them instead of enjoying them. Because of the relentless drive for perfection, golf clubs may end up flung into the lake, paint brushes and canvases burned in the backyard, and entire batches of cookies trashed because “good” just isn’t good enough.
Having fun is a challenge, even with their kids, because they take things way too seriously. They may be easily frustrated when trying to teach a child how to play a sport, and may turn the game into a harsh “lesson” instead of an enjoyable activity. Children of parents with OCPD often feel like they can never do anything right because there is always criticism about something, even when they perform really well.
Personal Possessions and Spaces
Since individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder crave order and structure, they are often adamant about how furniture is arranged and where things “belong,” and they have a special spot for everything. If you move something out of its place, they will know, and they won’t be happy about it.
They may have difficulty getting rid of things, even if they hold no sentimental value, because they are insistent upon not being wasteful. Additionally, they worry about not having money or resources for unforeseen future catastrophes. As a result, they may store up supplies for all sorts of possible emergencies. Some might develop a hoarding disorder, but unlike what we typically imagine when we envision the home of a hoarder, individuals with OCPD will have the most meticulously organized hoard you’ve ever seen.
Disorganization is distressful to them in general. Therefore, they will painstakingly organize their office spaces, garages, closets, cabinets, and drawers, and yours as well if you allow them. In doing so, they feel that they control over their environment, at least to some extent.
Discomfort with Emotions
Since emotions can sometimes feel uncontrollable, individuals with OCPD don’t like them. They like to be completely in control. If they do outwardly express any emotion, it will most likely be anger. They are especially uncomfortable with tears, and are often irritated when someone cries in their presence. They are quite intolerant of any display of emotions from others, which often leads people to believe that they don’t care, even when they do. They do have the ability to show affection, but it is often expressed in an awkward, highly controlled fashion, which can also make relationships confusing. Individuals with OCPD often come across too stiff and business-like in personal relationships, which is difficult for others to understand. And their constant pursuit of perfection also creates a significant strain on relationships, as does their need to always have things “their way.”
Individuals with OCPD express opinions much better than they express emotions, especially tender emotions. As a result, they often just don’t express them at all. Love and intimacy can make them feel vulnerable and emotional, which feels uncontrollable, and therefore, unacceptable. Because of the tremendous effort and discomfort that romantic relationships involve for individuals with OCPD, some opt to just remain single. Others are able to maintain romantic relationships if they are able to find a submissive partner who is able to live with their rules and rigidity.
Rules, Morals, Ethics, and Values
The inability to be flexible carries over into matters of moral principles and ethics. Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder have rigid views of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. They “go by the book” and rigidly obey rules without the ability to make reasonable exceptions due to valid extenuating circumstances. They force themselves and others to conform to strict standards of performance and productivity, and they are excessively conscientious and mercilessly critical about mistakes.
They are rigidly deferential to authority and rules, often with the perception that their authority figure (boss, teacher, parent, agency, etc.) is much stricter and harsher than is actually the case. They insist that there must be quite literal compliance at all times, with no rule-bending, ever, under any circumstances. As a result, others may perceive individuals with OCPD to be unreasonable at times because of their lack of flexibility. Even in trivial matters that should not be a big deal, they may refuse to compromise, stating, “It’s the principle of the thing.”
OCPD is one of the most prevalent personality disorders, and is more common in males than females. Individuals with a Type A personality or who struggle with anxiety disorders, phobias, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have an increased likelihood of also developing OCPD. (About 20% of individuals with OCD will also meet criteria for OCPD. It is possible to be diagnosed with both.)
Depression, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, and hoarding are additional diagnoses common to people with OCPD. They also have increased rates of substance use disorders.
The treatment generally recommended for OCPD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a form of psychotherapy, and most mental health counselors are trained to provide it. CBT can help target and address the problematic traits that are creating distress and impairment by helping the individual understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT also addresses core beliefs and core conflicts and seeks to replace faulty thought patterns with healthier, more adaptive ones.
Psychodynamic therapy is another treatment option for OCPD. This form of therapy focuses on helping the individual understand their unconscious thoughts so that they develop insight about how past experiences affect current feelings and actions. For example, the need for perfection and control might stem from a desire for affection and approval that they never received from parents who were harsh or emotionally unavailable. Psychodynamic therapy aims to make change possible by developing insights into these connections with the past.
There are no specific medications for Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. But, since many individuals with OCPD also struggle with depression or anxiety, they are often prescribed antidepressants or anxiolytics which can help reduce symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.
Most individuals with OCPD do not believe they need treatment, and this resistance can make the disorder difficult to treat. However, for those who are willing to seek and accept help, treatment can be effective.
Diagnostic criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. For more information on personality disorders, please visit: What is a Personality Disorder? – Navigating Life (juliebailey.net) and Get Help With Personality Disorders (psychiatry.org).