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  • Obsessive Compulsive Personality from a Psychologist's View

    The Obsessive Compulsive Personality
    by Dr. Dan Bochner

    Perfectionism, the desire to do everything perfectly, or the desire to be perfect, is at the core of the obsessive compulsive personality. But there's no such thing as perfect. Right? That is the dilemma that plagues the obsessive compulsive. Most individuals with obsessive compulsive personality (as opposed to obsessive compulsive disorder*) have developed within relatively healthy circumstances, except for one thing. For some reason they have developed the impression that they could easily lose the love of their parents if they did not do things “right.” In an alternate variant of obsessive compulsive personality (which is equally, if not even more prevalent), some people develop the idea that they must always be “good” to earn parental love. Through some mixture of genetic sensitivities and parental authority, the obsessive compulsive learns to do it “right” or to “be good” or face significant disapproval. Guilt is thus always connected to obsessive compulsive patterns as the obsessive compulsive determines that they are, of course, to blame for parental disapproval. Although they typically feel cared for at the most elemental levels, this last but essential element, the feeling that one is loved unconditionally, is not quite complete for the obsessive compulsive.

    Now this might not sound especially important at first. And perhaps my description of the problem, as the potential loss of love, may sound a bit overly dramatic. But for the obsessive compulsive these ideas rule their life. To make matters worse, the whole dilemma is largely unconscious – that is, the obsessive compulsive doesn't even know that the potential loss of love is ruling their life. Part of thinking one is doing things “right” or is “being good” is the thought that it is simply the “right” or “best” thing to do. If it's just the “right” or “best” thing to do, certainly there can be nothing wrong with it. In fact, most of the time things go so right for someone who is obsessive compulsive that there really doesn't appear to be much wrong.

    Doing things “right” and being “good” leads to hard work and a job well-done. People who are obsessive compulsive are appreciated by others for what they do. Their work often leads to financial success. They take care of their things and their homes, and typically they also dress well. They're also helpful in most circumstances and, generally speaking, they can be relied upon. They do not miss work. They are neat and clean and organized. Obsessive compulsives are the people who, on job applications, make the statement true: “My biggest weakness is I try to do things too perfectly.”

    Although many things go “right” for the person with obsessive compulsive personality, some very significant problems do, nevertheless, arise. The inability to feel one's own innate worth as a human being is at the core of the problem. When other problems arise, such as how obsessive compulsive traits affect relationships or the depth of desperation that overtakes the obsessive compulsive when something does go wrong, all other issues come back to this basic inability to love oneself. Obsessive compulsives lack the automatic thought that they are worthwhile and important because they feel the love they have received is conditional. As indicated above, they feel that they had to do things “right” or to “be good” or they would lose the love of their parents. This inability to experience an innate sense of self-worth makes the obsessive fend off disaster by proving their worth repeatedly. When problems arise, their self-worth is left perilously dangling over an abyss of self-doubt, and at those junctures obsessive compulsives often plunge into desperate, guilt filled, depression.

    The obsessive compulsive may not realize it, but they are constantly trying to prove themselves worthy of love. They don't realize it, however, because, oddly, their experience of trying to prove their love doesn't feel that way at all. Most of the time, in fact, the obsessive compulsive perceives themselves as being the one to whom others must prove themselves. And strangely, that is also true. In fact, the obsessive compulsive expends so much effort at being beyond reproof, that they are often almost unassailable. The obsessive compulsive attempts to see every possibility and take care of every eventuality before anyone else possibly could. Even in psychotherapy, the obsessive compulsive experiences such pain and shame over someone else seeing their tendencies before they see them for themselves that they often rush to beat the therapist to the punch when it comes to insights. Most of the time self-analysis is positive in psychotherapy in that therapists usually find it most useful if a client finds their own truths, but in the case of the obsessive compulsive insight is less important than relationship.

    The very fact that the obsessive compulsive has to prove their worth clearly demonstrates that they are not convinced of their own self-worth. The obsessive compulsive, however, does not truly rely on love from others for their self-esteem, as it may at first seem. Unlike other personality disorders in which there was no love for the individual's true self as a child - that is, their weaknesses, desires, need for independence, their natural born assertiveness or aggressiveness - the obsessive compulsive personality knows that those things have been accepted within them. As opposed to feeling those things should not exist within them, the obsessive compulsive instead feels those things should never be allowed to harm their relationships. They have observed disdain and rigidity with respect to those aspects of themselves and have thus deemed those aspects harmful. The obsessive compulsive thus aims to control these harmful emotions by doing things “right” or by “being good.”

    The control obsessive compulsives maintain over their very human attributes does not require wholesale denial as it does in other personality types, but the rigidity that was once experienced as disapproval is now co-opted within the obsessive compulsive to ensure those traits are not expressed. The obsessive compulsive does not need love for those attributes. They do know they can be loved in spite of them. But because they are deemed to be harmful, the obsessive compulsive works diligently so these potentially harmful feelings will not be seen. In that process, they become their own harshest critics. Instead of proving themselves to others, the obsessive compulsive aims to continually prove themselves to themselves. If they can be perfect enough, they believe, perhaps they will be beyond criticism. In the psyche of the obsessive compulsive, to be beyond criticism is to be worthy of unconditional love.

    Again, it's important to mention that the obsessive compulsive often does not realize they are trying to prove themselves. If they are good at doing things perfectly, they often have themselves quite well convinced that they are worthwhile. Because their perfectionism is so appreciated, their worth is reflected back to them constantly. Others love their work ethic, their knowledge, their ability to get things done. Likewise, although guilt is a huge motivator for the obsessive compulsive because they feel they have failed their parents which has resulted in the loss of their parents' love, they typically experience very little guilt. Of course that sounds very strange, doesn't it? How could it be possible that avoiding guilt is a primary motivator if it's rarely experienced? The fact is, however, as long as the obsessive compulsive's perfectionism is working adequately, they need not feel guilty, and do successfully avoid guilt, because they are doing everything so “right” or are being so “good.” Thus, the obsessive really has no reason in the present, while all is going well, to doubt their own confidence, rightness or goodness.

    Unfortunately, things can begin to unravel. The rigidity the obsessive compulsive has developed may help them deny their feelings of being not quite good enough by making things too perfect to go wrong, but because that rigidity prevents closeness with others, it also causes others to be conditional in their affections for the obsessive compulsive. People feel close to one another when they experience one another as human – that is, imperfect. In the obsessive compulsive, the inability to have others see their imperfections prevents healthy connection with them. The relationships obsessive compulsives develop are often predicated on the function each person has within the relationship. Because their relationships are functional, they aren't intimate. Their relationships remain conditional because others are always depending upon them for very particular responses. Others feel the obsessive compulsive gets certain things done and is hardly affected by what's going on around them. Thus, there is little reason to be concerned about them having sensitivities that must be taken into account. If their sensitivities need not be considered, there is unlikely to be any real connection. In this “perfect” way, obsessive compulsives actually prevent themselves from gaining love from others.

    Even worse, while the obsessive compulsive does not appear to have any particular sensitivities, they are sticklers for detail, either about how things are done or about how to do the right thing for others. Others around them are not concerned about hurting them in any way, but they are very concerned about disappointing the obsessive compulsive. The obsessive compulsive is generally very critical. They hold everyone to very high standards. When their rigid standards are not met, they can become extremely upset, condescending and judgmental. They are also perceived to be controlling because they act as though they know the “right” way for things to be done and everything must be done that particular “right” way. Of course, this behavior in the obsessive compulsive prevents closeness as well. It is so typical for an obsessive compulsive to create obsessive compulsive children because, even though they care very deeply about their children, their children experience the love they're given to be conditional. Instead of paying attention to their children's sensitivities, the obsessive compulsive focuses on whether or not their children do things “right” or whether their children are “good” people. The cycle thus continues with the children lacking that particular kind of closeness with their parent that would give them the ultimate confidence in their innate worth.

    It is important also to mention some specifics related to the second type of obsessive compulsive. As stated above, the classic type of obsessive compulsive is perfectionistic about how things are done. Their aim is to avoid things falling apart (what I call “responsibility fragmentation”) and the guilt associated with things falling apart, so all their effort is focused on control and their typical pattern of life gives the appearance that everything is completely fine. The subtype, and there is tremendous overlap between the two, are those obsessive compulsives who are particularly perfectionistic about being “good” people. Although this second type also wants to maintain control and prevent disaster, their most important aim is avoiding blame for others being hurt and the guilt associated with others getting hurt, not avoiding responsibility fragmentation. The most horrifying eventuality for the second type is the possibility of being isolated due to the potential loss of love from loved one's. If they don't take “perfect” care of others, and then something difficult occurs in the life of some other, the “good” obsessive will typically assume they could have helped prevent that problem or could have somehow influenced the other to do something differently that might have prevented that problem. The second type of obsessive compulsive attempts to avoid guilt at all times, but will feel tremendously guilty when they fail to prevent any kind of disaster or if anyone ever perceives them as putting their own needs first.

    This second type of obsessive compulsive often can't say “no.” They so often think of what others need that they really think they are hardly doing anything for themselves. In fact, they feel as though they are never thinking of themselves and they typically act as though they have no preferences of any kind. For that reason, this second type of obsessive compulsive often appears to be quite responsibility fragmented in their lives as their obligations take them in so many directions simultaneously that they often literally feel as though they're being pulled apart. They often feel as though each person they encounter takes a chunk of them and, in the end, they feel like they have nothing left for themselves. In fact, where the classic type of obsessive avoids responsibility fragmentation but often feels alone, only to experience responsibility fragmentation and guilt when they fail to do everything “right,” the second type avoids blame for hurt but often feels fragmented, only to experience extreme feelings of isolation and guilt when they fail to be as “good” as they possibly could be.

    This “responsibility fragmented” type of obsessive compulsive holds extreme standards for themselves and for others mostly in the areas of doing the “right” thing and being moral, and they are not so concerned with how more mechanical types of things are accomplished. While being obsessive compulsive involves behaviors that prevent closeness with others and, with respect to child rearing in particular, results in the perception that there is no unconditional love, the “responsibility fragmented” obsessive spends every effort at being loving and caring. Thus, they end up especially frustrated that others feel they are selfish. They simply cannot believe it, in fact, since they are putting so much effort into being as “good” as they possibly can be for others. In some cases the “responsibility fragmented” type of obsessive is also relatively unassertive because they always put others first. When these obsessives find themselves being called selfish, they are especially frustrated. Not only do they do everything they can for others, but others also treat them badly since they are so unlikely to defend themselves or strongly state their own wishes. Nevertheless, because others can feel their disappointment when they have not met this obsessive's standards for “goodness” or have not done things in the “right” way as this obsessive sees things, even this most unassertive and indirect type of “responsibility fragmented” obsessive personality is typically thought of by others as being very controlling.

    Even if a person's true aim is to care for others, if others must do everything the “right” way according to that person's standards, others will never feel like they are truly cared for. Others only experience the feeling that they're not doing things well enough or the “right” way. Where doing things “right” is concerned, others will mostly perceive themselves as valued by the classic type of obsessive compulsive to the extent that they do things “right.” This remains true with the “responsibility fragmented” type of obsessive compulsive. Where being a “good person” is concerned, others will mostly perceive themselves as valued by the “fragmented” obsessive to the extent that they maintain moral standards similar to those of the obsessive. Although this type of obsessive compulsive feels they are anything but controlling, others feel controlled by them, just as they do by the more rigid, classic type of obsessive compulsive, but they feel more controlled by the standards held by the “responsibility fragmented” obsessive compulsive as opposed to by being told exactly what to do.

    All of the personality characteristics and interpersonal dynamics discussed above develop around the fact that the obsessive compulsive never experiences unconditional love and that they do experience the lack of unconditional love as the potential loss of love. There is also a particular thought pattern the obsessive compulsive develops in order to further prevent the experience of possible loss. For the obsessive compulsive, part of the need to prove themselves to themselves is a defense against possible loss of others in that they believe that by making themselves perfect, those they love will love them, and that those they love will be protected since the obsessive compulsive takes care of everything as perfectly as possible. In a way, the obsessive compulsive makes a very specific deal with life. The deal is this: If I do everything “right,” and always try my best, then nothing will go wrong. The problem with that deal should be clear. While most problems can be prevented, a few, like natural disasters, all kinds of accidents, and many illnesses, cannot. The obsessive compulsive's gambit really does not become a problem until some kind of disaster occurs.

    The most prevalent kind of disaster that wreaks havoc to the defense of perfectionism is when a loved one leaves or rejects the obsessive compulsive. Because they are often critical, condescending and controlling, although the obsessive compulsive typically really does mean the best, their loved one's often experience a need to escape or to otherwise reject the obsessive compulsive. Children grow up and leave, and sometimes don't want to remain in contact. That is especially true when they feel they have not met the obsessive compulsive's standards. They experience their obsessive compulsive parent to be smothering and difficult. If, on the other hand, they are developing their own obsessive compulsive characteristics, then they often experience their parent's criticism as undermining, un-supportive and competitive, even as they are trying their best to be perfect as well. Their parent's behavior becomes a reminder that love has been conditional. Spouses also find a need to leave for similar reasons. They feel unable to gain the love of the obsessive compulsive, they feel put down and never good enough, and eventually they feel they can't take it anymore.

    Any other kind of disaster also causes extreme emotional hardship for the obsessive compulsive. Auto accidents, loss of loved one's to medical problems, loss of jobs, natural disasters, etc... all make no sense to a person who has thought that everything would go well if they just did everything as “right” as possible. Because the defense of perfectionism is supposed to protect the obsessive compulsive from all that may harm them or their loved one's, the obsessive compulsive can quickly begin to think the sky is falling. They become racked with anxiety to the point of panic and depressed to the point of feeling life has lost all meaning. They believe they have been proven worthy of love, and they have convinced themselves that they are immune to disaster because they so diligently attempt to anticipate every possible danger. So, how is it possible that disaster still comes? They feel that they had a deal. When the disaster comes, they immediately perceive themselves to be unworthy of love. And they perceive themselves to be defenseless in the face of a chaotic dangerous world. The deal has been broken and they feel cheated and angry. They have always thought the world was being fair to them because they had tried so hard. Now it becomes clear, in the most intolerable way, that the world is truly unfair in some regards. Bad things really do happen to good people. There is no ultimate control. There is no absolute safety. Just as in the case of losing those they love due to their critical and/or exacting nature, the obsessive compulsive experiences a great loss with any kind of disaster since they lose the ability to believe they are immune to such problems.

    As is the case with many personality problems, strangely, disaster brings with it the opportunity for change. It is unfortunately all too common for the disaster to simply embitter the obsessive compulsive while they continue to use the defense of perfectionism, and possibly even become more critical and condescending toward others, and sometimes even more fragmented with responsibility. However, when the obsessive compulsive begins to recover from the disaster that has befallen them, they can also start to love themselves more unconditionally. They become able to see that there is no “perfect” and that, even though life can be managed relatively well with great effort, it is not possible for them, or anyone else, to prevent every problem. In that way the obsessive compulsive becomes more grateful for every moment and more accepting of others. Others start to feel more comfortable with them then, and where they once lost others over competition for who is right, or because others wanted to feel accepted in spite of their differences, now others more freely appreciate the recovering obsessive compulsive. Because they are more appreciative of others differences and the vagaries of a chaotic world, the recovering obsessive compulsive becomes more immune to disaster than they had ever been before. Although they continue to be careful, they recover from the idea that they have a deal in which nothing should go wrong. They benefit then from the care they take, without being so vulnerable to being blind-sided by that which is out of their grasp or control.

    More than any other disorder, the obsessive compulsive makes tremendous strides in their recovery. Although their obsessive compulsive issues have led to the very loss they had always hoped to prevent, those very same tendencies have often led to great accomplishments. The obsessive compulsive personality is really only one step away from true mental health. With the recovery that comes from accepting disaster, whether that disaster be interpersonal or natural, comes a new understanding of the world around them, including their relationships. With this final step of beginning to treat themselves and others with unconditional positive regard, the recovering obsessive compulsive begins to also receive unconditional positive regard from others. Part of recovery involves becoming more assertive. The more classic type of obsessive compulsive continues to care about what he wants, but becomes much less aggressive in pursuing it since he now cares what others want as well. The “responsibility fragmented” type now realizes that she cares about what she herself wants, but unlike before she now starts to be direct in asserting those desires while continuing to be sensitive to the needs of others as she has always been.

    The obsessive compulsive also benefits tremendously from the fact that they have always worked so hard to do things well. Because they have already built up so many accomplishments with their obsessive compulsive tendencies, the obsessive compulsive in recovery now stands ready to take pleasure in all they have built. With their new found ability to accept themselves and others with compassion and without critique, in recovery the erstwhile obsessive compulsive initiates a new, positive, growth in the fertile soil they have already so “perfectly” tilled and sowed. In their recovery, the obsessive compulsive takes in a bountiful harvest for which they are truly grateful. They finally develop the ability to offer unconditional love to those they hold most dear. But most importantly, in their recovery the obsessive compulsive discovers unconditional love for their self right there where it really should have been all along - within their very own heart.

    (*There are two similar and overlapping psychological problems known as obsessive compulsive personality and obsessive compulsive disorder. Because they tend to overlap quite a bit, they are often confused with one another. In this article, I discussed aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder to the extent that they are involved in the obsessive compulsive personality. That is, ritualistic cleaning or hand washing, counting, obsessing on particular thoughts, locking and re-locking doors, checking all sorts of things, buttoning and re-buttoning, etc... are all symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, but not necessarily related to obsessive compulsive personality. Differentiating thee two issues is important because much of obsessive compulsive disorder is genetic, while obsessive compulsive personality may be related to genetic issues, but is more specifically related to a particular orientation to life. Obsessive compulsive personality, and especially mere traits of obsessive compulsive personality, can have very little relation to genetics at all.)

    Hi, my name is Dr. Dan Bochner. I'm a psychologist and author of two books, the first entitled The Therapist's Use of Self in Family Therapy and a new book entitled The Emotional Toolbox: A Manual for Mental Health. This second book can be found in its entirety at, my website. I am not selling anything there, it's just a good resource. I generally focus my articles on the psychology of various problems as opposed to the symptoms involved (although both are discussed, of course). I hope you like this different perspective.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Obsessive Compulsive Personality from a Psychologist's View started by SavCat View original post