What is the difference between perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Everyday relationships

What is the difference between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Perfectionism?

Karlola Duerr, November 8, 2017


I am often asked about the connection between perfectionism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It's actually a pretty complex question and one that realistically this article will only be able to address on the surface.

This article is not meant to diagnose any mental condition and is not an exhaustive study of OCD or other mental health problems. If you are concerned that you have a mental health problem, please contact your doctor or a qualified mental health provider in your area for advice.

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder caused by recurring and unwanted thoughts or images (obsessions) and / or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). For example, an obsession is repeating thoughts and worries about germs. And a related compulsion is frequent hand washing and cleaning.

Obsessions creates fear and an urgent need to do the compulsive behaviors. Those with OCD feel they need to repeat these compulsive behaviors or something bad will happen. The compulsions can temporarily alleviate the anxiety, but it will briefly leave one lived in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. OCD can cause so much hardship and consume so much time that it disables people from full and productive lives.

Sometimes we all worry that we will unlock the door and have to double-check the left. OCD is more extreme. Someone with OCD might have obsessive thoughts that someone might break into their house and have a ritual of checking the lock five times before they leave the house. To meet the criteria for OCD, obsessions and compulsions must interfere with a life, take at least an hour a day, and be uncontrollable.

Wanting to do things symmetrically and exactly is quite a common thing in OCD. Someone with OCD might compulsively organize, order, or correspond with things. The goal is less about perfectionism than it is about repetitive compulsive behaviors in an attempt to reduce obsessive, intrusive thoughts.

Understanding perfectionism

The term perfectionism encompasses a wide range of properties. It is not a diagnosable mental disorder. As such, it is used loosely and with no real clinical criteria.

People with perfectionist traits tend to have extremely high standards for themselves and others. They are target, workaholics, driven by exacting standards. Perfectionists crave order and predictability. They want things "just right" or they feel like they are afraid. They are often very stressed and feel anxious and tense.

Perfectionists can drive you hung up on the details, wasting time perfecting, practicing, and redoing the work in a forced fashion.

A perfectionist might revise and rewrite an email with their boss several times before sending it. You could wash and put away the dishes (the "right" way) while the rest of the family enjoys watching a movie. Or they could often work late to rework the details of a business proposal, afraid of making a mistake and looking like a sucker in front of their co-workers.

People with perfectionist traits can also be demanding and critical of other manufacturers. They expect perfection from others as well as from themselves. Those who are close to them often feel as if they are not doing anything right.

Perfectionism is driven by fears of displeasing others, of being rejected, and criticized, and ultimately feeling not good enough. You look for validation through goals and awards to achieve.

Perfectionism and OCD

Some people with OCD identify as perfectionists as they discontinue obsessions and compulsions about order and cleanliness, struggle to do something new, and feel tense and anxious. However, in my experience, most people who identify as perfectionists do not meet the diagnostic criteria for OCD.

To make matters worse, I'll suggest another option. Perfectionism probably has more to do with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder than with OCD.

Understanding Compulsive Personality Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is not well known as OCD. And while the names of the disorders sound similar, they are actually quite different. OCPD is like extreme perfectionism with some additional symptoms and clinical criteria.

Personality disorders are another type of mental disorder. They are long-standing and exist in several areas of life (at home, at school, work, social situations). Personality disorders are characterized by ingrained behavior and thought patterns that don't change over time or situations.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, OCPD is a "pervasive pattern of preoccupation with neatness, perfectionism, and mental and social control, beginning at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency in early adulthood ..." [i] they fix on Order, details, lists, schedules and rules to the extent that they miss the real point of an activity. You are rigid in the areas of morals and values. They also have difficulty expressing affection and parting with money or possessions.

People with OCPD generally don't see their perfectionism and rigidity as a problem. You see them as necessary and logical. Your perfectionism and difficulty delegating tends to affect your ability to complete tasks or projects. People with OCPD also have difficulty relaxing and enjoying activities. Their anger and stubbornness often lead to relationship problems.

If you are a fan of the TV show The Big Bang Theory, the character of Sheldon Cooper may come to mind as you read the description of OCPD. He seems to have a number of OCPD traits that make perfect sense to him, but annoy his friends for being so stiff.

Perfectionism is a component of OCPD. It can also be a component of OCD. However, both disorders include a variety of other symptoms and diagnostic criteria. It can be tempting to self-diagnose (or diagnose your friends and family members), but I encourage you to conduct a licensed mental health assessment professionally if you are wondering if you meet the criteria for either OCD or OCPD.

More information about OCD:

National Institute of Mental Health

More information about perfectionism:

What is perfectionism?

What Causes Perfectionism?

More information on Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder:

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder Symptoms

[I] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2017. page 678.

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