Are your perfectionist tendencies taking control of your life? Are your habits or rituals taking up too much time, or keeping you from going about your day?
You might want things to be done in very specific ways, leading other people to call you a perfectionist. But if these specific methods are causing you more harm than good, then it might be helpful to look into whether signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) resonate with you.
This article is not intended to diagnose or self-treat. Please reach out to a qualified healthcare provider or mental health professional if you are struggling.
Please read the concluding remarks for a full disclaimer.
Here are 6 signs you may have OCD, not perfectionism.
1. You have obsession/s
The first key feature of OCD is having obsessions, or obsessive thoughts. In this case, OCD may be confused for perfectionism as types of obsessive thoughts include those that are centered on cleanliness, order, and symmetry. However, other types of obsessions also exist, such as those centered on safety, aggression, and doubting one’s own thoughts, to name some.
Unlike perfectionism, which may involve some worry or desire to have things done a certain way, obsessions recur and persist to degrees that are harmful. These obsessions will at times be intrusive and even unwanted. These obsessive thoughts may feel inescapable, and will persist to the point of causing you great distress (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5, 2013; Fuller, 2016).
2. You have compulsion/s
The second key feature of OCD is having compulsions. These are repetitive behaviors done in response to the aforementioned obsessions. Examples of compulsions include checking behaviors (ex. Checking if doors are locked, stove or lights are off, etc.).
Unlike with perfectionism, OCD compulsions will typically be done not simply out of interest or preference, but as what will feel like a need driven by a desire to avoid or lessen an anxiety.
Furthermore, the repetition is excessive. Some worries might compel people to check if their stove is turned off, but compulsions will have you checking this over and over again, taking up more than an hour of your day to go back and forth to do the same thing (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; DSM-5, 2013; Fuller, 2016; Kelly, 2020).
3. Your behavior is tied to an irrational belief
Unlike with perfectionism, compulsive behaviors within the context of OCD may not be connected in a realistic way to the anxiety or concern that you are trying to overcome.
You may perhaps feel that your compulsion needs to be done in an exact, precise way—and that if this is not done, the feared outcome will occur. For instance, one might believe that the lights have to be switched on and off a precise number of times in order to avoid the death of a loved one (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; DSM-5, 2013; Kelly, 2020).
4. You experience great distress or anxiety
As with many disorders, thoughts and behaviors reach pathological levels when, among other criteria, they cause the individual significant distress.
With perfectionism, one may have some specific, rigid habits, but don’t necessarily perform these out of anxiety. OCD thoughts and behaviors, on the other hand, are closely tied to anxiety. Obsessions cause distress, and you might find yourself performing compulsions in order to prevent a feared outcome, or avoid whatever makes you anxious. You may also feel that your anxieties are dangerous, because they are not within your control. This may then lead you to monitor your worries even more, creating or reinforcing your obsession.
OCD may also be accompanied by self-doubt and low self-esteem. The repeated checking behaviors, for instance, can reinforce thoughts that you may be losing your mind, lowering self confidence and worsening compulsions (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; DSM-5, 2013; Kelly, 2020).
5. Your thoughts and behaviors are debilitating and interfere with daily life
Perfectionism may take healthy forms that drive one to perform well at school or work with the help of conscientiousness, good organizational skills, and persistence in the face of problems.
OCD, on the other hand, involves thoughts and behaviors that have reached pathological levels because they have become debilitating, and disrupt your day-to-day activities.
For instance, a perfectionist may want to stay clean and wash their hands thoroughly, but obsessions and compulsions as part of OCD may become so severe that you wash your hands repeatedly to the point of bleeding. You may also be unable to eat from feeling the need to check repeatedly if the stove has really been turned off. Obsessions and compulsions may delay a person for hours from leaving their home and starting their day (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; DSM-5, 2013; Fuller, 2016; Kelly, 2020).
6. You can’t seem to stop these thoughts and behaviors
While perfectionists may want to continue living their lives the way they do (perhaps because they find this to be more efficient or orderly), if you are struggling with OCD, you will likely recognize that this behavior is problematic, but are still unable to stop. In fact, you may try to suppress your obsessive thoughts by doing something else—the compulsion. You may even realize that your actions are irrational, but are unable to stop your obsessions and compulsions on your own.
A conscientious perfectionist may worry about whether they have turned the stove off, but then easily confirm this and resolve their worries. With OCD complications, however, you may not be able to stop yourself from checking repeatedly, even while realizing this is not rational or helpful (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; DSM-5, 2013; Fuller, 2016).
As was mentioned, there are different types of obsessions and compulsions, as are there different degrees of severity.
In addition to this, it is worth noting that there also exists a disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which is characterized not by compulsions, but by an excessive attention to detail resulting in a rigidity that negatively affects: work-life balance, task accomplishment, and the people around them (DSM-5, 2013; Fuller, 2016).
Because of all of these nuances, it is important to seek a complete diagnosis if you suspect that you or someone you know has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In which case, please do not hesitate to reach out to a qualified mental health professional.
Cleveland Clinic. (2020, September 3). What’s the difference between perfectionism and OCD? Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/whats-the-difference-between-perfectionism-and-ocd/.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.
Fuller, K. (2016, December 20). Perfectionism versus obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201612/perfectionism-versus-obsessive-compulsive-disorder.
Kelly, O. (2020, August 14). How can you cope with OCD perfectionism? Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/ocd-and-perfectionism-2510483.