As a self-proclaimed ‘perfectionist’, it is easy to understand the daily struggle of wanting to ensure that every task and piece of work, is done to a high standard. Perfectionists tend to overthink and feel frustrated when things are not deemed to be up to their own high standards.
Most people take pleasure and enjoyment in ensuring that everything in their life is as perfect as it can be. Often, the lines can be blurred between what we understand to be perfectionism and an obsessive disorder. But when does ‘perfectionism’ become a sign of an obsessive-compulsive disorder?
OCD is an anxiety disorder that causes people to experience obsessive thoughts followed by compulsive behaviors. For some people, it can become so severe, that it can prevent them from living a normal life and potentially damaging their health, relationships, education, or employment.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder affects 2.2 million adults worldwide. OCD is equally common among men and women and one-third of adults affected with OCD first experienced symptoms in childhood (www.adaa.org)
It is important to state that this article is purely for educational purposes and does not serve to self-diagnose OCD. If you suspect that you or somebody you know has OCD, then please get in touch with your GP to discuss your symptoms and get the support you need to manage the condition. Remember that you are not alone and there is plenty of support available to help you if you are struggling.
With that in mind, here are 8 signs that it is OCD and not perfectionism.
1. OCD is a controlling disorder. Perfectionism is a controlled notion.
People with OCD feel the need to perform certain tasks (or rituals) which they have little control over stopping. Common activities may include ensuring doors are locked more than once before leaving the house or extreme cleaning activities several times a day. Although these may seem like rational behaviors to ensure security or to maintain hygiene, they are irrational because of the time which is spent completing the activities.
If these routines are not completed, people with OCD may become extremely anxious as they fight these kinds of compulsions. On the other hand, a perfectionist will go out of their way to make it obvious that they require organization in their lives.
2. OCD causes anxiety and distress. Perfectionism strives for flawlessness.
Another difference between OCD and perfectionism is the emotional response that it causes individuals. People with OCD can experience anxiety and distress when there is a disorder in their life whereas perfectionists strive for flawlessness. Perfectionists may be more accepting if things need developing or aren’t ‘right’ the first time around.
3. OCD can develop from Perfectionism. Perfectionism can originate from being a child.
The personality trait of perfectionism can stem from childhood, especially if a reward is given for good work which is something perfectionists may strive for. It becomes OCD when those strives for perfection cause disorder in an individual’s life and control the individual.
4. OCD is seen as being a ‘quirky’ gimmick. Perfectionism is seen as being ‘high standards’
People use the word ‘OCD’ in general day-to-day. Often people say ‘everybody is a little bit OCD’ which has a minimizing effect and is insensitive to those struggling with the condition. OCD can be a serious psychological disorder with debilitating effects. You can have perfectionist tendencies but this does not always mean that you have OCD.
5. OCD is associated with mental illness. Perfectionism is associated with good psychological wellbeing
OCD has been associated with low self-esteem and distress which are often seen as symptoms of mental illness. It is often misunderstood and can make it difficult for people to go about their daily life. Perfectionism is associated with adaptive and healthy wellbeing and high achievement. However, an unhealthy preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes and doubts about whether you are doing something correctly, can be linked to OCD.
6. OCD requires psychological intervention. Perfectionism does not.
As perfectionism is a personality trait, it does not require intervention unless it starts to become disruptive or is causing distress. OCD may require some psychological intervention such as cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy to help the individual to help manage their thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes medication can be taken such as a type of antidepressant which helps increase serotonin levels (known as the ‘happy’ chemical).
Often, therapy can help the individual to explore what triggered the condition. This can help improve somebody’s quality of life by allowing them to take back some control and manage their thoughts rather than letting their thoughts control them.
7. OCD involves obsessive thoughts which may have serious consequences. Perfectionism involves thoughts of wanting to get things right with no serious consequences.
Somebody with OCD will experience obsessive thoughts which can range from worrying about a loved one being in danger or being scared to leave the house due to fears of their own safety. A perfectionist will experience thoughts of wanting to get things done to their high standards and to meet the expectations of others. They may have repetitive thoughts about this however if this starts becoming more frequent, then this may be a sign that it is bordering onto obsession which may be an early indicator of OCD.
8. OCD does not achieve any pay-offs whereas Perfectionism can.
Often people with OCD will say that having certain rituals will help them manage their anxiety, however, the costs of having obsessive behavior outweigh the benefits for many. There may be times when people with OCD will fixate on the negatives such as anxiety and conflict with others.
Weighing out the positive and negative consequences of behavior in this way is a Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2002) strategy that therapists use to help individuals generate motivation to give up undesired behavior. Perfectionists can complete work to a high standard and feel a sense of achievement however this is not always the case for people with OCD.
If you or somebody you know has thought that they may have symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or if this article has been useful, please leave us a message in the comment section. We love to hear from you and want to continue to make Psychology accessible to everybody. Look forward to hearing from you soon!
‘Facts and Statistics’, Anxiety and Depression Association of America [online] Available at: https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics#:~:text=OCD%20affects%202.2%20million%20adults,first%20experienced%20symptoms%20in%20childhood [Accessed July 23rd 2020]
‘Perfectionism: Are You Sure it Pays Off?’ (2017) International OCD Foundation [online] Available at: https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/perfectionism [Accessed July 23rd 2020]
‘The difference between OCD and Perfectionism’ (2018), Time to Change [online] Available at: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/blog/difference-between-ocd-and-perfectionism [Accessed July 23rd 2020]
‘Transforming Mental Health’ [online] Available at: https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/mental-health/conditions/ocd?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6uT4BRD5ARIsADwJQ19c587PSDaGms5et-1d6tUS9GiZGyOvgZVgODhxOCVeVJy0K6gWm8MaArf9EALw_wcB (Accessed July 28th 2020]
‘What’s the Difference Between Perfectionism and OCD?’ (2019) Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic [online] Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/whats-the-difference-between-perfectionism-and-ocd/ [Accessed July 23rd 2020]