You’re OCD? Really??

Have you ever said something like this:  “Oh, I’m just OCD”, or “It’s just my OCD”?  It seems saying something like this is quite acceptable and in some cases, it’s just part of the vernacular.  We bandie the expressions around without understanding what we’re saying – and there are real people, with real OCD who are both offended and dare I say, put off with such trite comments.

Don’t Confuse Perfectionism with OCD

Most of us don’t understand what OCD is and may confuse it with perfectionism (that is if we’re thinking about what we’re saying).  In this month’s newsletter I want to give some basic understanding to both perfectionism (of which I am a card-carrying member) and OCD.  There’s a huge difference and it is my hope that by having a little more information we will become more considerate and sensitive to others in a positive and helpful way.

Perfectionism or OCD?

People often laugh at and about me over the way I do things.  I have a friend who tells other people that even the Tupperware lids are arranged in perfect order.  All of my drawers are organized and yes, my closet has all of the clothes organized in color order.  By the way, my husband’s closet is organized that way too, because I do that.  Do you?  Does that make me OCD?

The fact is that many of us have perfectionistic quirks, like keeping things in order or lining the books on the shelves in order of height and content.  We lightheartedly throw the term OCD around when we talk about it and say we’re OCD.  But, the truth is that these things do not make a person OCD.

In fact, OCD is no laughing matter.  Often misunderstood, this type of mental illness has the potential to cripple a person’s ability to go through the day.  It can be triggered and driven by perfectionism, but it is neither the same as nor is it “perfectionism on steroids”.

“From a high level, the best way to think about OCD versus perfectionism is to think about who is this behavior serving and who is it bothering?” says psychiatrist Joseph Baskin, MD. “People with obsessive-compulsive disorder know that their behavior is problematic but they can’t stop it. People with perfectionism don’t care – it makes their lives orderly.”

What OCD means

OCD is a mental health disorder that causes an individual anxiety through repeated, unwanted thoughts or urges.  So, in an attempt to reduce the anxiety, the person performs a repetitive and compulsive action or ritual that may not even be associated with the fear they are dealing with.  Even though they may know what they’re doing is not rational, they’ll compulsively do the action over and over again for hours throughout the day.

“Sometimes people have fears of germs; sometimes it’s the need for counting or certain things to happen in certain quantities,” Dr. Baskin says. “Sometimes it’s just an obsessive thought that they can’t get out of their head.”

As an example of OCD behavior, a person with obsessive thoughts about safety, whether theirs or that of their loved ones, may have to unlock and relock their front door a specific number of times before they feel they can leave their home.

“They know that they shouldn’t have to do it, but they must do it, because to not do it means to have an increase in their level of anxiety that’s intolerable,” Dr. Baskin explains. “The whole process is very bothersome to the individual.”

So, How Does Perfectionism Relate to OCD?

Perfectionism as a personality trait may show up as rigidly following certain habits or rituals consistently; for instance, a specific morning routine or the way the desk at work is organized.  However, these rituals or habits are not necessarily motivated by anxiety.

According to Dr. Baskin, “They’re content to do those things because it works well for them, even if it drives everyone else crazy.”

Perfectionists have high standards and expectations for both themselves and others and they are usually recognized as good organizers with a tendency to be goal-oriented.  In fact, in a healthy context, perfectionism can be an excellent tool for the achievement of excellence.
However, there’s a saying that “perfect is the enemy of good”, and the high standards imposed by perfectionists can make them very critical of themselves and others.

When perfectionism becomes problematic, the individual themselves is usually the last one to know,” he explains. “It’s often their work or marriage that tends to suffer the most.”

There is Help!

Dr. Baskin says that OCD is most commonly treated by combining medication and psychotherapy.  The therapy may be the type that focuses on the idea of “radical acceptance,”  which is designed to help those dealing with OCD to stop the internal fight and let go of what they can’t control.  In some milder cases, behavioral therapy is enough, in more extreme cases SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), a commonly prescribed drug for mental health issues, is frequently used.

For those with extreme or unhealthy perfectionism, psychotherapy may be of benefit,

“But these people often don’t seek help, because they don’t think that anything is wrong,” Dr. Baskin says.

The good news is that anyone who experiences anxiety, obsessive thoughts or behaviors that affect their quality of life, should know that there is help available and their quality of life can improve.