Maxim Lachmann/FreeImages
Source: Maxim Lachmann/FreeImages

I'm not new to the subject of compulsions. A family member of mine lives with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the form of varying and crazy-making thought loops. Still, I learned many additional bits of information from Can't. Just. Stop.: An Investigation of Compulsions by Sharon Begley.

Begley is a science writer and author of the bestseller Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Her smooth writing style draws the reader in with story after story of individuals struggling with diverse aspects of compulsiveness, from the ordinary (checking email constantly) to the bizarre (hoarding to the point of it being life-threatening). I recognized myself and several people I know in Begley's descriptions. I suspect you will too.


1. You may not recognize that you are hoarding. While reading Begley's descriptions of troubled and more casual keepers of too much stuff, I became aware of some new places in my own overstuffed life that could use pruning.

2. Anxiety drives compulsions. "The mild compulsions of people who don't come close to meeting the diagnostic criteria for a mental pathology arise from the same sort of dread that drives severe ones," notes Begley. "Deeper, more acute anxiety demands more extreme, and often self-destructive, compulsions to alleviate it."

3. Similar behaviors are not the same. Addictions and compulsions and lack of impulse control can all result in the same behavior that changes over time in the way it messes with your mind and makes you feel.

4. A common compulsion is to make things "just right." From an early age, some people are anxious if they're not organizing or arranging the things in their environment in a way that feels "right." But they can feel paralyzed with indecision by the complexities of judging "rightness."

5. Is it a need for control or a compulsion? Begley describes a woman who has a rigid morning routine, about which she claims, "The routine makes sense to me. But more than that, I just like my habits. They comfort me." It turned out that having one little part of her life in perfect order gave her peace when the rest of her life was not under her control.

6. You can be too conscientious for your own good. Conscientiousness is "manifested most clearly by a tendency to be disciplined, deliberate, and dutiful," writes Begley, "especially in matters of ethics and responsibility to family and society." When such tendencies turn into workaholism or perfectionism, conscientiousness "steps over the boundary into obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)."

7. OCD and OCPD are not the same. The latter is grounded in reality. Meticulousness is often a good thing. Those with OCPD are proud of their rational habits, sure they are doing the right thing. It's everyone else who is sloppy. Their compilation of "rules" can make living with them a trial. Begley confesses her own set of rules, which includes, "Don't walk on the same path to and from the bathroom, or the carpet will get smashed down," which had never occurred to me, and that all paper currency must face the same way and be sorted by denomination.

8. Video game designers aim for a compulsion loop. By doling out intermittent rewards, certain popular games keep you in a flow state to the point that you spend unnoticed hours saying, "Just one more... "

9. Objects have major meanings for us. We try not to lose our precious past by hanging onto the things that remind us so clearly of that past. "If we stopped feeling these attachments," writes Begley, "surely a facet of our humanity would be missing."

10. Some are compelled by a desire to make their lives feel more fair. Individuals who had an abusive or deprived childhood can be driven to even things out by shoplifting or other compulsive behavior. I once told someone that I'd gotten an unfair parking ticket, and he said, "Why don't you find a way to take something to make it more even?" Such advice was a surprise to me, and taught me about his own motivations.

Find more of Begley's work here

Copyright (c) 2017 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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