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Perfectionism Versus Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The differences between OCD and a perfectionistic personality.

by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was separated from the anxiety disorders (which are suggested to be emotional processing problems) and placed in the category of the obsessive-compulsive and related disorders (OCRDs), which also include hoarding disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, excoriation disorder, and trichotillomania.

The OCRDs share distressing emotions, including anxiety, compulsive behavior, repetitive thoughts, and dysfunctional beliefs, which vary with each disorder, thus defining their unique qualities and characteristics. OCRDs also share neurochemistry and malfunctioning frontal striatal pathways, including those connecting the caudate and putamen nuclei to the cerebral cortex, which is an important pathway supporting executive functioning (EF).

A meta-analysis evaluating executive functioning in 110 previous studies revealed that individuals with OCD are impaired on tasks measuring most aspects of EF, which include inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to shift between tasks. Many OCD features may result in executive-functioning impairment, including intrusive and persistent thoughts, which the individual usually experiences as irrational and excessive, as well as repetitive behaviors like checking and counting, washing and cleaning, and organizing and praying.


The term “OCD” is routinely used in casual conversations to label someone who may be extremely detailed with specific tasks or their daily routines. We all may have strange idiosyncrasies such as avoiding bath sponges, organizing our closet by color and pattern, or refusing to touch the restroom door in public, but these habits should not be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is often misunderstood as a disorder that simply means being overly detailed or perfectionistic. In fact, OCD can be debilitating for individuals who, for example, have to repeatedly wash their hands until they bleed, and continue to do so without understanding why.

OCD symptoms usually begin presenting in individuals before age 25, and the disorder affects approximately 1 to 3 percent of the general population. Characterized by obsessive thoughts which are often, but not always, directly associated with compulsive actions except in timing, this condition is more than just excessive cleaning. These obsessive thoughts are intrusive, ego-dystonic, and distressing to individuals by drastically interfering with their daily activities. Examples of obsessive thoughts are centered on orderliness, cleanliness, symmetry, safety, doubting one’s own thoughts and perceptions, and aggression or unwanted sexual ideas. People with this disorder may not be able to stop these thoughts or move on to the next thought until the obsessive thoughts are diminished or stopped by their compulsions, which are actions that may be repeated over and over, like a needle stuck in a vinyl record.

Individuals with OCD who prepared a meal may not be able to eat the food because of thoughts that the stove might have been left on. These thoughts are so intrusive that they must continue to check the stove (compulsion) until they come to terms with the fact that the stove is actually off. In contrast, people without this disorder may wonder whether they have forgotten to turn the stove off but then quickly confirm and resolve this by checking the stove. Depending on the individual and the seriousness of the thought, a person with OCD could spend minutes to hours tormented by these thoughts and subsequent or associated compulsions, thus taking hours, for example, preparing to leave home and go to work.

OCD can be accompanied by other mental health conditions. I have had many patients with three or more symptoms, including panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, bipolar disorder, drug use disorders, ADHD, and more. I am prone to say, “God never said you would only have one problem.”

OCD can clinically be confused with bipolar disorder, since the racing thoughts often seen in bipolar disorder are actually the rapidly recurring thoughts of OCD. The “mood swings” into depression of bipolar disorder are OCD patients' desperate, depressive response to not having control over their OCD thoughts, feeling that they are going crazy or “losing it.” Many OCD individuals will not tell anyone, including their physicians, about their plight, since they know what is happening is abnormal, and they fear they will lose their job or relationship, or end up in a psychiatry unit. Tics, hair pulling (trichotillomania), body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and other mental health disorders sometimes accompany OCD.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is often confused with OCD, but there are major differences that may be unknown to the general public. OCPD is characterized by ego-syntonic thoughts and habits, meaning the person is not bothered by these thoughts and actions. The person doesn't think these thoughts are irrational or abnormal, but rather likes them. An individual with OCPD may be described as a perfectionist, or as someone who pays excessive attention to detail, resulting in a poor work-life balance, rigidity, stubbornness, and a preoccupation with lists and tasks that cause the individual to lose sight of the big picture and often prevents the task at hand from ever being completed.

In general, individuals with OCPD may not think they have a problem, while individuals with OCD are aware that their thoughts and actions are abnormal or irrational.

Personality disorders are abnormal, ingrained patterns of behavior that deviate from society’s norms. Difficulty with interpersonal skills, impulse control, and cognition are the specific underlying traits in an individual with a personality disorder. OCPD is no different.

Can OCD and OCPD Be Cured?

Treatment for OCD and OCPD is similar in that they both require psychotherapy. OCD can also be treated with antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other medications may be required, since between 40 to 60 percent of patients with OCD do not respond adequately to SSRI treatment or clomipramine trials (meaning less than a 35 percent decrease in The Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale after 10 weeks of treatment), with or without cognitive behavioral therapy, and are considered treatment-resistant, according to Ozcubukcuoglu and colleagues in their study published in the May 1995 Bulletin of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Adding dopaminergic atypical antipsychotic medication, such as risperidone or aripiprazole, can improve the outcome. Studies with aripiprazole suggest that OCD may be the result of an imbalance between dopaminergic and serotonergic pathways, where aripiprazole not only inhibits dopamine release, but modulates or regulates serotonin, according to studies published in Psychopharmacology and The Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

All systems of the body are interrelated. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can change activation in the caudate nucleus, among other things, in OCD patients who improve.

Exposure and response prevention is the first-line behavioral therapy used to treat OCD. This is carried out by exposing an unwanted idea or trigger of gradually increasing intensity in an effort to reduce the response. This is generally extremely distressing to the individual, but over time symptoms are shown to improve. In contrast, treatment for OCPD is aimed at providing individuals with tools to express their feelings to replace intellectualizing their emotions.

The next time you overhear people say that they are “OCD" about planning an event or keeping their house clean, make a mental note of how their description differs with the clinical definition of OCD. Vocabulary counts.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

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