The Difference Between OCD and Perfectionism

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W. Nate Upshaw, MD

W. Nate Upshaw, MD

Dr. William Nathan Upshaw is the Medical Director of NeuroSpa TMS®. Since receiving training from the inventor of TMS Therapy nearly a decade ago, Dr. Upshaw has been a pioneer, champion and outspoken advocate of TMS Therapy. Dr. Upshaw’s holistic experience in the field has transformed him into Florida’s leading advocate for widespread accessibility to TMS Therapy.

About Dr. Upshaw

Everyone’s heard the expression “I’m a little OCD” or has used the term “perfectionist” as a compliment. While these are common terms and phrases that get plenty of use both in daily life and in the media, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and perfectionism are serious conditions that cause lasting, significant problems for millions. OCD and perfectionism may influence one another, with one condition potentially driving the other, but they’re not the same.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a psychological disorder that causes a person to have both compulsions and obsessions. Obsessions and compulsions involve thoughts (obsessions) and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions). Obsessions are recurring unwanted, intrusive or distressing thoughts that come out of nowhere and interrupt a person’s normal flow of thinking. These obsessive thoughts are both caused by anxiety and generate greater levels of anxiety that compel a person to perform repetitive actions. These repetitive, ritualistic behaviors reduce or briefly eliminate the anxiety. If a person doesn’t carry out their compulsions, their anxiety will increase dramatically.

For example, a person may check the locks on their doors before leaving a particular number of times. If they don’t check the precise number of times, their levels of anxiety will rise dramatically.

For OCD to be diagnosed, it must rise to the level of such severity that a person’s ability to live a satisfying, fulfilling life is impaired.

 

Is Perfectionism a Psychological Disorder?

Anyone, with or without a mental illness, can be a perfectionist, but it is not by itself a psychological disorder. Perfectionism is a personality trait that’s a mental health risk. It results from experiences and beliefs that start to become ingrained in a person during their childhood years. Perfectionism is a maladaptive (harmful) characteristic of faulty self-esteem and has many problems associated with it.

 

Characteristics of Perfectionism

Perfectionists strive for perfection and feel bad about themselves when they aren’t flawless in their performance. They equate their performance in life (high grades, flawless work performance, being the ideal parent, etc) as being the measure of their worth as a human being. For example, a perfectionist may find earning a 95 on an exam to be worthless in comparison to getting a 100 percent. Not being the top salesperson at work every quarter might be, for a perfectionist, a sign of being totally worthless—and not just as a salesperson. Perfectionists interpret being less than 100 perfect flawless in all types of measures as a sign of being an inferior person. A perfectionist’s self-worth is tied up in their ability to achieve flawless performance.

Perfectionism sees the world in a polarized light—things are either 100 percent of what the perfectionist aims for, and thus good, or less than the goal, and thus worthless. Naturally, no one is always flawless.

 

OCD and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCD-P)

Although the terms are similar, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder are not the same things at all. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a psychological disorder in which a person has both obsessions and compulsions. These compulsions are ritualistic behaviors; for example, a person who must check their doors to make sure they’re locked exactly 5 times, or otherwise suffers a panic attack. Checking less or more than 5 times would cause the individual as much anxiety as not checking at all. Compulsions in OCD are highly precise and will be performed exactly the same way every time they’re triggered.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCD-P) refers to a person who is psychologically characterized by perfectionism, orderliness, tidiness, and structure. They are completely devoted to observing precise schedules, rule-following, and timeliness. They also often are prone to hoarding behaviors. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder do not have a psychological disorder per se and enjoy their lifestyle as it is. They often find employment where their personality traits are highly valued, although their personal and intimate relationships may suffer from unrealistically high expectations of others.

Although people with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCD-P) are prone to frequent tidying, cleaning, and straightening items in their environment, these behaviors do not rise to the level of pathological compulsiveness. Typically, people with OCD-P enjoy their lifestyle and find it beneficial.

 

Perfectionism and OCD

Perfectionism is not the result of OCD or OCD-P and may exist completely independently of either condition. There is no cause-effect relationship among the three conditions. However, people with OCD tend to be slightly more perfectionistic than those without it. Researchers believe OCD and perfectionism tend to reinforce each other when they occur together, but not as strongly as anecdotal evidence would suggest.

In the final analysis, perfectionism and OCD may influence each other, but one doesn’t cause the other and they may exist independently.

 

Treatments for OCD

If you’ve had problems with OCD and are looking for a modern, effective solution, consider Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). It’s an FDA-approved treatment for OCD that uses projected magnetic fields to stimulate under-active areas of the brain thought to be involved in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. TMS is non-invasive, requires no sedation, and each session lasts less than an hour in a doctor’s office.

Works Cited

Bieling, P., Israeli, A., & Antony, M. (2003, November 24). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886903002356

Frost, R., & Steketee, G. (1998, June 15). Perfectionism in obsessive-compulsive disorder patients. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796796001088

Halmi, K. A., Tozzi, F., & Thornton, L. M. (n.d.). The Relation among Perfectionism, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Individuals with Eating Disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2005, vol 38: 371-374. Retrieved April 19, 2021

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ocd/what-is-obsessive-compulsive-disorder

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