Two psychological phenomena linked to rigidity of behavior, although very different from each other.
In psychology, there are concepts that, being complex and presenting many facets, can overlap in some aspects, and be confused by the general public. This is the case of perfectionism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that have some characteristics in common but that must be distinguished due to the many aspects in which they differ.
Thus, in this article we will see what are the most important differences between perfectionism and OCD, and in what ways they affect the lives of those who experience them in the first person.
Knowing this is very useful, because the lack of information about it can cause perfectionists to worry without reason when they think that they may have OCD, and that people who can be diagnosed with OCD, when they are unaware of this disorder, believe that what happens to them is normal and that it should not be treated by mental health professionals.
Main differences between perfectionism and OCD
Before seeing what the differences are between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and perfectionism, let’s give a general review of the meaning of each of these two terms.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a psychological disorder that appears in the diagnostic manuals used in psychiatry and clinical psychology, and its symptoms have components of anxiety and difficulties in impulse control (although it does not belong to the category of anxiety disorders nor to impulse control disorders).
Specifically, people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts that cause discomfort and anguish, and try to dissipate them by performing compulsions, stereotyped and repetitive actions similar to small rituals and whose goal is to make those mental images disappear.
OCD can express itself through many types of obsessions and a wide variety of compulsions. Examples of the latter are washing your hands many times in a row, walking alone on certain tiles going around the same room, closing a door many times, etc.
On the other hand, for one to speak of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, these obsessions and compulsions must appear very frequently and produce significant damage to the quality of life of the person, which many times even has an impact on their Physical Health.
On the other hand, perfectionism is a category that has not been defined in a consensual way among researchers in the world of psychology and is not part of the entries in diagnostic manuals, and indicates a tendency to do things being very faithful to plans and goals set in advance.
With that said, let’s move on to looking at the differences between perfectionism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
1. OCD is always harmful, perfectionism is not
As we have seen, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder always produces discomfort, either because of health problems or because of the spending of time and resources in rituals that do not provide any objective well-being, beyond dissipating the discomfort in the short term. (which is also induced by this disorder).
On the other hand, although perfectionism can cause many problems if it is present in a very high degree, and can even contribute to a rapid deterioration in health, this does not have to be the case in all cases. In certain situations, perfectionism is an advantageous trait, and in others, it is not; depends on the context.
2. In OCD there are repetitive rituals
The main characteristic of OCD, and one of the clearest differences between this disorder and perfectionism, is that it leads the person to perform very specific and repetitive rituals, which are always carried out in the same way. In fact, if something new appears in the performance of these compulsions, people with OCD tend to interrupt the sequence and start over.
The repetitive nature of compulsions is independent of the context, it always arises in the same way, so that a person who observes these rituals will already know what the next ones will be like.
In contrast, in perfectionism, rigidity is not present in such a literal way. It is true that perfectionists adopt behavior patterns linked to discipline, but this is a rigidity that makes sense to reach a goal in the medium or long term; Discipline itself is not valued so much, but what discipline allows to achieve. Which leads us to talk about the next difference between perfectionism and OCD.
3. In OCD the goal of compulsions is always the same; in perfectionism, no
Perfectionists are perfectionists in many areas of their lives, since they aspire to achieve ambitious goals, on the one hand, or an order that allows them to use their time and resources efficiently to all the things they can do in the day to day.
On the other hand, when people with OCD experience the anxiogenic effects of this psychological alteration, the purpose they have in mind when performing their rituals of purging the discomfort is always one: to stop feeling bad at that moment, or to prevent a situation from occurring concrete that would be catastrophic, and that tends to always be the same (normally, both phenomena occur at the same time). The goal is always to get away from something bad, and more specifically, something bad that is always the same or almost the same.
For example, a perfectionist may clean his kitchen every day before going to sleep so as not to have problems the next day finding cutlery or clearing a part of the table to eat, or simply because he understands that the default state of the kitchen is cleaning, but a person with OCD will clean it for fear that the area will fill with cockroaches in a matter of minutes, and will do it always in the same order.
4. In OCD there is magical thinking, and in perfectionism, not always
Those who experience OCD perform compulsions because they implicitly believe that these rituals will serve to prevent something bad from happening or that an unpleasant circumstance ceases to take effect. You may recognize that rationally this doesn’t make sense, but you feel that if you don’t, something will go wrong. For this reason, in practice he falls into superstitious approaches (at least for that aspect of life, not necessarily in others).
On the other hand, in perfectionism, magical thinking does not necessarily have to happen, since there are objective reasons to think that doing things while being faithful to a plan brings benefits when it comes to achieving something.
How to seek help for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
As we have seen, OCD is a psychological disorder that always damages the quality of life of the person, and that always deserves a visit to the psychologist.
At the Instituto de Psicología Psicode, a mental health care center located in Madrid and Alicante that also offers online therapy, they explain that with adequate psychotherapeutic assistance it is possible to mitigate the symptoms of this mental disorder, even in the cases in which it appears at the same time with other disorders (something relatively frequent).
The key to treatment is to intervene both in the thoughts and beliefs, as well as in the concrete actions and habits of the patients, on the other hand. From this double path of psychological intervention, fostered by cognitive-behavioral therapy, it is possible to make the day-to-day life of these people rapidly transform and, although it is rare for all symptoms to disappear completely, it is possible to start to live normally.
For example, one of the most frequent tools used to modify the actions of patients with OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention, in which the person is trained to get used to not performing the compulsion and to let the anxiety go dissipating by itself.
The professionals specialized in clinical psychology at the Psicode Institute point out that a good part of the therapy is based on the realization of activities, and not on just talking to the psychologist, as many people believe. However, psychotherapists guide each patient in a personalized way, so that they are clear at all times what to do and why it makes sense to do it.
On the other hand, in many cases the use of psychotherapy is combined with the administration of psychotropic drugs prescribed by the doctor, at least temporarily, to control symptoms.
Koran LM, Hanna GL, Hollander E, Nestadt G, Simpson HB (July 2007). “Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder”. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 164 (7 Suppl): 5–53.
Stern, ER; Taylor, SF (September 2014). “Cognitive neuroscience of obsessive-compulsive disorder”. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 37 (3): 337-352.