OCD and Perfectionism

Test Taking

Is it a good or bad to be a perfectionist? To answer this question, it’s important to understand the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. This brief article defines these two types of perfectionism:

Adaptive/Healthy Perfectionism

This type of perfectionism is characterized by high standards of yourself as well as others, persistence in the face of adversity, and conscientiousness. Healthy perfectionism usually goes along with goal-directed behavior and good organizational skills.

Maladaptive/Unhealthy Perfectionism

This type of perfectionism is characterized by excessive preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly and being heavily invested in the high expectations of others, such as parents or employers. An excessive preoccupation with control is also a hallmark feature of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism.

Hmm. Fear. Doubt. Control. All symptoms of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism. Sound familiar? It’s hard to have a conversation about OCD without including those three words; they are the cornerstones of OCD. It’s not surprising then, that many OCD sufferers are also perfectionists. For the purpose of this discussion, the term perfectionist refers to unhealthy perfectionism.

When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, mistakes were not acceptable. Procrastinating with schoolwork became the norm and then morphed into him only being able to work at a specific time of day.  He then became tied to the clock for all activities of daily living.  Fear. Doubt. Control. Perfectionism and OCD rolled into one. There are countless examples of compulsions that are related to perfectionism in those with OCD. Some sufferers need to reread paragraphs, sentences, or words over and over again to make sure they get it right. Shutting off the stove must be done properly, checking the door lock, or checking anything for that matter, are all compulsions that need to be done perfectly.

Of course, that’s the problem. Perfection doesn’t exist, and so OCD sufferers can never be totally certain they reread the paragraph correctly, or performed any compulsion perfectly. Just as the need for control in OCD leads to a life that is out of control, the quest for perfection leads to a life not lived to its greatest potential.

I think most people would agree there is nothing wrong with wanting to excel, and striving to be the best person you can be. That’s different from being perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal for all of us, as is certainty. A good therapist who knows how to treat OCD will also know how to deal with matters surrounding perfectionism. Those suffering from both issues can learn to accept the imperfection and uncertainty that surrounds us. Indeed, this is something we all need to do to live happy, fulfilling lives.

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20 Responses to OCD and Perfectionism

  1. grannyK says:

    I usually reread the last paragraph on each page of a book and cannot go on until I do so. I get very frustrated if interrupted and I have to start all over. It has to be done just right. I know I don’t really have to do it and it isn’t logical, but I feel terrible and have trouble reading until I do it. This is a VAST improvement over having to read every page twice like I used to! I’m making progress. Thanks for the posts. It helps knowing others understand.

  2. Thanks for sharing, grannyK. Yes, I’d definitely say that’s progress. Good for you! And there are so many people out there (probably more than we think) who understand!

  3. Marie says:

    I read this to my son and he said halfway throught it- “You can stop reading now…” From about the age of six we began to notice signs of perfectionism in my son. He HAS to read everything all the way through and if he gets stopped for any reason, MUST start over again! Thank you so much for ocdtalk! So much hits home and it makes me feel better to know others are feeling the same! -Marie

  4. 71 & Sunny says:

    Ah maladaptive perfectionism. I could fill a book with stories of how perfectionism was a cruel tyrant that controlled my every thought for years. It literally made me sick. It was VERY difficult to gradually allow for making mistakes or disappointing other people. But when I started to let it go, oh it was such freedom!! I couldn’t have done it without good CBT, though.

  5. Thank you for a very good explanation of the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Trying to be perfect is so exhausting and so futile. I can tell others to not try to be perfect, but I can’t seem to tell myself that. 🙂

  6. C says:

    I was JUST thinking about this earlier today.

    In college in 2008, I took two summer classes at the same time that were both heavy-reading courses: New Testament and a History course. Since it was a summer class, assignments were very heavy in reading, so we are talking hundreds of pages between the two each night. I developed having to re-read EACH word on the page three times, so needless to say, my reading comprehension was awful because I was so focused on my ocd being correct, thus my grades in the classes were not stellar (I have always been a good student!) The New Testment professor told me that “maybe this just isn’t your thing” regarding her class, which made me so angry because I am both a Christian and an excellent student (usually).

    I strongly identify with the healthy perfectionism, but over the past few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve been placing a lot of emphasis on things being clean in the house, my car being clean, and general neatness and productivity. I’m not sure if this is an ocd related thing, or if I am so prone to being hard on myself that these things are developing because my roommate literally has to be asked by me to do any sort of general cleaning! Has anyone else experienced this?

    • Wow, C, that sounds like torture, having to read each word three times. I can’t even imagine……
      Maybe some readers will comment on your last paragraph. I guess it would be interesting to see whether your behavior fits into either definition of perfectionism. If it does, then you’d have an idea of what’s going on with that. Thanks for sharing!

      • Hi, C–I can certainly relate to your reading problem. Reading OCD weighed me down a lot in school and affected my grades, too. And for a long time it affected my ability to enjoy reading–one of my loves!

        With the cleaning, I find that if I’m feeling anxious along with the need to be clean and neat, and if I can’t relax until everything is a certain way–then it’s usually OCD related.

  7. Luke says:

    thankyou Janet for this article and to all those who have commented. So much resonates here with me. Despite not wanting anyone to suffer from OCD and its various manifestations I am always encouraged that I am not alone in my fight against this horrible affliction and that we can overcome it.

  8. Elizabeth Spevack, Personal Development Coach says:

    Perfectionism and OCD definitely often go hand in hand. For me, when my OCD was at its peak, there were many examples of this, but the one that really pushed me to go for therapy was scrupulosity related. In my religion, there are many prayers – and a few that are the most important of all. I read in the prayerbook that one in particular should be said without slurring words, with proper concentration, etc. Needless to say, in my OCD mind, I took these guidelines to obsessive extremes that, to keep the story short, led to many tears, feelings of guilt at not being able to do it properly – and actually dreading it, and frustrations. The pursuit of improvement and high standards is helpful. Striving for the elusive goal of perfection in an obsessive way actually leads to just the opposite in so many ways.

    • Thanks for your insights, Elizabeth. It’s so true, pursuit of high standards is admirable, and attainable, while the pursuit of perfection only leads to problems. I appreciate you sharing your experiences!

  9. namrata says:

    Hi. I’m from india. I suffer from perfectionism ocd and it is currently ruining my life. My perfectionism started with respect to just a few formulas of math but two weeks ago it spread to the whole of math even elementary operations. My brain has associated doubt with the whole of math. It then goes ahead and interprets the doubt as my incompetence, and is now telling me that I don’t have an aptitude and im a retard. I can’t afford therapy currently. May I please get some advice?

    • Hi Namrata, I’m sorry to hear you are having a difficult time. If you can’t afford ERP therapy, I would suggest checking out some of the good web sites and self-help books available. They can at least get you on the right track and help you fight your OCD. I have a lot of resources listed on my blog as well as in my book. Good luck!

      • namrata says:

        Hi. Thanks a lot! I’ll do the same.

        I read your blogpost about ocd and life choices. It was very inspiring. I was feeling depressed about how ocd ruined my chances of becoming a scientist. Despite that I can still hope to study another degree or diploma. You’re blog made me see the situation logically.

        Thanks for this amazing blog and for all the work you are doing to spread awareness about ocd, as well letting sufferers know it can be treated, one simply has to keep trying.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Namrata. It means so much to me to know you’ve found some of my posts helpful. I’m also glad to hear you will look into ERP therapy more. You are right….OCD is treatable!

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