Dark Side of OCD (Part 4)
The Dark Side of OCD
Hello, people~ welcome back to the blog! The last few installments, we’ve been talking about some of the more unusual subtypes or presentations of OCD. Last week, I told you about POCD, pedophilia OCD. This is a devastating harm based subtype that causes people to worry that they might be attracted to children, and could potentially act on that attraction. To reiterate, these are not predators that actually want to harm or molest children. They are simply- or not so simply- obsessed with the idea that they could. Somewhere along the line, that becomes locked in their brain due to the OCD, and they worry about it incessantly. As a result, they avoid all contact with children, and this can have a huge impact on family dynamics. It causes a great deal of shame and guilt for the person who has it, as they fear being judged by others, while always judging themselves very harshly. And it can also be very damaging to the children in that person’s life, since they miss out on the time and affection that person would have otherwise devoted to them. As you can imagine, all of these things often lead to a great deal of anxiety and depression, and many times, people with POCD suffer through it alone. This week, we’ll be continuing the series with a look at perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a pretty self-explanatory subtype, the obsession with appearing and being “perfect.” Perfectionism is kind of an unusual trait. It isn’t unique to OCD; not all perfectionists have OCD, and not all people with OCD are obsessed with being perfect. But perfectionism underlies many OCD subtypes, as it can contribute to the need to do a ritual perfectly, or have things arranged just right. But when it’s extreme, perfectionism can really be thought of as its own OCD subtype; when it’s rooted in obsession(s), followed by compulsion(s), and causes dysfunction in the person’s life, it falls into a class of its own.
Perfectionism can look very different from person to person, but there are some common overarching themes. Perfectionists feel the need to follow rules very rigidly. I’m sure you’ve heard the addage “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Some versions end with “well,” but this isn’t strictly true for perfectionists, it must be right. Things must be done in a certain way- perfectly- or not at all. This is tough to live up to at best, and the pressure to achieve this standard can become so great, that at times it’s far easier to give up on doing something altogether. In addition, perfectionists generally need to feel that they are in control of a situation at all times. By definition, they are excessively concerned with making mistakes, especially when other people could potentially see those mistakes. Ultimately, they think that these errors have some bearing on their overall value as a person, that they define them. They also tend to have an overwhelming need to please others. As a result, relationships with authority figures- people like bosses and parents- can be fraught with anxiety. Perfectionists also have trouble with prioritizing. They can’t make a list of five things they want to accomplish, and then decide which to give 100 percent effort to, 80 percent, and 50 percent. That doesn’t work for them, it’s very all or nothing. Every time they came across a task, whether it’s a strength of theirs or a weakness, whether they have expertise in it or not, they always feel like they must perform it at a high level.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things well, or with being very diligent and detail oriented. These are great qualities, and they work well for people, when they’re functional qualities. But when it gets in the way of getting things done- when it becomes dysfunctional- it’s a problem. I had a patient that was a student, a freshman in college, and he loved school. He was all about it, very intelligent, studied a lot, and worked so hard on papers and projects. Too hard as it turns out. He would begin a lab write up or a paper, but would edit as he wrote. He would then write more, then edit that; then he’d try to stitch them together and get frustrated. Ultimately, he’d have to start all over again. It just went on and on in this way, and it took him forever to do a very simple write up. Something that took his peers maybe a couple of hours tops would take him days of work, because it was nearly impossible for him to write it start to finish, then edit start to finish, a reasonable number of times. There was never an end point- he always felt it needed to be better- and was compelled to improve on it, so sometimes he simply couldn’t finish things. His brain just didn’t want to let him.
Many years ago, I worked with young children in a hospital setting, with a wide array of diagnoses. One young girl, about nine years old, would undoubtedly have a diagnosis of perfectionism. I remember her very well, but her parents made an especially unique impression. When I gave them my assessment, it was quite clear that her being a perfectionist wasn’t a problem for them- this was written all over their faces. The mother especially, she had a little smile, almost of satisfaction or even pride. It was like I was telling them it was a good thing, or maybe too much of a good thing, like having too much money. She was a great student, very precocious, and a great kid, very meticulous. But if she did something imperfectly, if it didn’t meet her standards- which I suspect she may have learned from her mom, or her mom had a hand in planting- it was a problem. She would begin something with such enthusiasm, which was so great to see given her anxiety; but once she realized the task wasn’t going to be up to par, she would just give up and shut down. It was like watching a bright beautiful flower wilt and wither right in front of you. A sad thing at nine years of age.
This is basically a form of avoidance, which is a common compulsion for perfectionists. Better to totally blow something off than to not do it perfectly. Another example of this is something my student patient would do. If he was late for class, he couldn’t bring himself to go in. If he could see from the window that the professor had already started lecturing, and the students were all sitting there, facing front and listening, he would imagine how it would feel to open the door, and have all those heads turn to look at him. He couldn’t take that, everyone seeing his screw up, so he just wouldn’t go, he’d skip class. Then the next class, he was so concerned about showing his face after missing the previous one, it had a tendency to snowball. Even though he was smart and worked very hard, between his lack of participation in class and his issues in completing tasks, he ended up receiving poor grades, or even failing classes, with shocking regularity.
Perfectionism is difficult for those with it to gain insight about, because it’s so engrained within their personality. They like to be focused, discerning, fastidious, and detail oriented. Sometimes it works well for them, but when it works against them, it takes much longer to realize it. All of this makes it hard to treat. Despite the suffering it causes, many times, patients initially resist the idea of abandoning their ways completely. And I get that. Some elements of perfectionism backfire, but there are parts that are beneficial, that help people reach their goals. You don’t want to necessarily eradicate it from their lives altogether, throw the baby out with the bathwater. I understand the hesitation. Somewhere in the dysfunction is function. In my student patient’s case, there were times he got A’s on papers. It took him 40 hours instead of two, but the end result was good, no argument there. So how do you find the happy medium, how do you eliminate the dys- from the functional in treatment? We want people to work hard, to be attentive, accurate, and competent. In treating it, and designing exposures, we don’t want to make a person act stupidly or underperform- proofing and editing is good if you don’t want to send out a paper to your professor, or letter to your boss, filled with typos. That would be nearly impossible to get them to do anyway, even if it was designed as an exposure to treat them. We don’t want to weed out the good parts, or necessarily challenge the outcome or the goal, but we need to challenge how they’re getting there. In the case of my student patient, the exposure would be to write without editing, start to finish, one draft, even if there were mistakes. Other ideas would be to show assignments to other people before they’re turned in, as well as to put max time limits on how long a project can take. Practice doing things well, instead of perfectly, to help them see that they can in fact deal with imperfection. That’s the true reality anyway- nothing is ever perfect. If you want perfection, to the point that you reject anything less than that, you’re going to end up rejecting things you shouldn’t, and missing out on a lot in the bargain.
That makes me think of a book about OCD by Judith Rapoport called The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing. It’s about a law school student with contamination obsessions that agonized over cleaning his apartment. He obsessed about how long the cleaning would take, and especially about how quickly it would get dirty again. He eventually started to avoid going home, so that its cleanliness would be maintained; it wouldn’t be disturbed by the messiness of his living in it. This escalated to the point that he wound up sleeping on a park bench, willingly homeless, all to avoid his apartment. This might seem radically counterintuitive. How could a person with contamination obsessions- who’s afraid of germs- stand to sleep outside, in a park, with all the dirt that goes with it, all for the sake of cleanliness? This is the dark side of OCD when you have perfectionism.
I was thinking about positive perfectionism, and out of curiosity, read about the top career choices for perfectionists. Clearly, positive perfectionism can give a person a set of traits that can help them excel in life, especially in certain careers. Accuracy, attention to detail, persistence, conscientiousness, and organization lend themselves well to roles where design, math, and very complex procedures are essential to their tasks. Mechanics, inspectors, accountants, surveyors, tailors, and engineers would be top choices. Artists and creative types seem to suffer the most from perfectionism. Claude Monet, the highly celebrated French Impressionist, was a perfectionist… the perfectionist impressionist! I read that he was set for an exhibition in May of 1908, featuring his newest works, the result of three years of work. But when he took his final look, he decided the paintings weren’t good enough. Amid great protests, he took a knife and a paint brush to the paintings- worth $100,000 at the time- defacing them irrevocably. Today, they would be priceless. His actions prompted all sorts of ethics discussions; should an artist have the right to destroy his own work? Evidently at least one expert thought so, and actually praised him for being a true “arteest” and told the New York Times, “It is a pity, perhaps, that some other painters do not do the same.” A similar, but more tragic story is told in a book from 1886 called L’œuvre, translated as The Masterpiece. It tells the story of another artist who becomes obsessed with creating a large canvas that he worked on incessantly, but it never satisfies him. He kept painting on more and more layers, to the point that the canvas was destroyed. Then he would start over, again and again. He became so distraught and depressed that eventually, he went insane.
So how do you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism? The difference is when you move from a detail oriented, conscientious place, to a rigid and controlling one. When the ideas of perfection prevent you from doing anything at all, a healthy sense of perfectionism has been taken over by a dysfunctional one; putting you in a place where mistakes are catastrophic, where they say something about you, where you have to live up to other people’s expectations. This induces such anxiety that it becomes crippling, because eventually everything needs to be perfect- even things that other people would never even notice start needing to be perfect. Once again, the pressure from that becomes so intense, it’s easier to just forget it, to give in altogether. But in my view, the only way to truly fail at something is to not try at all. If you fail at something, it’s not because you’re not perfect, but because you didn’t try. Most perfectionists don’t subscribe to this; they seem to mostly have a fear of being average. They want to succeed perfectly, but if they’re going to fail, they’re going to do so spectacularly. A healthier point of view is to accept that nothing is ever perfect… but it won’t be anything if you don’t do it in the first place.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!