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In life, remaining organized, controlling one’s impulses and striving to do one’s best are positive personality characteristics that can contribute to success in both personal relationships and professional endeavors. However, taken to the extreme, these qualities can have adverse consequences on an individual’s functioning.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is characterized by high degrees of orderliness, perfectionism and control; “living machines,” as W. Reich wrote in 1933. Another metaphor would be Baum’s Tin Man, who longed for a heart while following the yellow brick road.
Individuals with OCPD attempt to control their environment through a remarkably intense focus on rules, lists and schedules. For instance, the satisfaction of hosting a celebration may only be in the planning process, whereas the event itself may feel insignificant. They pay close attention to minute details, checking and re-checking to avoid mistakes. Such a preoccupation with absolute perfection may actually impair their ability to be productive, and projects often remain unfinished.
These individuals are often extremely devoted to their work, frequently avoiding vacations, friendships or even taking an occasional night off. On issues of morality and ethics, they may appear inflexible and unable to view things from another’s perspective, which can be alienating to others. This can result in few many mutually satisfying relationships, which in turn can lead to anxiety or mood difficulties.
How OCPD demonstrates itself in an individual can vary. Those who are more cerebral tend to be considered more obsessive, while those who are more perfectionistic doers and “busybodies” are considered more compulsive.
It can be difficult to work and interact with these individuals in a parish or in community since they often are resistant to alternative ways of doing things. Their rigid pattern of thinking and intense need for control leads them to see their approach as the only right now. As a result, they often avoid assigning responsibility to others or collaborating on projects.
While it can be easy to perceive these individuals as being cold, people with OCPD utilize varying degrees of thinking and doing as ways to remain safe and to preserve their self-esteem.
These self-protective strategies often develop at young age in order to survive home environments that feel overwhelming. Often, their parents or other caregivers expected them to be “little adults,” making them take on more responsibility than they could deal with at the time. Without the psychological, emotional and cognitive resources to be successful grown-ups, they created strategies to cope with the unrealistic expectations they faced. While initially adaptive, these protection strategies become problematic when they constrict their adult development.
Internally, individuals struggling with OCPD often are reluctant to feel certain emotions—especially anger, fearful that their emotions and impulses are dangerous and will overpower them. They place a premium on rationality and only accept emotions that are logically or morally justified. While anger and disgust are germane to the human experience, these individuals label such emotions as unacceptable.
There is a particular risk with clergy and religious who, fearful of sexual feelings, attempt to eliminate these feelings from their awareness as a way to protect themselves. However, by ignoring or minimizing the feelings, they actually may be more likely to engage in surprising behaviors, such as angry outbursts or sexual behaviors. The thought patterns and avoidance strategies that they hope will protect them from the terror of “losing control” may often lead to their worst-case scenario being realized.
They often appear hyper-intellectual and “always in their head.” They maintain remarkably high standards for themselves and expect absolute perfection in all domains of their lives. When they fall short of these unrealistic, impossible-to-achieve standards, they often feel guilt, shame or fear. The resulting all-too-human experience of not being perfect often leads to significant distress, and may contribute to other mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression.
Therapy can be very effective when these fears are addressed and alternative ways of coping with anxieties and stressors are explored. A central goal of therapy is to help the individual get in touch with his or her feelings, but moving too fast can feel threatening. The early stage of therapy often is insight-oriented, to help the person understand the OC traits as self-protection strategies that were vitally important during childhood. Given the unrealistically high self-expectations, therapy will strive to help an individual develop self-compassion and a sense of humor over his or her personality foibles while minimizing harsh self-talk. Finally, considering that many individuals were not able to be children in their families, therapy can help a person reclaim this by teaching how to relax, play and be intentional about happiness.
By Kathryn Wiens, Psy.D.
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