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OCD Vs Perfectionism — How Are They Different?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is one of the most debilitating yet widely misunderstood mental and behavioral disorders. 

These days, people casually throw around “OCD” in conversations like it’s a buzzword. When most people think of OCD, they picture someone washing their hands over and over again or flipping the light switch a specific number of times. These people chalk OCD up to personality quirks, whimsical behavior, and perfectionism. 

But OCD is so much more than that. 

Furthermore, while OCD can sometimes appear like perfectionism, the two are completely different things. 

To understand these underlying differences, we must first individually understand OCD and perfectionism. 

What is OCD?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies OCD as an extremely debilitating mental and behavioral disorder. In all previous versions of the DSM, OCD was characterized as a subtype of anxiety disorder, but the current version recognizes OCD as a separate, standalone disorder. 

OCD is characterized by two overarching and interconnected symptoms, namely obsessions and compulsions: 

  • Obsessions are constant unwanted intrusive thoughts, ideas, mental images, or urges that are disturbing in nature. These thoughts are “intrusive” because the sufferer does not want to have them but has no control over when these thoughts pop up. 
  • Compulsions are repetitive behaviors and rituals that temporarily soothe the distress from intrusive thoughts and obsessions. The sufferer can feel a lot of anxiety, distress, fear, and even guilt if they don’t perform these rituals. 

The specific symptoms of OCD are vast and diverse, depending on the subject of one’s obsessions and types of compulsions. Hence, multiple subtypes of OCD exist, including but not limited to: 

  • Contamination and washing OCD
  • Order and Symmetry OCD
  • Checking OCD
  • Sexuality OCD
  • Relationship OCD
  • False memory OCD
  • Scrupulosity of religious OCD

OCD is a chronic and incurable disease, and the process of OCD testing and diagnosis is long and arduous. Even more grueling is its treatment (ERP therapy and medication). 

What is Perfectionism?

Unlike OCD, perfectionism is not a mental or behavioral disorder. In fact, it’s not a disorder at all. Instead, perfectionism refers to a personality trait encompassing a wide range of characteristics that help a person feel like they’re on top of things. In stark contrast to OCD, perfectionism is a largely positive trait. 

People with perfectionism often have high expectations of themselves and others. They like to call the shots, keep track of everything, and hold themselves to extremely high standards. Unlike people with OCD, perfectionists like being this way because it makes them goal-oriented, focused, and “the best version” of themselves. 

Of course, there is such a thing as unhealthy perfectionism. Perfectionists can sometimes set unrealistic and unachievable expectations of themselves, making them feel like they’re always falling short. It might affect their personal, social, and work life, trigger anxiety, and can potentially develop into a mental disorder. 

Is Perfectionism a Form of OCD?

Perfectionism is not a subtype of OCD or vice versa; they’re two completely separate things. Perfectionism is a personality trait, whereas OCD is a mental and behavioral disorder that may or may not entail perfectionist tendencies. 

Moreover, while some experts identify perfectionist tendencies as predictors of OCD in children and adolescents, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily lead to or cause OCD. However, OCD and perfectionism are highly co-occurring. 

With that said, there are ways in which OCD and perfectionism overlap. For example, certain OCD subtypes, such as contamination and washing and order and symmetry OCD, primarily revolve around perfectionist tendencies. These obsessions and compulsions emerge from the need for things to be “just right.” 

Perfectionism is most akin to Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), which is similar to OCD in all but one important regard. While people with OCD feel tormented by it, people with OCPD don’t see anything wrong with their behaviors. They don’t mind hyper-focusing on order, details, rules, lists, and schedules, and they like to remain steadfast in their beliefs, needs, and wants. 

OCD Vs Perfectionism

Putting together everything we’ve learned about OCD and perfectionism, here are some major points of comparison. 

Disorder Vs Personality Trait 

The most salient difference between OCD and perfectionism is that the former is a disorder while the latter is a personality trait. 

A disorder is an abnormal condition that negatively affects the functioning of an organism. Unsurprisingly, OCD is an extremely debilitating disorder that wreaks havoc on all aspects of a person’s life. 

On the other hand, perfectionism is something for which people often strive. For the most part, perfectionist tendencies help improve a person’s life. 

Hence, OCD is a standalone disorder recognized by the DSM, whereas perfectionism has no clinical recognition or criteria. In other words, there is no “diagnosis” for perfectionism. 

OCD Engenders Anxiety

OCD is largely driven by anxiety, fear, and excessive guilt. The rituals and compulsions that are characteristic of OCD are futile attempts to soothe this anxiety, fear, and guilt. 

Perfectionists may also have various unique and elaborate rituals, but these rituals don’t stem from guilt, nor are they an attempt to keep possible dangers at bay. While a perfectionist may experience a lot of frustration, disappointment, and stress if they don’t perform their “rituals,” someone with OCD may completely shut down in the same situation. 

However, perfectionism can be instilled by overbearing parents or overly critical romantic partners. Hence, it is important to note that some perfectionists are driven by anxiety, fear, or shame. 

Treatment

Generally speaking, healthy perfectionism is a positive and desirable trait that helps you stay on top of your game. On the other hand, OCD requires proper clinical treatment. 

The front-line treatment option for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Moreover, medication typically supplements ongoing ERP therapy. The treatment for OCD can be grueling, so much so that nearly one-third of the patients undergoing treatment can not see it through. 

Conclusion

People often chalk up OCD to personality quirks, whimsical behavior, and perfectionism. But this perception results from misunderstandings and stereotypes about OCD. 

While OCD and perfectionism do intertwine, OCD isn’t just about perfectionism and vice versa. Moreover, OCD and perfectionism are two completely different things; while OCD is a mental and behavioral disorder that needs treatment, perfectionism is a personality trait. 

If you feel like either OCD or perfectionism is interfering too much with your life, therapy is your best course of action. 

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