What’s the Difference Between Perfectionism and OCD?

One may drive the other, but they're not the same

Man arranges office supplies for perfect look

Do you meticulously organize the clothes in your closet by color? Or keep a calendar so detailed that it includes blocks of time to eat, sleep and commute?

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The term “OCD” is often thrown around lightheartedly in conversations and jokes about these little perfectionistic quirks that many of us have. But these things do not, in fact, make a person OCD.

And OCD isn’t actually anything to joke about. It’s an often misunderstood mental illness characterized by thoughts and behaviors that can make it tough for people to go about their day.

It can certainly be driven by perfectionism, but it’s not the same. Nor is it perfectionism taken to the extreme.

“From a high level, the best way to think about OCD versus perfectionism is to think about who is this behavior serving and who is it bothering?” says psychiatrist Joseph Baskin, MD. “People with obsessive-compulsive disorder know that their behavior is problematic but they can’t stop it. People with perfectionism don’t care – it makes their lives orderly.”

What OCD means

OCD is a mental health disorder that involves repeated, unwanted thoughts or urges that cause a person anxiety. In order to reduce that anxiety, the individual performs a compulsive action or ritual – sometimes one that isn’t necessarily related to the fear or anxiety that they’re trying to overcome.

They may understand that what they’re doing is irrational but still spend hours a day doing it.

“Sometimes people have fears of germs; sometimes it’s the need for counting or certain things to happen in certain quantities,” Dr. Baskin says. “Sometimes it’s just an obsessive thought that they can’t get out of their head.”

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For example, someone with obsessive thoughts about their own safety or the safety of their loved ones may feel the need to unlock and relock their front door a dozen times before leaving the house.

“They know that they shouldn’t have to do it, but they must do it, because to not do it means to have an increase in their level of anxiety that’s intolerable,” Dr. Baskin explains. “The whole process is very bothersome to the individual.”

How it relates to perfectionism

Someone who has perfectionism as a personality trait may also have habits or rituals that they follow rigidly, like a certain morning routine or a way of organizing their desk at work. But they’re not necessarily doing it out of anxiety.

“They’re content to do those things because it works well for them, even if it drives everyone else crazy,” Dr. Baskin says.

Someone who’s a perfectionist has high expectations for themselves and for others. This personality trait is usually associated with good organization and goal-oriented behavior. Healthy perfectionism may drive some people to achieve excellence.

But, on the other hand, these high standards can also drive people to be extremely critical of themselves and others. Dr. Baskin calls to mind the saying that “perfect is the enemy of good.”

“When perfectionism becomes problematic, the individual themselves is usually the last one to know,” he explains. “It’s often their work or marriage that tends to suffer the most.”

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Help for both

Obsessive compulsive disorder is usually treated with a combination or psychotherapy and medication, Dr. Baskin says.

Therapy may focus on the concept of “radical acceptance,” an approach that aims to help people stop fighting reality and let go of what they can’t control.

While behavioral therapy alone may be enough for people with mild symptoms, Dr. Baskin notes that the combination of therapy with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a commonly prescribed type of medicine for mental health disorders, is usually very important.

Someone with extreme and unhealthy perfectionism might also benefit from psychotherapy. “But these people often don’t seek help, because they don’t think that anything is wrong,” Dr. Baskin says.

For anyone who experiences anxious or obsessive thoughts or behaviors that affect their quality of life. Dr. Baskin offers this reassurance: “There are treatments, and quality of life can improve.”

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