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OCD and Perfectionism: The Battle for Control
I worked 20 years before I went on social security disability and then attempted part-time for another nine years until my perfectionism and fear of making a mistake made it unbearable to hold down a job. Whether a company hired me for a part-time position, I’d take it upon myself to work beyond paid hours. Weekday shifts that ended at 5 pm became 10 pm for me. And recording psychological assessments that should have only taken 1.5 hours took me three hours to complete because I had to rewrite and reread them repeatedly, causing me to fall behind. I couldn’t keep up with myself any longer.
We typically understand that making mistakes is part of life and can teach us great lessons. Having healthy perfectionist boundaries can motivate individuals, but making even a simple error can feel disastrous for individuals who struggle with OCD and perfectionism, inevitably becoming an unhealthy boundary. So, what differentiates healthy and unhealthy perfectionism?
Individuals with healthy perfections typically are more emotionally and psychologically secure and well-adjusted. They tend to perform better at work and school and have greater self-esteem.
Characteristics of healthy perfectionism include:
- Realistic expectations of yourself and others
- Readily accepts constructive criticism
- Quickly bounces back from adversity
It is not to say that individuals with OCD and perfectionism don’t have the same goals as those with healthy perfectionism. However, those with unhealthy perfectionism tend to have low self-esteem, lack inner confidence, or struggle with mental health issues. You can find more information about perfectionism here: “Just Right” OCD – How to manage and how to treat it (ocdtalk.com)
Characteristics of unhealthy perfectionism include:
- An extreme fear of making a mistake
- Excessive expectations of yourself and others
- Things must be “just right” or appear perfect
- Fear of consequences, punitive action, or being reprimanded
- Inability to make decisions
- Overworking/can’t put work down until it is “perfect”
- Seeing oneself as a failure if things aren’t “just so”
Struggling with OCD and perfectionism can create a downward spiral effect, eventually leading to compulsions. For example, say you work at a fast-paced doctor’s office as an administrative assistant. They will require prompt and efficient services. However, you feel this excessive need to reread and revise the patient’s notes for fear of making a mistake, and the office is now closing in 15 minutes, but you still have ten more progress notes to complete. Ultimately, it directly affects the office, patients who need information sent over to the lab, or the insurance company waiting for an authorization request.
Here are some examples of compulsive behavior:
- Repeatedly rereading and revising original work
- Falling behind on work or school assignments
- Procrastinating due to the amount of energy it takes to “perfect” something
- Seeking reassurance for a job done correctly
Help for OCD and Perfectionism
I am a strong proponent of being proactive, especially regarding OCD, because even if you’re aware of these traits, they can be pretty stubborn. So, here are some methods to cope with perfectionism:
1. Working with a therapist.
Finding a therapist who can assist you with the proper tools will make your life much easier to maneuver. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a common technique used for individuals who struggle with distorted thinking. For example, we often get stuck in these thought patterns that we are either not good enough, skinny enough, or doing enough. Therefore, your therapist can work with you on how to change your ruminating thoughts. To find more information on rumination, you can find it here: OCD Rumination – (ocdtalk.com)
Another method a therapist might use is exposure and response prevention therapy. A therapist will work with you and expose you to uncomfortable situations, such as not repeatedly checking and rechecking. Your therapist will introduce you to this method slowly and progressively, as it can be an anxiety-provoking technique. However, through repeated exposure, anxiety will begin to dissipate. To find more information on exposure and response prevention therapy, you can find it here: Exposure and Response Prevention – (ocdtalk.com)
2. Peer support.
It is not uncommon for someone with OCD to struggle with perfectionism. However, we often feel alone and think there is something innately wrong with us when that is not the case. Therefore, finding a support group with others who can relate and empathize can ease your mind. Talking about your thoughts and feelings or listening to others who share commonalities can be a liberating experience.
3. Mindfulness Techniques.
Is there something you do to unwind from stress? Being mindful is an excellent way to release constant worry or rumination, whether yoga, listening to music, watching a tv show, or whatever works for you. Mindfulness is not a means of escaping from your thoughts but a way to relax your mind. Using avoidance causes us to obsess more, but mindfulness allows you to be in the moment and recuperate.
Journaling isn’t for everyone, but give it a try if you can. There is no rule to how you journal, but one idea is to write a pros and cons list. For example, write a list of obsessions that do or don’t benefit you or “what will happen” if you do or don’t do something just so.
If you prefer not to journal a list, maybe you can write your thoughts and feelings down on a piece of paper or on your computer. Essentially, it doesn’t matter whether you choose to write a story, poem, etc.; it’s about releasing the circulating thoughts in your brain. The process can be liberating, cathartic, and decrease stress.
5. Give it a chance.
Perfectionism differs for every individual, but our common theme is a concern for perfection and flawlessness. We put ourselves through all these unnecessary expectations, and at what cost? We’re afraid of the consequences, but we don’t give “making a mistake” a chance to help us grow, change, or learn from it. So, go ahead, break the chains and make that first mistake – it just might be the greatest thing that could happen to you.
If you need some support on your recovery journey, you are always welcome to join our OCD community. We have a wealth of information and support available to you. By entering our discussion forum, you can connect with others who understand what you are going through. You can also find helpful tips and advice from people who have been where you are now.
- About the Author
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I am a mental health advocate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in mental health counseling. Initially, I worked as a therapist but shifted my focus and became a Certified Peer Specialist. Currently, I present at inpatient facilities through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and other organizations. I am also a mental health blogger and web content writer, where I draw upon my personal history, education, and professional experience. My work has been featured on the NAMI blog and as a regular contributor to The Mighty blog.
You can find me at Bipolar Warriors – YOU ARE NOT ALONE