Perfectionism in OCD: When the pursuit of success turns toxic
Perfectionism is likely to be helpful in moderation but increasingly problematic when taken to extremes.
There is more than one type of perfectionist.
First, there is the adaptive perfectionist. This perfectionist is the prototypical workaholic student/employee who goes above and beyond expectations. This person is intelligent, hard-working, dependable, and passionate about meeting or beating deadlines. He or she sets high personal standards of performance and has an attention to detail that is appreciated by (and often draws accolades from) others.
However, not every perfectionist resembles this prototype. There is another type of perfectionism that might be affecting you or someone you know. This perfectionist doesn’t quite look like the adaptive perfectionist, and based on his or her observable behavior, their perfectionism might not even be readily apparent.
Nevertheless, the maladaptive perfectionist shares many features in common with the adaptive perfectionist. Similar to the adaptive perfectionist, the maladaptive perfectionist is likely to be intelligent and articulate. He or she has very high standards and feels passionately about the importance of hard work. Yet in contrast to the adaptive perfectionist, the maladaptive perfectionist often misses deadlines and fails to deliver an exceptional work product (or, in some cases, any work at all). He or she might even be considered lazy or irresponsible by others. However, the maladaptive perfectionist is usually far from lazy; despite a lack of tangible output, he or she often spends an overabundance of time and effort working.
How is this possible? The maladaptive perfectionist often gets stuck in repeating tasks and has difficulty finishing projects. He or she may repeatedly recheck or revise their work. However, despite these efforts, the product never quite feels “good enough.” The ideas are nearly there, but they never feel fleshed out or polished in a way that gives the individual enough internal satisfaction to achieve closure and bring the project to completion. Alternatively, the person may suffer from intellectual paralysis due to an over-concern with living up to their own potential, fear of failure, or a fear of disappointing others (e.g., teachers, parents, loved ones). This intellectual paralysis may lead to complete avoidance, and this avoidance often becomes chronic and difficult to change.
For some individuals, maladaptive perfectionism is actually obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This type of OCD is tricky because it can be more subtle than other types of OCD. Because it doesn’t resemble many of the other types of OCD with which people are commonly acquainted (hand-washing, checking locks, etc.), it often goes undetected and untreated. This can be frustrating and depressing for sufferers.
Academic perfectionism, which often arises in middle school or high school, can lead to intense conflict and disappointment in the household because parents simply cannot understand why their intelligent children don’t just finish their work. These parents fail to recognize that their kids have OCD. In cases of OCD-driven academic perfectionism, tutors cannot fix the problem and may, in some cases, inadvertently worsen it. As is the case with all forms of OCD, treatment should consist of cognitive behavioral therapy (specifically, Exposure and Response Prevention [ERP]).
Is your perfectionism maladaptive? Check out the following list of warning signs for OCD-related perfectionism. I use this list (and assess other similar behaviors) when working as a psychologist with individuals in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, Florida.
15 Signs of OCD Perfectionism
1. You check and recheck your work repeatedly for typos, misspellings, and errors. You worry about what might happen if you accidentally overlook a mistake.
2. You avoid checking for mistakes at all, because if you found one, it might cause you to check repeatedly. Or you might avoid checking entirely because it’s “too stressful” or “too exhausting” and you don’t feel like dealing with it.
3. You reread passages multiple times in order to make sure you’ve understood them properly. Whenever you read, you worry about missing the “true meaning” of what you’re reading.
4. You avoid reading at all, because it feels stressful, exhausting, and punishing.
5. When you write or talk with others, you worry that other people won’t understand you properly or that they’ll misconstrue your meaning.
6. Despite multiple revisions, your writing never feels like it “sounds right.” You spend more time thinking or searching for the “perfect word” than you do writing.
7. You worry so much about getting interrupted when you’re working that you never start working at all.
8. You feel like you shouldn’t get started with a project unless you have enough time to finish it in one sitting. This might apply to writing papers, composing emails, or doing homework.
9. You put off responding to emails because you don’t have enough time to respond to them “properly.” In the end, you never get around to responding to them at all.
10. You spend more time preparing for projects (organizing yourself, gathering resources, doing background research) than you do working on projects.
11. You spend so much time searching for the perfect topic that you never get started on the project itself.
12. You habitually miss deadlines because you underestimate the amount of time and effort needed to complete projects.
13. When having conversations, you ask people to repeat themselves multiple times to make sure you’ve heard them properly.
14. You often ask the same questions multiple times and in multiple ways to make sure that you’ve gotten the proper information.
15. You desperately worry about “losing your train of thought” and not being able to think of the same idea again later. To compensate for this, you take excessive notes.
Learn to challenge your maladaptive perfectionism through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Enlist the help of a therapist or try one of our social media based exposures for perfectionism on your own. Remember that although OCD is a neurobiological condition, behavioral treatments like ERP can actually change your underlying biology.
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