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Licensed Psychologist

Perfectionism in OCD: When the pursuit of success turns toxic

OCD Perfectionism

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.

Questions? Comments? Sound off below.




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34 Comments

  1. I have the handwashing/feat of contamination type of OCD but this article made me realize that I probably have this kind too. It totally explains why I had so much trouble at my last job. I’m going to show this article to my therapist! Thanks for the info.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful! OCD can be so sneaky sometimes. Good luck in challenging it!

  2. Never has an article made me cry until just now. I went through therapy for only 2 short months about 6 years ago, during which the therapist told me she thought I was OCD. I never could find enough information to convince myself of it until I read this article. For years, I thought I was just ADHD, which I trully believe I am. I’ve been called lazy my whole life, yet I’m one of the most energetic people I know! I try to tell people I’m a nonfunctional perfectionist or that I have perfectionist paralysis, but they hear the word “perfectionist” and look at my house, classroom (I’m a teacher), or car and blow it off.

    My house almost resembles that of a hoarder! It’s so dirty and no matter what, I can’t seem to do anything about it! I am so disgusted by it that I can’t touch it! I “gross out” by everything! Plus, it’s just so overwhelming that I can’t even get started on it…I want the perfect house, and I know I can’t do it,so why even bother. My car is dirty and messy, but it’s not my dream car, so I don’t even care about it! I know that when I start cleaning, I can’t stop until I’m exhausted and fall into bed hours and hours later. I don’t vacuum because if I do, then it will drive me crazy when it gets stepped on and the pattern gets messed up…or I’ll spend all day picking up every piece of lint that falls on it!

    Six months ago, I was accepted to write articles on examiner.com. I just submitted an article a few weeks ago. A 400 word article took me the better part of 3 days. I returned to the site after it was published at least 10 times to revise it! I had no idea this was OCD!

    I just had my evaluation at work postponed because I had an attack of the perfectionist paralysis and completely freaked out by the pressure!

    My credit score is horrible because I put things off! I’m late to work, because I underestimate time.

    I wear my hair in a wadded knot on top of my head every day, because it frustrates me so badly when my curly hair doesn’t look like perfect ringlets!

    Thank you so much for this article. It amazes me that you took the words right out of my mouth in your list of 15 signs of perfectionism!

    • Julie,

      Thank you for your insightful and heart-felt response. I’m so glad that my post resonated with you and helped bring some clarity to a confusing situation. So many people struggle with hidden perfectionism…school and work can feel so overwhelming that it often feels easier to just give up (or avoid) rather than get stuck in that exhausting, paralyzing perfectionistic loop. I hope that your new perspective mobilizes you to fight back against your perfectionism and break free to create the life you want for yourself.

      Wishing you the best in your journey.

  3. By the way…I submitted that without reading it and editing it first, because I was afraid I’d obsess about it and spend all night on it!

  4. I have spent a long amount of time trying to figuar out what I have. Besides already having the type of OCD where I must do thing is the number ten(not everything I just have to step on certain things ten times and I have to have the volume on every thing in quadrants of ten), having things all straight and not on cracks or lines, and I have trich(obsessive hair pulling; OCD related but not completely OCD) I also seem to have OCD maladaptive perfectionism. If I miss anything on a test, quiz, or assignment, I have a anixety breakdown. I have to have all my grades above 97% on my report card(100% on everything else). This sucks!!! This is a great article I didn’t know that this was another sign of OCD. How am I supposed to get cured from this? If I challenge it then I feel as if I am attacking my grades. Any ideas? Also why is life so unfair that I’m only 14 and already have so many damn issues!

    • Hi Christina,

      OCD can be really tricky and can pop up in unexpected ways. Your best plan of attack should involve resisting rituals related to checking (many of these are listed above). These often include compulsively checking your answers, rereading, etc. It can also be helpful to set time limits for specific assignments.

      Many people with particularly stubborn symptoms also include mistake practice. It can be really helpful to work with a therapist if you need to go this route. If you’re like most perfectionists, the idea of making a mistake on purpose probably sounds ridiculous. Therapy can help you understand why this type of strategy might be helpful for you.

      Best of luck!

  5. I believe that I was once an adaptive perfectionist who met failure and perceived censure to the point that I’ve become a maladaptive one. 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15 are the ones that particularly resound with me… And makes living, interacting and studying almost unbearable without unthinkingness or numbness.

    • You make a very good point: sometimes particular events can sensitize us to these types of behaviors. The challenge, then, is to find a way to make the unbearable bearable.

  6. I have a grandson who is only 10 yrs old. Ever since he was about 1.5 years he is a clean nut… He is constantly cleaning or rearanging his room or my living room. , he measures and make sure that every thing is perfect .
    I just visited him this past week and asked to use his computer, he started cleaning off my fingerprints, his room as u can imagine is very organized, everything in its place…
    He has excellent grades,gets bored very easily. I wish I could help him.
    What type of problem is he dealing with???

    • Hi Nana,

      It’s impossible to say without doing a formal assessment, but if you’re concerned, I would recommend having him checked out by a psychologist who has experience in treating OCD-spectrum conditions. One important issue is determining if his cleaning/rearranging is disrupting his life in any way (e.g., spending excessive time, missing out on other activities, causing conflict with others). It’s also important to determine why he cleans. Reasons vary widely. For example, is he worried about someone tripping and getting hurt, is he worried about losing something, or does he simply feel uncomfortable if things are in disarray? These are the types of questions an OCD specialist would ask him.

      Many conditions begin developing in childhood, and early interventions are often more effective and less complicated than later interventions. Also, FYI, puberty is a time when symptoms typically get worse.

      I wish you the best with this!

  7. Hi Dr. Steven, you probably remember me from posts on body focused obsessions. I have worked hard and relentlessly on these and have them more or less under control, though they can still be painful at times. I have developed all the symptoms of a maladaptive perfectionist now. I obsess over sentence structure, pununciation and I have developed a stutter and always mix my words up. People have teased me, calling me dyslexic and illiterate. The more I try to explain my condition the mre they turn away, it is so frustrating! Anyway, I really need your advice because as soon as I defeat one theme of OCD it moves in to others. Today I had around 35 different obsessions including talking, breathing, sleeping, reading, writing, metacognition, the list goes on. How is it possible to expose myself to so
    Many different obsessions? I have tried exposing myself to each one but I simply have not the time and I become completely disheartened once I beat one to have to face another, almost instantly. I think if I were to generalise it, I would identify it as an obsession about obsessing. Please can you provide me clarity, mu psychologist is dumbfounded and he is the tenth one I have been too. Thank you for your time and patience.

    • Hi Vincent,

      OCD can often be frustrating and demoralizing. Our brains can be remarkable in their capacity for creativity. OCD is but one example of how this creativity can seemingly turn against us. For individuals who have symptoms that are primarily limited to one domain, it can be relatively straightforward to develop an exposure hierarchy to eliminate symptoms one-by-one. It sounds like you’ve experienced some of the benefits of this approach in working with your sensorimotor symptoms.

      However, just like you, many individuals have symptoms in multiple domains and a stepwise approach can sometimes feel cumbersome if your symptoms morph quickly. As soon as you address one symptom, your OCD has already latched onto something else. In some cases, it may be possible to identify elements of your OCD that transcend the individual symptom. For example, sometimes the fear (be it related to breathing, reading, writing, or something else) is largely related to the fear of being unable to cope with one’s own symptoms or an inability to have the type of life that one wants. In these cases, it is sometimes helpful to address this overarching fear via imaginal exposure.

      Remember that even well-intentioned forecasting of the future can interfere with living in the current moment and can sometimes reflect a mental ritual. This tends to be one of the most insidious and damaging of the mental rituals because it often goes undetected. In some cases, this ritual alone can completely stall progress.

      Actively choosing to live as full of a life as you can while your symptoms are raging, can itself be an exposure. Choosing to engage in leisure, pursuing new relationships, finding a job…all of the activities that involve actively living in the current moment must gradually be undertaken now. They cannot be postponed indefinitely or until symptoms remit, as the pursuit of these activities now (despite the major challenges they can entail) is part of the process of taking your life back from OCD.

      Another way to think about this is to redefine your overarching treatment goal. Perhaps your goal shouldn’t be to live a life that is free from obsessions, but rather to learn to coexist with your obsessions…to not let them define you…and to be able to notice them but not buy into them.

      I do understand that this is very frustrating, and I’m not sure that I’ve given you a very straightforward answer. What I can tell you is that people do recover from this. It will take creativity, much effort, and persistence. However, there is much room for hope.

      I don’t remember if I’ve given you specific book recommendations in previous comments or not. However, I would recommend John Grayson’s book, as well as the ACT workbook by Steven Hayes (which is not OCD-specific), both of which are listed on my recommended readings post:

      http://www.steveseay.com/ocd-books-websites/

      The Steven Hayes book wasn’t included when I originally published the post because it’s not OCD-specific, but I added it this morning because I thought it would be helpful to also include something with an ACT emphasis.

      Good luck, Vincent. Keep hanging in there. All the best…

  8. I just hate the ambiguity and uncertainty. I have all this ambition and persistence, but what good is that if cannot channel it correctly, or worse putting it into the wrong areas. I have visited several psychologists now and I am alarmed by the ignorance when it comes to treating OCD. Repetitively I am told to use distraction, self hypnosis and thought stopping. Didn’t they outlaw thought stopping years ago? Also I hate paying money to just have a moan about my problems but never getting anywhere. Through stumbling across your article I have learned more than all the psychologists I have been too, amounting to around 3000 dollars. I tried telling them about the relevant treatment plan for OCD and all they did was dismiss me. What should be my focus for alleviating the symptoms of an adaptive and viral OCD? What sort of exposures can be done there? I have starting going to university and socialising again, but I get bullied relentlessly because of my obsessions. Most people just do not accept OCD as a legitimate illness, I understand why though, seeing is believing. Unless they could jump into my mind they have no idea. I wonder if it is possible to habituate to verbal abuse? I treat it as an exposure, also I detach as best I can from it. Sorry I am rather desperate for some clear tips and strategies anything regarding the multifaceted OCD would be more than helpful. Thanks again Dr Steven. :)

  9. I’m so glad I just read this. As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed how anal I am about certain things. I felt my personality contradicted itself because at the same time I had a dirty house, car, and laundry piling up. The only time I want to clean is when I know I have enough time to get everything done perfectly (paperwork filed, all dishes clean, all laundry done and drawers reorginized, etc.) when I was younger if I didn’t think I could win a race I would scratch on purpose. I avoided schoolwork all together and it would take me ungodly amounts of time to write a paper. I constantly read over emails, status updates, and anything I write. I then worry about how it will be interpreted and quit all together. I research ideas and projects constantly but never do anything about it. I constantly fail at dieting bc I give up once I have a bite of a cookie. I was successful one time at dieting and working out and it was because I didn’t have a bite of a cookie or sip of a coke. My friends made fun of me for my complete obsession with getting my 20 minutes of cardio in daily. Basically if something isn’t going to be 100% I don’t want to do it. And most the time I won’t. I also feel it causes depression and anxiety. Any cures for this? I don’t want to be this way! —I almost deleted this entire comment, I will now push submit-

    • Glad you kept yourself from deleting it–way to go! That’s the perfect way to begin fighting your maladaptive perfectionism.

      The best way to overcome maladaptive perfectionism is to work on accepting and embracing the gray areas of life, so that things don’t continually bounce between black and white. This is often accomplished by reducing procrastination and by setting small, attainable goals (and following through!). If you have symptoms of OCD, you might also consider building a formal hierarchy that includes resisting perfection and making do with “good enough” solutions.

      Good luck!

  10. Severe Acne can sometimes change the personality of the Host when he sees the mirror hence there may be OCD and Perfectionism.

  11. Thank you for this article. I have finally found a name for my “condition”. I never knew I had a problem until very recently when it became worse.

    Ever since I was a little girl there were signs. It was impossible to talk to me during a movie, for example. I would rewind it and get very upset about not being able to hear every single line clearly. When I grew up and started to read it would take me ages to get through a single page, because I wanted to absorb every little detail. Sometimes I even felt the urge to MEMORIZE the whole thing. Later, in high school, homework would be done to perfection down to my handwriting. If I felt it was unsatisfactory for some reason I would do it again for the beginning in a new page, instead of erasing what I had done.

    Nowadays it’s impossible for me to do anything. I dropped off college because I was overworking myself to depression, not taking time to eat or sleep. I can’t read because I am afraid of not understanding the author’s ideas, and I can’t watch movies like normal people. I have to watch them t least twice, with GOOD subtitles (nice punctuation and all) and review them afterwards. I used to enjoy writing so much, but now I just can’t do it because I over-think every single sentence. Once it took me 6 hours to write a 300 word essay for school! I don’t even answer e-mails anymore because I “never have time”.

    I am very worried and I do not know what to do about this. The only thing I am not OCD about is cleanliness but since this condition seems to be aggravating over time there is no saying in what could happen next. I am only 20 years old! Please help me.

  12. Also, I submitted that without reading it through. Felt the need to let you know since I found some typos in there after reading it over… I’m especially self-conscious because English isn’t my first language :/

  13. Thank you for this article. I have the regular hand-washing/cleanliness/ neatfreak OCD but I never realised that this was also a part of this disorder. It’s a relief to know that I’m not crazy or the only one who does it :)

  14. I needed to read this so badly today. I was trying to explain this to my husband earlier and he didn’t understand. I was feeling extremely frustrated and alone after that conversation.

    I handle most things in one of two ways: either I obsess over it (which I did when I was actively into creative writing–reading the same piece of writing probably 25-30 times and making tiny edits) or avoid it until I can’t.

    The last one gets me in the most trouble. Work comes with deadlines. I am terrible at judging how much time I actually need to finish something (although you’d think after several months with the same workload, I’d learn). I also end up waiting until the last minute when I can’t afford to think about it. I think that’s why I do it, even if it’s unwittingly. When the deadline is hours away, the anxiety over not getting it done becomes greater than the anxiety of doing it poorly.

    Not to mention bills…and calling people on the telephone. I don’t do phone calls if I can help it. Too much anxiety, I avoid it completely.

    I don’t know what to do about it yet. I don’t know if I should do anything about it, but my husband is highly concerned and mentioned looking into what kind of therapy our insurance covers. Might have a plan for it sooner rather than later.

    • This comment thread needs an edit button, considering. lol

  15. Yeah this is me all day long!! Went to therapy a couple of years ago after putting myself in hospital for a week thanks to a very carefully listen receptionist at my doctors office. I was diagnosed with having a major depressive episode, OCD and bipolar II. After the hospital stay, I took an outpatient CBT skills class. This really helped and I highly recommend participating.
    #s 1,3,4,5,6,8,12, 14 & 15 I can agree to without any changes. Some of the others are not so much, but still a yes. I can’t do the dishes unless all of them fit in the drying rack…and I have to organize them all first in order to do so. I despise doing dishes!! I’d rather eat out or off paper/plastic. Same with getting my laundry folded/hung-up – everything has to come out of the drawers and organized on the bed so that I can make sure everything I have is together in one drawer. My closest is organized by type, weight/season and color. Thank goodness I have enough close that I can go a week or two without having to do laundry. BTW, my washer and dryer are IN MY one level APARTMENT! Emails for work…forget about it – read, edit, read, edit (who knows how many times), send to someone for comments and then finally one last read & send IF there were no suggested comments. Hey, at least I am asking for opinions! I almost failed my typing classes due to speed as I’m aware that I have to hit the backspace before my finger returns from tapping the incorrect key.
    Am I done, let me reread…nope just clicking the submit comment…hoping this makes sense!

  16. This explains my entire life. This is EXACTLY how I feel and think. I am a college student, failing because of my stupid fucking OCD.

  17. Hi, this post has real;y got me thinking about my symptoms , i have noticed alot that i always spend so much time just planning what to do but when it come to do it i just cant and i put it off constantly but i have so much motivation as i plan, i also have this self need to look perfect i find it so frustrating, just before i was looking in the mirror and every bump on my face made me want to punch and kick my head in, just for looking imperfect, the maladaptive perfectionist seems so relatable and i have so much struggle to finish and submit my work, i often seem to feel that i need reassurance for things i do to make sure its socially acceptable or something.
    i have also looked into BPD (borderline personality disorder) and seemed to show signs, other than suicidal thoughts but i do often feel unworthy

  18. Thanks for the article Steve…its on point and I’m about to share it with others…thanks again…!!

  19. Stephen,

    I have been diagnosed with ADHD, and been working with my psychiatrist and ADHD group, weekly. Most of us would likely look at your list and have 13 or 14, in some cases 15, of the symptoms you described as “OCD Perfectionism”.

    Do you think that there is a correlation between ADHD and OCD? I can’t speak for the members of my group, but I certainly have never had any ritualistic hand washing or “checking” going on.

    If you know of any articles written about the two disorders, I would really appreciate if you would pass them on to me!

    Thanks,
    Olivia

  20. After reading what you describe as “checking rituals”, I’d like to clarify that I meant “checking” as in people who lock unlock lock unlock lock unlock doors, etc.

  21. I don’t even know how I was guided to this article. I was having a random thought about perfectionism vs ocd, and googled. I was told when I was a teen that I was a perfectionist. I surmised by myself that wanting things to be perfect meant I didn’t do things if I couldn’t figure out how to do it right. I figured I was just a lazy procrastinator. Now in my 40′s, the last 15 years, with health and pain issues, so keeping up minimums became hard, and insomnia took over, I have suffered with major anxiety and have been paralyzed as clutter took over, and everything I wanted to be as a mom, a wife, a friend went out of control

    I read this and started crying. As I have thought about it over the last couple days, I have seen in myself that I don’t have external OCD rituals, they are all in my head. I thought I was just very introspective, and I am, but it goes beyond that to the obsessive. I am stuck in hell in my head, I think and think, and I can’t figure out how to do, and I have panic attacks. I here the judgements I make in my head against people when they do things that I don’t think is the right way, tho I wouldn’t say anything, because I logically know that it doesn’t have to be my way, but I go over and over and over how my way is better.

    Since I thought I just simply had insomnia and anxiety, along with other health issues, I didn’t know how psychiatric treatment would help me, since counseling before was a waste of time… I mean I am the perfect expert of my own mind right? Talk therapy, was just dollars out for me. But now I see, I have something that needs treating, and I am relieved, because no medical doctor would help me with them, and I hate myself and how I let things go so out of control.

    You may have saved my life.

  22. In 2003, I went to Iraq with the military. Before that time, I was a little OCD but found that after my experience over in the Middle East, my OCD has gotten worse.

    What can I do? I reviewed this list and found I meet every one of the criteria.

  23. Glad it isnt or I doubt there would ever be a “final” versioned comment ))

  24. Wow thanks! I would just say ditto )

    helped me save all my time in writing one one! )))

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