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The difference between perfectionism and OCD

August 21, 2023
By
Kiera Benson

Holding yourself to impossibly high standards. Spending a long time on a task to ensure that it’s done ‘just right’. Worrying excessively about doing the wrong thing. All of these things can be signs of both perfectionism and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), so it’s easy to see why the two get mixed up.

Although the behaviours of perfectionism and OCD might crossover, the motivations and thought process behind each of them differs. While perfectionism is driven by a fear of failure, OCD stems from an overinflated sense of responsibility.

Unlike OCD, perfectionism isn’t classed as a mental health disorder. That being said, perfectionism can have a negative impact on your mental health and even lead to mental health issues. Let’s take a closer look at the differences and similarities between perfectionism and OCD and how to cope if you’re experiencing either of them.

What is perfectionism?

Someone who is a perfectionist isn’t comfortable with failure; they will hold themselves to exceptionally high standards and strive for perfection in everything they do. While aiming for success can be a positive thing, if a perfectionist doesn’t get the results they want, this can lead to them becoming self-critical, to the point where they tell themselves that they’re ‘not good enough’.

Their fear of failure may cause them to procrastinate, where they put off a task or avoid it altogether, because they’re worried that they won’t be able to do it correctly. Equally, they may feel the obligation to over-deliver on tasks and struggle to know when to stop working on something, which can lead them to feeling exhausted and burnt out.

Let’s say that a perfectionist is given a project at work and they want to do an excellent job to prove themselves. They focus all their time and effort on the project, staying late and neglecting their life outside of work. They feel as though unless they push themselves to their limits, they won’t have done a ‘good enough’ job.

When your self-worth is tied to your performance, you might struggle to enjoy things and everything you do can feel like a chore. Putting yourself under this much pressure can make life much more stressful than it needs to be and can trigger symptoms of anxiety, depression, worry or low self-esteem.

How to handle perfectionism

  1. When working towards a goal, recognise that there’s value in the process. Even if you don’t get the outcome that you were hoping for, you’ve still gained experience along the way.
  2. Question whether the goals that you’re setting yourself are actually attainable. If not then maybe it’s time to lower your standards to avoid being continually disappointed.
  3. Be mindful of your inner-voice and how self-critical you are. Ask yourself whether you’d speak to a friend in this way. If the answer is no then you’re probably being too hard on yourself.
  4. Try not to be too rigid in how you approach things and create some leeway. Instead of saying “I have to achieve this”, say “I will try to achieve this, but if I can’t, that’s okay.”.
  5. Balance is key. Give yourself permission to do activities that you find relaxing and enjoyable that aren’t just linked to achievement.

What is OCD?

A person with OCD will tend to have strong beliefs about responsibility, specifically how much responsibility they have for making sure that something bad doesn’t happen. It’s estimated that 12 in every 1000 people in the UK have OCD, with the condition usually emerging in early adulthood, although it can develop at any age.

There are various misconceptions around OCD, but the most common is perhaps that people with OCD like to be tidy and clean. However, OCD is much more complicated than this. OCD starts with an intrusive thought, like ‘what if a deadly germ enters my house and kills my family?’ This thought becomes an obsession which triggers a compulsion, such as excessive cleaning. The person with OCD feels that by carrying out this compulsion, they will reduce the likelihood of the obsession becoming reality.

Intrusive thoughts, obsessions and compulsions are the three layers of OCD and how they prevent themselves varies from person to person. Let’s break them down:

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts, images, urges or doubts that pop into our minds, seemingly out of nowhere. Intrusive thoughts are normal and everyone experiences them. However, someone with OCD is more likely to be bothered by these thoughts and read into them. By focusing on intrusive thoughts, they can become more frequent, elaborate and distressing. Find out more.

Obsessions or obsessional thinking happens when intrusive thoughts return again and again. Some people might worry that these thoughts are going to come true because they keep having them, or that the thoughts are something they’re capable of. For example, if a parent has repetitive thoughts about harming their child, they may begin to wonder whether this is something they actually want to do. Rest assured, this isn’t the case; intrusive thoughts are not your ‘true’ feelings.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that a person with OCD carries out because they feel that it will reduce or prevent the danger that they perceive is there. Compulsions may relieve the uncomfortable feelings brought on by the obsessive thought, but only temporarily. In the long-term, compulsions keep you focused on the obsession which keeps the cycle going.

Compulsions can be things like seeking reassurance, avoiding a situation, hand-washing, feeling the need to check something or trying to suppress thoughts.

How to treat OCD

Research shows that on average it takes nine years to get an OCD diagnosis. Living with a mental health disorder for this length of time can mean that your thought patterns are firmly ingrained and difficult to break away from. However, it is very possible to learn how to manage OCD.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that can be used to treat OCD. CBT encourages you to challenge your negative thoughts and behaviours so that you can find a new way to respond to your intrusive thoughts and obsessions, breaking the cycle.

At ieso, we offer typed CBT, a text-based service which can be accessed via our secure online platform, where you can talk to experienced therapists. Visit our website to find out if you're eligible to receive a free course of CBT and learn more about how we can help.

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This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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