“OMG I’m So OCD” … But Maybe You Aren’t: OCD vs Perfectionism

How to tell the difference

This Barrie 360 article is brought to you by OCD North

Have you ever seen someone straighten a tablecloth or photo and lightheartedly say something like, “Sorry, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is showing” or “OMG, I am just so OCD.” 

Maybe you’ve said it yourself. 

In recent years, “OCD” has become a common colloquialism to describe someone’s attention to detail or their need for cleanliness and order. But OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) extends far beyond a preference for neatness or a desire for things to be just right. 

Used interchangeably, the terms OCD and Perfectionism do have some shared characteristics. But it’s important to understand the difference between the two. That way, you’ll know when intervention and treatment may be needed. 

Before we talk about how to tell the difference between the two, let’s talk about what exactly OCD and Perfectionism are. 

What You’ll Find In This Article

What is OCD?
Obsessions
Compulsions
What is Perfectionism?
Unhealthy Perfectionism
The Difference Between OCD & Perfectionism
Nature of Thoughts
Impact on Daily Life
Distress and Anxiety
Control Over Thoughts and Behaviours
Beliefs and Interpretations
Potential for Overlap and Co-Occurrence

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health condition characterized by recurring, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). It causes significant distress to those who have it and can disrupt daily life in significant ways. 

The exact causes of OCD are complex and multifaceted, involving a combination of genetic, neurological, environmental, and cognitive factors. Imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin might also play a role.

OCD can look very different from one person to the next because the obsessions and compulsions themselves can vary. 

Let’s take a closer look at these two things, then we’ll talk a bit more about what Perfectionism is. 

Obsessions

Obsessions are unwanted and recurring ideas, images or impulses that cause intense anxiety. There is no end to what a person with OCD could obsess about, but common obsessions include: 

  • Fear of unintentionally harming others 
  • Fear of germs 
  • Thoughts involving unwanted/forbidden religious acts 
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts or images
  • Fear of forgetting important information  
  • Fear of causing something bad to happen

Another common obsession is needing things to be exact or even. This can understandably add to the confusion surrounding the difference between OCD and Perfectionism but hopefully we can clear that up in just a bit. 

Compulsions

Compulsions are used to remove the obsessive thought and alleviate anxiety. The problem is that they only offer temporary relief. Over time compulsions will become less and less effective causing them to grow heavier, more frequent, and more complex. 

Like obsessions, there are many different compulsions that people can have and they don’t always relate directly to the obsession. Some common compulsions include: 

  • Checking lights and locks 
  • Cleaning or washing rituals
  • Counting 
  • Arranging objects in specific ways
  • Repeating a specific phrase over and over in your head 
  • Repeating movements 

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait that arises from excessively high performance expectations. Oftentimes, it’s driven by a need to be flawless, or at the very least be seen as such. 

More loosely, the term is used for someone who is detail oriented or high achieving. 

Perfectionism is often linked to upbringing, societal pressures, or learned behaviors. It can stem from a desire for approval, fear of failure, or the belief that self-worth is contingent on meeting high standards.

While Perfectionism may involve meticulousness and attention to detail, it doesn’t typically lead to the distress and interference in life that characterizes OCD. Though it can become unhealthy if it isn’t managed. 

Unhealthy Perfectionism 

When kept under control, healthy levels of Perfectionism can drive individuals to achieve excellence. 

Unhealthy Perfectionism, however, can have negative consequences. This can be anything from the inability to delegate tasks to relationship problems and mental exhaustion. 

Unhealthy Perfectionism can even lead to the development of mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. 

If you’re concerned about unhealthy Perfectionism, there are steps you can take to address the issue. This includes: 

  • Challenge negative self-talk 
  • Try something you are bad at simply for enjoyment 
  • Join a support group 
  • Talk to a therapist 

The Difference Between OCD and Perfectionism

Recognizing the difference between OCD and Perfectionism is crucial for several reasons. 

Mislabeling normal behaviors as OCD might lead individuals to overlook or minimize genuine mental health concerns. It could also contribute to stigma, making it harder for those genuinely suffering from OCD to seek understanding and support.

If you’re wondering if you or someone you love has OCD or Perfectionism, consider these distinguishing characteristics. 

1. Nature of Thoughts

OCD involves specific obsessions and compulsions that are time-consuming and cause significant distress. 

Example of OCD: A person is afraid they will get fired if they make a mistake in a report so they re-check reports over and over again causing delays, poor work performance and missed deadlines.

Perfectionism focuses on setting unrealistically high standards but doesn’t involve the presence of intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. 

Example of Perfectionism: A person wants to make sure that there are no spelling mistakes in their report so they double or maybe even triple check it before sending. 

2. Impact on Daily Life 

OCD can significantly interfere with daily life and functioning due to the time-consuming nature of compulsive rituals and the distress caused by obsessions, interfering with work, relationships and overall quality of life 

Example of OCD: A person is afraid that someone will get hurt if anything is out of place. They spend hours meticulously organizing household items, constantly rearranging and cleaning, unable to relax or move on to the next task until everything is in a specific order.

Perfectionism can impair productivity, but doesn’t necessarily disrupt daily functioning to the extent that OCD does.

Example of Perfectionism: A person organizes their child’s closet by style and colour because it is aesthetically pleasing and helps make it easier to get them ready in the morning. 

3. Distress and Anxiety 

OCD is associated with high levels of anxiety caused by obsessions and the need to perform compulsions. Not being able to perform compulsions can lead to an even more intense emotional response

Example of OCD: A person experiences overwhelming anxiety at the thought of germs, leading them to wash their hands for extended periods. Even though they know they’ve cleaned their hands thoroughly, they continue cleaning until their hands are raw, disrupting their day and causing considerable distress.

While Perfectionism may cause stress due to their pursuit of flawlessness, it’s not typically characterized by the intense anxiety seen in OCD. 

Example of Perfectionism: A person feels a sense of frustration and disappointment upon finding a minor error in a project they’ve worked on meticulously, but they don’t experience extreme anxiety or distress.

4. Control Over Thoughts and Behaviours 

People with OCD lack control over obsessions and compulsions. They want to stop doing what they are doing but can’t. 

Example of OCD: Despite knowing their fear of a fire is irrational, someone with OCD cannot resist the compulsion to repeatedly check if the stove is off. Even in a situation where time is of the essence, such as being late for an important meeting, they’re unable to stop their ritual.

In an emergency, if a person with OCD has an obsession about ensuring all doors are locked, they might excessively check and recheck the locks despite the urgency of the situation, potentially delaying necessary action.

People with Perfectionism tend to have control over setting and striving for high standards. 

Example of Perfectionism: Despite having high standards for their work, a person with perfectionistic tendencies can choose to submit a project even if they feel it’s not flawless, understanding the practicality of meeting deadlines and the need for progress over absolute perfection.

If someone with Perfectionism is in an emergency where immediate action is required, they can set aside their need for perfection and focus on addressing the emergency.

5. Beliefs and Interpretations 

People with OCD often recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are irrational. The problem is they feel compelled to perform these rituals to reduce anxiety or prevent perceived harm.

Example of OCD: A person knows that repeatedly checking if the door is locked is unnecessary, yet the fear of a break-in compels them to continue the behavior.

People with Perfectionism are usually aware that their standards are exceptionally high but don’t want to stop the behaviour because they feel a sense of reward or order from their actions. 

Example of Perfectionism: Despite understanding that spending excessive time perfecting their daily to-do lists might be unrealistic, a person with perfectionistic tendencies continues to meticulously plan every detail, finding a sense of control and accomplishment from the organized structure.

Potential for Overlap and Co-Occurrence

While OCD and Perfectionism aren’t the same, the two conditions can occur at the same time. In fact, research shows that people with high levels of Perfectionism are more likely to experience OCD. There are also studies demonstrating that those with OCD are more likely to be perfectionists. 

The overlap between the two doesn’t stop there …

Perfectionism can also contribute to or exacerbate OCD symptoms in some cases. For example, Perfectionism can: 

  • Increase need to do compulsions perfectly, adding levels of complexity 
  • Increase checking behaviour
  • Create obsessions about having complete control over yourself 

OCD vs Perfectionism

The colloquial use of “OCD” to describe traits like neatness or attention to detail overlooks the complexity of OCD and blurs the distinction between OCD and Perfectionism. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is more than just a penchant for orderliness; it’s a complex mental health condition that involves intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. On the other hand, perfectionism, which can exist on its own or alongside OCD, doesn’t come with the same level of distress and disruption.

Understanding the nuances between the two can lead to more meaningful conversations and support for those who might be dealing with OCD or perfectionism.

If you think you have OCD, look into getting a proper assessment by mental health professionals. 

Professionals can differentiate OCD from other disorders, address co-occurring conditions, and provide personalized strategies for managing your unique situation. This guidance helps prevent complications and can aid in long-term well-being.

Summary

  • OCD is a mental health condition characterized by recurring, intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors or mental acts. It causes significant distress to those who have it.
  • Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by excessively high performance expectations and a need for flawlessness, driven by factors like upbringing and societal pressures.
  • Unhealthy Perfectionism can lead to negative consequences such as relationship problems and mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
  • Recognizing the differences between OCD and Perfectionism is crucial to avoid minimizing genuine mental health concerns and to provide proper support.
  • OCD and Perfectionism differentiate in many ways including the nature of thoughts, impact on daily life, level of distress and anxiety, control over the thoughts and behaviour, and more.
  • While OCD and Perfectionism aren’t the same, they can occur together, with Perfectionism sometimes exacerbating OCD symptoms.
  • Professional assessment is essential for accurate diagnosis and personalized management strategies.
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