Have you ever heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”? And someone describing themselves as a perfectionist? Or have you ever felt the need to constantly check and recheck things, like ensuring you locked the door or not, or whether you turned the stove off?
Well, as much as it sounds like a motivating mantra, it can also be a double-edged sword. While these behaviors may seem similar, they are different: perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
People often use these two terms interchangeably, but they are quite different in reality. While both involve setting high standards and being detail-oriented, there are important distinctions between the two that can affect how they are treated.
In this article, we will explore the difference between the two, when perfectionism becomes unhealthy, whether it can cause OCD, what obsessive-compulsive disorder is, how they are different, and the different coping strategies. Furthermore, we will also discuss when seeking professional help may be necessary. So, let’s get started!
Perfectionism: A Definition
This personality trait is characterized by a person’s desire for flawlessness and setting high standards for themselves and others. It is often defined as the pursuit of flawlessness or the setting of high standards. It can be a positive or a negative trait.
For example, striving for excellence can lead to success, but it can lead to negative consequences when it becomes an obsession. People who identify as perfectionists tend to hold themselves to very high standards and often fear failure. They may feel intense pressure to achieve and may perceive anything less than perfect as a personal failure. They usually don’t accept anything that is not flawless. They don’t allow for error and have very particular ideas about how things are carried out.
People exhibiting this trait might be too obsessed with regretting past errors, anxious about making new errors, or uncertain about their abilities. They may be quite hard on themselves when anything goes wrong or even experience depression if they don’t meet their high standards. They take an all-or-nothing approach.
When is it Unhealthy?
Perfectionism can be either of the following:
- Adaptive or healthy
- Maladaptive or unhealthy
When it is healthy, it can help you attain success and maintain structure. But it turns unhealthy when it starts interfering with a person’s daily life, causing them significant distress or impairing their functioning.
Although it isn’t a mental health problem, it can be a symptom of or a contributing factor to several disorders. For example, a perfectionist may spend hours and hours on a task, even when it’s not necessary, or they may avoid certain situations or tasks altogether for fear of not being perfect. This can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and even depression.
If any of the following apply to you, you might be exhibiting unhealthy perfectionism:
- Your ambition to live up to high expectations causes your interpersonal, professional, or romantic relationships to suffer.
- You start to feel mentally worn out or lose sleep because you constantly strive for excellence.
- Your obsession with perfection is leading to mental health problems like despair or anxiety.
- You start to avoid doing some things out of fear of doing them poorly.
- You’re displaying behaviors such as self-doubt, self-sabotage, and anxiety about failure.
Does it Cause OCD?
It is important to note that perfectionism differs from OCD. However, there is a link between the two, as many individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder have a perfectionist personality. Their compulsions may stem from an intense need for everything to be ‘just right.’ It is also common for individuals exhibiting an obsessive compulsion to have intrusive thoughts that make them feel like they need to do things perfectly or in a certain way to avoid harm. This can lead to compulsive behaviors, which are a hallmark of OCD. Nevertheless, not all perfectionists develop OCD, and not all people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are perfectionists.
OCD: A Definition
According to the DSM-5-TR, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by two things: obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
- Obsessions are recurring and intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that cause significant anxiety or distress.
- Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to their obsessions, often to relieve their anxiety.
In short, we can define this disorder as a mental health condition involving repeated, unwanted thoughts and desires that make a person anxious. Sometimes, to lessen the anxiety, the person struggling with this condition engages in a compulsive action or habit that has nothing to do with the fear or stress they’re attempting to get rid of.
With that said, when a person suffering from obsessive compulsion becomes fixated on anything, they feel forced to complete it and are frequently terrified of what would happen if they didn’t follow through on the concept or complete the series of behaviors. They might not want to take a chance and find out because they have an overwhelming sense of doom or a notion that something bad will occur.
These behaviors might appear in a variety of ways, such as:
- Fear of germs
- Compulsive counting
- Walking in a particular way
- Repetitive checking or worrying
- Finger-tapping or reciting words in a specific sequence
- Using particular touches or motions when handling objects
- Ensuring to turn something off after turning it on, and vice versa
- Repeating certain movements, such as rising and falling or blinking
- Strong urge to unlock and relock the door a dozen times before leaving the house
Struggling with this condition can be exhausting and might consume a substantial chunk of someone’s day that could be spent on more useful activities. Yet they feel the urge to do it regardless of whether or not it makes sense. The fact that a thought or behavior is irrational can often be discerned by OCD sufferers. While these behaviors may provide temporary relief, they ultimately reinforce the cycle of anxiety and compulsions, making it difficult for individuals to break free from their OCD.
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How Are They Different?
Perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder may share similarities, such as the need for control and a fear of making mistakes. But they are fundamentally different. Although perfectionists may set high standards for themselves, they do not experience the same intense anxiety or distress as someone struggling with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The former is a personality trait that can be positive or negative, whereas the latter is a mental health disorder that causes significant distress and impairment. Perfectionism is characterized by a desire for excellence, while intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors characterize the latter.
One way to differentiate between the two is to consider the purpose behind the behavior. Perfectionism is often motivated by a desire to do things well, while obsessive-compulsive disorder is motivated by a need to reduce anxiety or prevent harm.
For instance, a perfectionist may spend hours perfecting a project because they want it to be the best it can be. In contrast, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder may spend hours washing their hands because they fear contamination.
Another key difference between being a perfectionist and having OCD is that the former is not necessarily irrational, whereas the latter is. Perfectionism may be driven by a desire to achieve excellence or avoid failure, but it is based on realistic expectations and can be a normal part of the human experience. But obsessive-compulsive disorder, on the other hand, involves irrational and intrusive thoughts and behaviors that are not based on realistic expectations or experiences.
Additionally, understanding the difference between these two can help individuals seek appropriate treatment and manage their symptoms effectively. One can often manage perfectionism through healthy coping mechanisms like goal-setting, self-care, and stress management. However, the latter requires professional treatment, such as behavioral therapy for compulsions or medication, to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
How to Cope
If you identify as a perfectionist or have been diagnosed with OCD, it is important to learn healthy coping mechanisms. Here are some tips:
- Challenge the thoughts that are holding you back: If you find yourself obsessing over making something perfect or checking and rechecking something, try to challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself if your behavior is really necessary or if it’s your perfectionism or OCD talking.
- Set realistic goals: While it’s important to set goals and work towards them, it’s also important to set realistic expectations for yourself. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s acceptable to do so.
- Practice self-care: Taking care of yourself is essential for your mental and physical health. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and take time for yourself.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Practicing relaxation strategies like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can help manage stress.
- Practice mindfulness: This helps one focus on the present moment and accept thoughts and feelings without judgment.
- Practice exposure and response prevention (ERP): This type of therapy is often used to treat OCD. It involves exposing yourself to feared situations and learning to resist the urge to perform compulsive behaviors.
- Combined behavioral therapy and medication: It is one of the best ways to treat obsessive-compulsive disorders. While behavioral therapy helps identify the triggers of the behavior and understand how to respond to them in a better way, medication helps manage your anxiety to allow these changes to happen.
- Seek support: Talking to someone can be a great way to get support and coping strategies. Consider reaching out to a trusted friend or family member or even a therapist who specializes in treating either of these.
Should I Seek Professional Help?
If your symptoms significantly impair your daily functioning, seeking professional help from a licensed therapist may be a beneficial step toward improving your mental health and overall well-being. A therapist can work with you to develop coping strategies and teach you skills to manage your symptoms.
Additionally, there are several evidence-based treatments for OCD, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, that can be effective in reducing symptoms.
Remember that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a proactive step toward improving your mental health and overall well-being.
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