Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) a couple of weeks ago. Let me just take a moment to add it to the mental illness resume I'm compiling for my return to work, right alongside anorexia nervosa and bipolar disorder. Absolutely no biggie because I’m still functioning, right?
I met with my psychiatrist, who mentioned it ever so casually, like two friends gossiping over a glass of happy hour sauvignon blanc.
My psychiatrist filled the silence by telling me “there’s a pill for that”... well of course there is. Just another addition to the cocktail I take morning, noon, and night.
Yes I will take the pills. And no I’m not ashamed.
If this pill will help ease my incessant need to take out the garbage and recycling at 5am, shower and bathe at least twice daily, clean the dishes the second they’re used, and have the house in perfect order at every moment of the day, then absofuckinglutely, I will take it.
So... obsessive compulsive personality disorder, eh? I had no idea what it was either, which led me to this book (with it's really intimidating and rather imperfect looking cover like some kind of murder mystery novel).
According to Healthline OCPD is a personality disorder that's marked by extreme perfectionism, order, and neatness. People with OCPD find it hard to express their feelings, they are hardworking but their perfectionistic traits can interfere with work, and they can often experience isolation.
The first line states “this is a book about people who are too perfect for their own good.” Chapter one highlights the good things about being a perfectionist such as being responsible, exacting, and self-controlled.
But also highlights the dark stuff such as the perfectionist who sets unattainable standards leading to feelings of guilt if they're not met, or the person who is so intent on finding the ultimate romantic partner that they’re unable to commit to any long term relationship.
The authors, Allen E. Mallinger MD and Jeannette Dewyze talk in great detail about the causes of obsessiveness. One such theory is that some people have a constitutional predisposition for being obsessive, and it can be either enhanced or minimized by early-life perceptions and experiences.
Underlying obsessiveness is the need for control. The absolute need to control every aspect of your life and the inability to deal with unpredictability. As an obsessive (which is what the authors call us perfectionists), I do my damnedest to control each moving part of the day, and that’s not only exhausting, but it doesn’t make a bloody difference anyway. But I still do it, because it makes me feel safe. When I don’t do it, I don’t feel in control, and everything around me feels wildly out of control.
The book discusses the endless agony obsessives face in “having to do everything well”, something that can ruin the most enjoyable activities because we obsessives have a fear of appearing less than perfect in the company of others.
I wonder at times, are the authors speaking directly to me? Sure feels like it. When talking about thinking in extremes, I’m thinking “oh boy, you got me all figured out.” This is one of the most unhelpful thinking styles amongst obsessives. Another way of referring to this is black and white thinking, either everything is good, or everything is bad. I’ll have it all, or nothing at all.
This style of unhelpful thinking shows up a lot in my eating disorder, particularly when food is in the picture. But also in other areas of my life, perfectionism included. If it’s not perfect, what’s the point? I’m going to be working on challenging these thought patterns with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the coming weeks with my therapist. But in the meantime, I found this useful, and legit resource through the ADAA (Anxiety & Depression Association of America).
As the book states, obsessives tend to envision the worst possible outcome of a scenario, and mentally magnify small things into much more serious things (another unhelpful style: catastrophizing).
Obsessives also tend to have a strong control over their emotions, often appearing machinelike, as the book says. This is a crucial element of self-control, because the obsessive fears that showing their emotions could lead to humiliation, being rejected, or the extreme: losing all self control.
This reminds me of being in a support group session or individual therapy appointment, WHERE LOSING CONTROL IS NOT AN OPTION. The one time I cried in therapy, I threw up in my therapists office. We no longer see each other, I ended our relationship via email.
I found myself so reserved in those sessions though, always wanting to appear perfect, making sure he saw me in a certain way, not too fucked up, but enough of a mess that he could help. I ended up getting uncomfortable, backing away, packing the experience and those emotions in a black box and burying them in my brain.
Arrivederci, uncomfortable emotions!