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 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 f*cked 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.

As obsessives, along with other emotions, we may find it difficult to express rage, often repressing it until there comes a time that it bursts out of us at the most unexpected of times. 

I myself find rage to be a difficult emotion to feel, instead I may feel internal frustration, or physical sensations such as tense shoulders, tightness in my neck, migraines, fatigue.

But there comes times that the pent up anger and rage needs to unleash itself. The jar that I’ve been packing it into becomes so full that it explodes, and out of it becomes something I feel entirely uncomfortable with, this other being. It feels imperfect, like I’ve become undone at my seams. Like I’ve let myself go, and disappointed those around me, no longer this ideal image I’ve worked incredibly hard to maintain. 

Anger is one of the most difficult emotions for a perfectionistic person to experience.

In Chapter 3, the authors do a deep dive into perfectionism and something that resonated strongly with me was “my worth depends on how good I am, how smart I am, and how well I perform.” For me that has always been the case in both personal and professional settings. 

Always overextending myself to overachieve. Again and again. And quite frankly, it’s exhausting. We strive so much for these achievements, this perfectionism, that we don’t even stop to acknowledge any kind of praise because already we are working to set a higher standard for ourselves, not willing to live in the present moment. And if there comes a time when we are criticized in any way, it can feel absolutely devastating and traumatic. Even the smallest error can feel soul crushing. All of that hard work and success means nothing now. 

With some obsessives, there is something known as the risk of error. This is when one must avoid making any mistakes and although I’ve felt this to some degree with my eating disorder, I rarely feel it outside of that. In fact, I typically find myself making more impulsive decisions outside of food, calories, weight, and ED related stuff. It’s common that obsessives will feel this in some areas and not in others. 

Chapter 6 discusses that obsessives tend to be too “guarded.” If nothing else, obsessives are alert to everything that might go wrong in life. I so often wish this wasn’t the case since I find it gives more of a negative outlook on most scenarios in life. Another unhelpful thinking style is predicting which I do quite often, like a psychic, getting into the heads of others, trying to decipher what they’re thinking, assuming that whatever it is, it’s not good and it’s all going to blow up in my face and go wrong. 

This comes up most at job interviews (I’ve called my mum after every interview telling her I’m sure I haven’t got the job except 90% of times I've actually gotten the job). It also shows up in mental health treatment, personal and professional relationships, and other aspects of my life. However, like a ticking time bomb, I'm constantly waiting for it all to blow to smithereens. 

Chapter 7 dives into the obsessive cognitive style and why so many obsessives devote so much time to worry and rumination. The authors do a great job of explaining this. I again resonate with this entirely, having been called a worry wart by many people for the past 20 odd years. 

I probably resonated the most with chapter 8 which dives deeply into orderliness and rigidity. This is a huge problem in my life right now. It’s always been there, but I haven’t always lived with a partner. So, when it was present before, it only put stress on me. Now that there’s two of us living under the same roof, it puts undue stress on the both of us.

I’m a neat freak and I have an incessant need to do everything in order. There’s a rigidity aspect to this, wherein I feel I can’t be flexible around certain rituals. But there’s also a safety aspect and a control aspect. If I do everything the same every day, I feel in control, and that control is safe. If I mess up, make mistakes, break that perfectionism streak, then everything suddenly spirals and is out of control. What style of thinking is that? Black or white, all or nothing. See how this all ties in together? 

Jeez, it’s like one big lump that I want to just put neatly into a plastic bag and take out with the trash at 5am, forgetting that it ever existed. I envy those who can leave a dish in the sink, who can leave the house with a bed unmade, who can lounge around all day in pyjamas without cleaning themselves. I often wonder what that feels like. 

There’s a chapter dedicated to obsessive workaholics, which I’ve been called out on being by many people, but I’m still in denial so I’m going to block this one out for now and move on. To be continued...

The book closes on a chapter called “Living with the Obsessive” which is an invaluable resource if you are living with a perfectionist or know someone who is. There’s a lot of useful information in there. There’s also an awesome list of suggested readings at the end of the book. 

All in, this book gave me a ton of insight into something that I had absolutely no idea existed before an appointment with my psychiatrist. I’m starting Risperidone which is supposed to be helpful with calming the urges to engage in obsessive behaviours. At least in taking the edge off. Worth giving it a shot.

I would recommend this book to all the perfectionists and obsessives out there as well as their families, friends, and anyone who thinks they might be at risk of OCPD. There’s a test online, offered by the official OCPD Foundation, but definitely seek the advice from a psychiatrist following the online test.