OCD, Perfectionism or “Just” High Standards

Bridge wires by Vita Vilcina

How often have you heard someone say, ”Oh, that’s my OCD.” In reality what they probably mean is they have high standards and are embarrassed by the fact and claim having OCD to excuse it. What is wrong with having high standards?

When I was 14 my life revolved around school, reading pony books and my weekly riding lesson. I tried hard to do well most of the time! One of our classes was needlework where we learnt about reading patterns, cutting out garments and sewing various seams and seam finishings. Our teacher Mrs C set us a task to make a seam sampler with various seams and seam finishings. I laboured away industriously on mine. I enjoyed then (and still do now) the art of needlecraft. Clandestinely, I first used my Mother’s sewing machine when I was about 8 or 9 to make dolly clothes. So I knew a little about what was expected. We made a strip about 15cm wide and some 30cm or so long that showed a plain seam with a turned over finish, another with a blanket stitch finish, a French seam, an overlapped or laid seam, etc. My fabric was pretty yellow cotton and the stitching red polyester to give contrast. I thought it was a good effort and happy with it. Mrs C did too, she asked to use it to show other students what was expected; a request I agreed to. She whizzed my sampler off to the ironing board to press it first and promptly pressed it with too hot an iron and destroyed the polyester stitching. I was utterly gutted after all my effort. Mrs C looked at my crestfallen face and said “I know what you are, you are a perfectionist.” No, I wasn’t – then nor now. I didn’t even know what a perfectionist was; all I knew was my best effort doing something I enjoyed had just been destroyed!

Is a perfectionist someone who has high standards or someone whose high standards control them? According to the Google dictionary perfectionism is the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. In its maladaptive form perfectionism takes over and the affected person feels driven to achieve unattainable or unrealistic goals. Failure to reach goals can lead the perfectionist to depression. In its adaptive form perfectionism motivates a person towards a goal, which once achieved gives great pleasure. (Adapted from Wikipedia). Perfectionists can be difficult to live and work with wanting everything their way and “just so”. They struggle with the “low” standards of others.

OCD on the other hand is an anxiety disorder combining obsessive thoughts and compulsive activity. The symptoms can be mild affecting the person for an hour or so each day to severe where it completely takes over their life. From the NHS website we learn the obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge causing anxiety, disgust or unease. The compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act carried out to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought. The compulsive behaviour may or may not be obvious to other people, typical behaviours include cleaning and hand washing, checking – such as checking doors are locked or that the gas or a tap is turned off, counting, ordering and arranging, hoarding, asking for reassurance, repeating words silently, extensively “overthinking” to ensure the feared consequence of the obsession does not occur – for example, if you fear you may act violently, thinking “neutralising” thoughts to counter the obsessive thoughts, avoiding places and situations that could trigger obsessive thoughts. For more details please go to: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx

OCD and maladaptive perfectionism are mental health issues. Adaptive perfectionism and high standards largely overlap and are not disorders. The difference is the latter determine when enough is enough and can stop and move on to the next project; they control the stopping point. The former are driven in their behaviours and find stopping impossible or at the least hugely stressful.

So do you have high standards and know when to stop? Or are you “hiding” behind a self-applied label of OCD to cover high standards in case someone interprets it as perfectionism and thinks you have a problem?

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