The obsessive compulsive personality
This article relates to all people with obsessive compulsive personality traits, across a spectrum from those with a personality disorder to those with milder traits.
A person with an obsessive compulsive personality trait values order and control in what they do. They tend to be reliable, meticulous, conscientious and accurate in their work. They strive for perfection. In moderation these traits can be very helpful for individuals at work, and for society large. But when these traits are exaggerated individuals can lose spontaneity and become paralysed by inaction. They become unable to live in the present, constantly worrying about what will happen next. I have met people who instead of being able to enjoy a film or concert, sit worrying about how they will get home throughout the entire performance.
Some people use repetitive habits or rituals to reassure themselves that all is under control. I knew someone who had to check the alarm clock at least ten times each night for fear she would miss the alarm and not get to work on time.
Whilst mastery and control is an important skill, this can never be absolute. Accidents happen, things go wrong. And tragically the obsession with ‘doing’ can block someone from ‘being’ and connecting with others.
Origins of the obsessive personality
Obsessive traits are thought to originate during the time a child is struggling with their parents over standards of behaviour, eating, schoolwork etc. The development task at this stage is for us as individuals to learn to balance requirement of our parents with our own decisions. The obsessive person decides that in order to get the love from parents that they want, they must be perfect in doing all the tasks that are required.
This focus on perfection and doing things in the right way ties in with another feature of the obsessive type: a tendency to see other people in terms of inferiority, superiority, and judgement instead of as equals with whom they can relate.
Other people are often seen with a wary eye as judgement is never far away for the obsessive. It’s not that obsessive people don’t want to have close relationships, it’s just ‘doing’ takes precedence, and doing gets in the way of ‘being’.
Learning ‘to be’
The obsessive person needs to learn to ‘be’. They need to learn that they are OK as they are, that perfection is not required at all times and that other people are not always sitting in judgement.
Much of the research that has been done into the treatment of obsessives has been with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) techniques. Whilst CBT can be very helpful in challenging distorted thought patterns, I believe it can also play into an obsessive person’s script of needing to do homework.
In sessions with obsessive clients, counsellors will try to accomplish two things. First is to help liberate the client’s free child – a sense that they can enjoy the present more often, that they don’t have to continually be worrying about the future. The second is to provide a space where the client can practice relating to another person on equal terms.
In essence the obsessive client need to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more.
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About Matthew Robinson
Matthew Robinson is a qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor practising in East London. He is currently completing his MSc in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy at the Metanoia Institute.