Perfectionism and OCD: Telling the Two Apart

Written by: Dr Joseph Kekulawala

Last updated date : April 05, 2022

In this article, we are going to cover perfectionism and OCD. We will break down for you both conditions. Next, we will explore the overlap between perfectionism and OCD, help you to clarify whether it is your perfectionism vs OCD that is causing you grief. Finally, we will share some tips on overcoming both perfectionism and OCD. Let’s start exploring the relationship between perfectionism and OCD.

Chapter 1:

Defining Perfectionism

Some people would regard perfectionism as a positive trait, something that is beneficial and  is admired. However, most psychologists would disagree. Perfectionism is a bit more complex. Whilst perfectionism can help someone to achieve high standards, win praise and recognition, there is often underneath the perfectionism a fear of failure and critical self-beliefs. Perfectionism is not a mental illness. Rather it is a personality trait.

Of course, sometimes perfectionism can be healthy. It leads to high achievements at school and work. People with healthy perfectionism are goal-directed and organised. They have high standards of themselves and others. It is not caused by low self-worth or a fear of failure.

However, perfectionism can quickly become maladaptive or unhealthy. When this happens, someone is very invested in meeting their goals and own personal standards. There is a preoccupation with not making mistakes, controlling or impressing others. Underlying these thoughts, there is often low self-esteem distress and despair.

There is a fair amount of overlap between perfectionism and OCD. Let’s now look at OCD.


Chapter 2:

Defining OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness or mental disorder. People who have OCD experience recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations which drive them to do an act or a compulsion. With classic OCD, repetitive behaviours include checking, washing hands and counting. OCD is a mental disorder, unlike perfectionism. To meet the diagnostic criteria for OCD, there has to be a significant impact on a person’s daily activities, social lives, and functioning.


Chapter 3:

Important to Note about OCD

For people with OCD, their obsessive thoughts are persistent. The mental disorder impacts and disrupts their quality of daily life. If they don’t perform the rituals, compulsive behaviour, it leads to even more distress. The majority of people with OCD suspect or know that their obsessions are not realistic. However, they struggle to keep their obsessive thoughts at bay. In the end, they follow through with the behaviours to achieve short term relief from their thoughts.

Take, for instance, someone with OCD who has obsessive thoughts about checking. The person will go many times to check the front door. They get non-stop thoughts or worries that the door is unlocked. After each check, they might get relief from their thoughts for 5 or 10 minutes before they slowly return.


Chapter 4:

Perfectionism and OCD, the Overlap

Both are characterised by repetitive thoughts and actions or behaviours that are taken to address those thoughts. From there on, there are significant differences between perfectionism and OCD.
  • Perfectionism is a personality trait. In contrast, OCD is a mental illness or disorder.
  • The types of thoughts that drive both are quite different. Perfectionism is caused by thoughts of wanting to be better, impress or achieve higher standards. In contrast, more classical fears and worries drive OCD.
  • With perfectionism, there is often feelings of inferiority, wanting to impress or leave a good impression. Perfectionism is also associated with wanting to meet others expectations. In contrast, OCD is more associated with a person’s own internal worries and fears. People with OCD often realise that their fears and worries do not keep with others expectations or societal norms.

Chapter 5:

Perfectionism vs OCD, Telling the Two Apart.

It can be quite challenging, teasing apart perfectionism and OCD. Both OCD and perfectionism can cause a significant amount of distress, frustration and sadness. It is important if you think you have either perfectionism or OCD that you see a health professional. Remember, there are effective medical and psychological treatments for OCD. Similarly, for perfectionism, psychological approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure-response prevention (ERP) can help with perfectionism.


Chapter 6:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Exposure-response therapy or CBT are used to treat OCD and perfectionism. Psychology skills such as thought challenges can be very powerful. Both are associated with extreme thoughts. Often underlying these radical thoughts are negative call beliefs, low self-esteem fears and other worries. Psychology skills such as thought challenges can be quite helpful. For instance, if someone with perfectionism feels that they need to achieve exceptional grades across an entire work report, thought challenges can be used to break down these unhelpful beliefs. They are then replaced with more balanced and helpful thinking.

Behavioural experiments are another CBT technique. Behavioural experiments often form the foundation for treating conditions such as OCD. These experiments challenge someone with OCD to refrain, stop giving into that obsessive thoughts by using different calming or relaxation techniques.


Chapter 7:

Perfectionism and OCD, Self-Help Strategies

Psychological therapies, sometimes even medication, are needed for the management of OCD and perfectionism. Here, having the proper professional support can help greatly. However, whether it’s perfectionism vs OCD becomes less important when it comes to overall self-help strategies.

Perfectionism and OCD worsen when stressed. Learning to manage stress helps in both situations. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, sticking to a treatment or care plan, and relaxing are all parts of managing stress.

Stress and worry can be triggers for OCD symptoms and perfectionism. Whether it is perfectionism vs OCD, both are linked with increased stress and worry. Simple relaxation techniques such as deep reading, mindfulness, muscle relaxation can all be very effective when trying to manage stress and make the body relax.

To recap, perfectionism vs OCD, there are significant differences between perfectionism and OCD. It’s best to get advice from your doctor or psychologist as there are effective treatments. Here, at Epsychonline, we have mental health courses, which you follow that explore perfectionism in more detail and teach different psychological strategies, such as CBT and ERP, which you can use. We hope you have found this page helpful. Please send us any feedback that you may have.