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What Is Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)?

Affecting 3-8% of the population, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is the most common of all the personality disorders. This week, the Savvy Psychologist explains the 8 traits of OCPD.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #061
long to-do list

As a culture, we’re fascinated by narcissists and psychopaths, two of the more dramatic disordered personalities.  But what about the most common personality disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, or OCPD?

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Affecting 3-8% of the population, OCPD often gets overlooked because it’s not dramatic. In fact, with its focus on order, perfection, and control, it’s straightlaced to the extreme.  Folks with OCPD seem to have everything under control, which is actually the problem.  This week, by request from listener Amanda Myers from St. Louis, here are 8 traits of OCPD.

But before we get into the details of OCPD (and focus on details, we’ll see, is the defining feature), let’s do a quick primer on personality disorders in general.  Last week, we learned that narcissists really do think they’re all that and genuinely expect red carpet treatment. In episode #26, we learned that psychopaths really do only care about themselves.  

Likewise, in OCPD, the individual feels his or her perfectionism is necessary and good.  In short, the personality disordered person’s pattern and worldview are ingrained, so all seems good and right from their point of view.

See also: What Are Personality Disorders?

Now, that’s not to say personality disorders don’t cause distress.  But it’s usually the distress of those around the individual.  The disordered personality is frequently one step out of step in a way that causes friction in relationships and challenges getting through life.  

Finally, personality disorders are pervasive, meaning they affect all parts of a person’s life.  For example, with OCPD, the individual wouldn’t be a hard-driving perfectionist in the office and then relax and kick back on the weekends. Instead, he’d be exacting across all domains of life: at home, at school, at work, and even at play, if he ever allowed himself to do so.

With that, let’s get into OCPD with a made-up profile.  Hit “CTRL” (sorry, couldn't resist) if it reminds you of yourself or anyone you know:

A Portrait of OCPD

Larry is a young professor who started working at his current university a couple of years ago.  His arrival was much anticipated due to his long list of publications and achievements, but unfortunately, he has already gained a reputation for being stubborn and impossible to please.  Many of the teaching assistants hate working with him: they call him a control freak because he is critical when they make even tiny errors and expects them to follow procedures to the letter, even if they’re out of date or unhelpful.  

Larry is unable to roll with the punches and gets stressed if schedules change or things don’t go as expected.  To stay on track, he makes detailed schedules and lists for himself and everyone who works with him, though he often ends up not delegating anyway because no one lives up to his exacting standards.  

His relationships with his fellow professors are starting to strain because they sense he judges them for not working as hard as him, plus no one likes collaborating with him because the strict schedule always falls through and they end up working in a panic at the last minute.  What no one knows is that in grad school, Larry almost didn’t get his dissertation done because he spent so much time reading every word of every document he thought might be necessary to write the perfect dissertation.

Every day, Larry brings the same lunch to work - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and three Oreos - and eats it at his desk at exactly 12:00 noon.  He hasn’t taken any of his vacation days and feels like he’s wasting time if he doesn’t come in to work on weekends.  He has one leisure activity, karate, which he loves for its structure, and he enjoys striving for the next level belt.

So what’s Larry doing that qualifies as OCPD?  Well, here are the 8 hallmark traits:

OCPD Trait #1: Laser-Like Focus on Details, Rules, Lists, and Schedules

This is the hallmark of OCPD - the details are so important that the greater point is lost.  Every item must be checked off the list before they can go home.  Procedures must be followed even if there’s a better way.  And pity the individual with OCPD who loses their schedule - they’ll likely spend hours looking for it rather than getting on with the day.  

OCPD Trait #2: Paralyzing Perfectionism

An individual with OCPD will have such high standards that no project is good enough to ever consider finished.  The report could always be better, the kitchen could be cleaner, or their tennis swing more perfect, so nothing is ever truly done.  

There’s not just a first or second draft; there’s a 47th draft, which leads to a scramble before deadlines and taking care of important things at the last minute.  And people with OCPD don’t realize that others get annoyed by the delays or broken promises.  Oddly, by trying to be perfect, they end up being unreliable and exasperating.

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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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