Perfectionism is a personality trait while obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition. In some cases, they may be linked.
In pop culture, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often represented as people who are pedantic, overly clean, germophobic, and with an intense need for perfectionism.
But perfectionism isn’t one of the symptoms of OCD nor is it a cause of the condition. What is the link between OCD and perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait associated with the belief that you can and should strive for perfection.
Perfectionists — people who score high on the perfectionism trait scale — have top standards for themselves and others.
Perfectionism can be:
- adaptive (healthy): may lead you to high achievement and organization
- maladaptive (unhealthy): may lead you to self-doubt, self-sabotage, and fear of failure
Perfectionism isn’t a mental health condition but it could be both a contributing factor and a sign of some disorders.
Research suggests that maladaptive perfectionism may be linked to:
No, perfectionism isn’t a formal symptom of OCD. However, it’s possible that someone with OCD also has the perfectionism personality trait.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), the two symptoms of OCD are:
- obsessions: intrusive thoughts, images, and urges that won’t go away and cause great distress. These thoughts can be about many themes, including self-harm, fear of contamination, doubts, relationships, or moral compass.
- compulsions: actions or rituals that you engage in to try to make the thoughts go away, reduce the stress around them, or “neutralize” their effects. These can be repeated movements, vocal sounds, checking things, or cleaning.
Although perfectionism isn’t a symptom of OCD, research has found that people with high levels of perfectionism are more likely to experience OCD.
One 2020 review noted that people with OCD are more likely to be perfectionists than those without OCD. However, self-esteem plays a role in mediating perfectionism and OCD.
Perfectionism isn’t considered a form of OCD. It’s also not considered a “theme” in OCD.
You can, however, have something called “just right” OCD.
“Just right” OCD involves having obsessions and compulsions about something being incomplete or incorrect.
For example, you might have obsessive thoughts about your desk layout being slightly “off.” These thoughts may lead you to develop a compulsion to constantly rearrange your desk until it feels “just right.”
To someone not living with the condition, “just right” OCD might look like perfectionism: It seems like you’re fixing “flaws” until something is perfect. It might also look like being fastidious and peculiar.
However, perfectionism as a personality trait usually doesn’t cause or come as a result of obsessions or compulsions. It may be that you enjoy perfection and striving for it, but it doesn’t necessarily result from distress.
On the other hand, OCD is characterized by obsessions or compulsions, which can be extremely distressing.
“Just right” OCD can also be called Tourettic OCD (TOCD).
Perfectionism plays a role in both OCD and OCPD.
In OCD, perfectionism-like behaviors are typically related to the “just right” OCD type. Some OCD compulsions, like checking and fixing things repeatedly, may be interpreted as perfectionism, even though their goal isn’t striving for perfection.
People with OCPD don’t experience obsessions or compulsions. Instead, they’re driven by an intense need to maintain order, perfection, and control, which can cause distress and difficulties in relationships.
According to the DSM-5-TR, one of the symptoms of OCPD is “the urgency to reach perfection, which gets in the way of completing tasks.”
Other OCPD symptoms, such as “prioritizing productivity over relationships and relaxation,” might also look like perfectionism.
Perfectionism can be a positive thing when it doesn’t cause you distress or anxiety. However, many people might find that their perfectionist tendencies hinder their life.
Everyone’s different but for some people, perfectionist behaviors might:
- lead you to miss deadlines because tasks take longer to complete or you might redo them constantly
- create friction with other people, particularly if it’s hard for you to empathize with a loved one who made a mistake
- increase your need to control everything so that everything’s done “right”
- lead you to procrastinate heavily because execution seems daunting
Managing perfectionism in a healthy way can include speaking with a therapist (whether you think you have OCD or not).
Research, such as a 2022 review, has suggested that cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful for reducing perfectionist tendencies.
If your perfectionist tendencies are related to OCD, exposure response prevention therapy (ERPT) has been found effective for the management of OCD symptoms. Managing your symptoms can, in turn, help with the potential distress perfectionism causes.
Other strategies for dealing with perfectionism can include:
- learning to identify the situations when your perfectionism comes up
- recognizing black-and-white thinking and other cognitive distortions that may be contributing to perfectionism
- identifying and challenging negative self-talk
- purposefully trying hobbies that you’re not particularly good at for the sake of enjoyment, not perfectionism
- joining support groups for perfectionists
Self-care strategies you use will depend on your specific circumstance. The idea, though, is to remind yourself that it’s OK to fail and it’s valid (and natural) to be less than perfect.
While perfectionism isn’t a formal symptom of OCD, people with perfectionistic tendencies are more likely to have OCD. Perfectionism can also be a symptom of OCPD, a personality disorder.
Although perfectionism can be difficult to deal with, it’s possible to overcome these tendencies if they cause you distress.
Many people with OCD and OCPD are also able to manage their symptoms and find relief.
Whether you’re dealing with OCD, OCPD, or perfectionism as a trait, speaking with a therapist might help you cope.