Perfectionism OCD: Overview, Symptoms and Therapy Options
Perfectionism, also known as Just Right OCD, is one of the most common ways obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is portrayed in movies and on television. A character with OCD is typically oversimplified and shown as constantly arranging items until they’re perfectly aligned, and may be called a “neat freak.” Outside of the media, we’ve also colloquially developed stereotypical phrasing for someone who is extraordinarily clean and organized, dubbing them “so OCD.”
These stereotypes can be harmful and misleading, potentially deterring someone with unhealthy perfectionist tendencies from receiving the help they need.
You may be asking yourself, what does unhealthy perfectionism look like? Where is the line between healthy and unhealthy? When is it considered OCD? Let’s take a closer look.
What is perfectionism?
Having a meticulously organized closet or turning in perfect assignments may seem like an ideal situation — something to strive for. Perfectionism, when healthy, is a personality trait that often leads to a life of success and excellence. In general, it may be tied to goal-oriented behavior and good organizational skills, both of which are perceived as highly desirable traits.
If you are someone who values perfectionism but does not have OCD, your perfectionist tendencies likely add to your overall life experience. You may follow rigid schedules or hold high standards for yourself and others, but you do these things out of choice — not because of anxiety — and they may genuinely increase the pleasure you get from life.
This is one of the key differences between perfectionism and perfectionism OCD. If you have OCD, your perfectionist tendencies likely are a form of compulsions, meaning you take these actions in order to relieve the distress of intrusive thoughts.
Symptoms of perfectionism OCD
Perfectionism OCD can mean you experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts and enact certain rituals to ease your anxiety. Because there are overlaps between healthy perfectionism and its unhealthy counterpart, it may be hard to identify the symptoms. If you think you may have perfectionism OCD, ask yourself if you feel in control of your thoughts and actions. If the answer is no, you likely have OCD.
Like other subtypes, perfectionism OCD will follow the obsessive-compulsive cycle. Here are a few examples of what your obsessions may look like:
- excessively worrying about what others think of you and your work/school performance
- an intense fear that you might make a catastrophic mistake
- feeling certain something terrible will happen if you don’t enact your perfectionist tendencies
Your compulsions may look like perfectionist tendencies that, in someone without OCD, would be considered healthy. However, as mentioned before, your tendencies are likely done in an effort to stop your obsessions and the anxiety they cause. This can lead to them feeling out of your control, which may disrupt your normal routine and lead to complications at work or school or in your relationships.
If you feel like your perfectionist tendencies are causing you more harm than good, treatment options are available to help you regain control of your life.
How is perfectionism OCD treated?
Realizing your perfectionism may be a form of OCD can be scary, but it is also the first step towards living a life free of your obsessive thoughts and unhealthy tendencies.
OCD is a highly treatable disorder, and the most effective form of treatment involves exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). ERP is the gold-standard option for OCD treatment, and it’s easy to understand why. It works by exposing you to various things that trigger your obsessions, and — in a safe and controlled environment — working through your fears, with the help of a trained therapist, to learn how to control the urge to act on them.
If you’re ready to start ERP, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD clinical team to be matched with a therapist. All NOCD therapists specialize in the treatment of OCD and receive ERP-specific training in order to offer you the best help for your symptoms.
With the right therapist, ERP can help you learn how to cope with your intrusive thoughts. Over time, you’ll gain more control over your thoughts and actions, allowing you to experience life free of your fears and compulsions. You can also join our Perfectionism OCD community and get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered.
Keara E. Valentine, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine in the OCD and Related Disorders Track, where she specializes in the assessment and treatment of OCD and related disorders. Dr. Valentine utilizes behavioral-based therapies including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) with children, adolescents, and adults experiencing anxiety-related disorders.
- ERP Therapy
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- OCD Subtypes
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.