Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can excessive organizing be OCD? A therapist explains

By Erica Digap Burson

Apr 2, 20249 minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

You are, in a word, organized. You like things to be in their specific place, and the idea of a messy house makes you stressed out and uncomfortable. Keeping things neat and tidy is a part of your personality and an important factor in the way you like to live your life.  

But you’ve also heard people talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and describe it as an obsession with cleaning and organization. It might get you wondering whether your preference to keep things neat might be a sign that you’re dealing with OCD yourself. 

In truth, your excessive organizing can be a sign of OCD, but there’s a lot more to OCD than most people understand. Despite common media portrayals and off-hand uses of the term to describe someone who is particularly clean, OCD is a serious mental health diagnosis, and its symptoms can extend far beyond the need to deep clean. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the complexities of OCD and how it can—in some instances—manifest in excessive organizing. We’ll also discuss the options you have if your need for organization feels overwhelming and impacts your quality of life.  

What is OCD? 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that can have serious impacts on the lives and functioning of the people who deal with it. It is defined by two main components, both of which can impair one’s daily functioning and overall well-being: obsessions and compulsions. 

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, urges, and images. Everyone has intrusive thoughts now and again—but in OCD these seem to you to be more intense, more over the top, and more “bad.” They can also feel particularly disturbing and unexpected. However, people who don’t have OCD are generally able to acknowledge that these thoughts are random and don’t have any significant meaning at the end of the day. They’re usually able to move on without feeling the need to read into it or to stress over whether having those thoughts means something about who they are as a person. 

Unfortunately, people with OCD will find these intrusive thoughts much harder to move past. Because the thoughts tend to go against their normal ways of thinking and often target the things they care about the most, these obsessions will bring a level of uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety that is very hard to sit with. 

So in order to deal with the extreme anxiety that these obsessions bring, people with OCD respond with compulsions. These actions are hard to resist because they can help soothe some of the distress that those obsessions can bring. They can involve many different things depending on the person and the type of obsessions they have. For example, some compulsions are physical actions like carrying out a cleaning ritual until things feel just right, while other compulsions are mental actions like going over a memory again and again to find reassurance about their fears. 

Unfortunately, these rituals and actions only temporarily help people feel better. They can’t hold off the stress and anxiety for long, and when, inevitably, someone has another intrusive thought, the cycle starts all over again. As a result, people with OCD find themselves trapped in a repetitive pattern of obsessions and compulsions—and it only gets worse over time. 

The kinds of obsessions that people with OCD can have can vary widely based on the topics and subjects that they value the most. However, one of the most well-known and popularly portrayed kinds of OCD involves obsessions and compulsions related to cleanliness, organization, and symmetry. 

If someone’s obsessions center on organization or symmetry, they might be dealing with a specific subtype of OCD called Perfectionism or “Just Right”  OCD. As the name suggests, people with Perfectionism OCD feel urges to make things “just right.” They might feel as though something devastating is going to happen to them if they don’t carry out their compulsions, or they might simply feel extreme levels of anxiety and discomfort if something feels out of place. 

Some examples of obsessions related to Perfectionism OCD might include: 

  • Something bad is going to happen if I don’t organize this room. 
  • My desk is a little cluttered and some things feel out of place. I don’t feel good; I need to make things “just right.” 
  • This bookshelf isn’t symmetrical. I need to fix it. 
  • If my home is messy, it means I’m a lazy and bad person.

They might then engage in compulsions that are supposed to fix the disorganization, asymmetry, or general “off”-ness of whatever is bothering them. Those compulsions could include things like reorganizing or fixing the asymmetry until things feel right. Those compulsions can also be specific and ritualistic, like performing an action a certain number of times until things feel right. 

If the obsessions are specifically related to sanitizing rather than pure organization, Health Concern/Contamination OCD is another potential explanation. People with Contamination OCD may also be driven to compulsively clean the areas around them, but they would be more concerned with health risks or potential contamination from bacteria or viruses rather than focusing on symmetry or perfectionism. The core fears here are often the fear of becoming exposed to an illness, or accidentally exposing those around them. 

Some examples of obsessions in Contamination OCD would be: 

  • What if someone sick touched this surface earlier and their germs are still on there? If I touch it, I might contract a serious illness. 
  • My friend is coming over later. If I don’t do my cleaning rituals, I might expose her to germs and get her sick. 

Their compulsions would then involve cleaning, but the end goal would be more focused on decontaminating and sanitizing than making things feel “perfect” via organization or symmetry.  

These kinds of OCD can be especially tricky because acting on their compulsions can encourage the idea that the rituals they are doing are effective at stopping something bad from happening, explains licensed therapist Amalia Sirica, LCSW. “There’s this idea that nothing bad is happening because I’m doing the rituals, when in reality, nothing bad is happening, period,” she says. This can ultimately reinforce their fears, leaving them trapped in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. 

Are you just organized, or is it OCD? 

Of course, there are plenty of people who simply like things to be clean and organized who don’t have OCD. So how can you tell whether you have OCD or just a preference for cleanliness? 

Sirica explains, “In my opinion, the major distinction is asking if someone who is organized can still function even if things aren’t perfect.” 

Remember, the cleaning and organization that happens in OCD isn’t just a preference. It’s a compulsive need that serves a very specific purpose: easing the extreme levels of stress and anxiety that come when things aren’t perfectly sanitized or ordered “just right.” These cleaning rituals can be extremely disruptive and time-consuming because they need to be done perfectly according to the OCD. 

So rather than tidying up the room until it feels clean enough, someone with OCD might need to do things a certain number of times, or do things again and again until they are perfectly symmetrical. The importance of those rituals can get to the point that it interferes with their other duties, like showing up for work or school on time because they can’t leave until their cleaning rituals are fully completed. 

The extreme levels of fear and anxiety that people with OCD can experience can even drastically impact their ability to participate in life the way they want to. Because their fears are so distressing, many people with OCD will find themselves compulsively avoiding situations and circumstances that may trigger them. If someone knows that they are triggered by things being asymmetrical or not perfectly organized according to their standards, they might avoid going to another person’s house or their workplace where they don’t have full control over the environment. 

In short, the need for organization in OCD is related to extreme levels of stress and anxiety. If someone who doesn’t have OCD is faced with a dirty house or a messy work area, they might feel uncomfortable or stressed out. But if they weren’t able to control and fix things to their liking, they would ultimately still be able to carry on with their day. But for someone with OCD, not being able to clean or organize the way that they need to could be linked to major consequences in their mind, and they would not be able to move forward as easily. OCD can be debilitating and scary, impacting one’s ability to live their own life on their own terms. 

It’s important to address the differences between cleanliness and true OCD because this misconception can be harmful to people who struggle with OCD, and can severely impact their lives. OCD is not a character trait; it’s a serious condition that can seriously impact one’s life. It might also get in the way of people who actually have OCD from seeking help. 

What to do if your need for organization is causing you distress

If your need for organization is getting in the way of your ability to live your life and you suspect that there might be something bigger at play, it’s worth talking to a mental health professional to seek a diagnosis. Having OCD can feel overwhelming and hopeless. However, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. What’s more: Not only is OCD not uncommon, but it’s also a highly treatable condition!

The most successful treatment for OCD is a form of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP).  Here’s how it works: A highly trained therapist who specializes in OCD will take the time to understand your symptoms and collaborate with you on a treatment plan. 

Then, rather than simply talking through your thoughts and feelings, you’ll actually learn new ways to respond to your fears—remember, compulsions like constant organizing aren’t actually helping! This is done in therapy exercises where you trigger the urge to engage in a compulsion. For example, your therapist might simply show you a photo of a room where things aren’t lined up perfectly. 

Uncomfortable thoughts—like the idea that you’re a bad, lazy person if your place is a mess—will likely come up, but instead of responding with a compulsion like immediately trying to organize, you’ll learn to tolerate the discomfort. By making this conscious choice and seeing that you’re actually capable of handling the discomfort, your brain gets the message that there was nothing to fear in the first place.

Before long, you’ll experience a change: You won’t be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts, images, or urges. Your need to engage in compulsions eases off, and you feel more confident when it comes back. And the things that matter the most to you won’t feel like they’re at risk of slipping away. For instance, when you’re in your home, you’ll be able to spend time doing the things that bring you joy, like being with your loved ones or relaxing after a long day—rather than focusing on how symmetrical your bookshelf is or how your bedroom is organized.

Working with an OCD specialist to address the thoughts and situations that cause you distress is more accessible than ever thanks to virtual ERP therapy. In fact, peer reviewed research shows live teletherapy sessions of ERP can be more effective, delivering results in less time than traditional outpatient ERP therapy, often in as little as 12 weeks.

Dealing with OCD can be overwhelming, but finding help can also feel scary especially if you’ve leaned on your compulsions for a long time. But taking those first few steps can help you find freedom from that overwhelming need for organization and cleanliness, ultimately helping you live your life free from the power of your obsessions and compulsions.

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