Many people experience anxiety when they engage in “compulsive behaviors” and they aren’t sure what is driving those actions. Some people might look at their behaviors and wonder if they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); a mental health diagnosis where individuals have intrusive thoughts or unpleasant feelings which they attempt to control through specific actions, either mental or physical. Others might look at their behaviors and wonder if they have perfectionistic tendencies in which one’s identity is attached to their output and can create anxiety motivated desires to over-perform. Understanding if your compulsive behaviors are OCD versus perfectionism is important because the approach to treating them is different but they can present in very similar ways.

What is OCD?

OCD is portrayed in the media as a specific type of OCD that includes repetitive behaviors, such as, color-coding belongings, washing hands, or touching a doorknob a certain number of times before opening it. However, there are many other subtypes of OCD such as symmetry, (everything needs to be symmetrical), sequencing (performing behaviors in a certain sequence), relational (fixating on aspects of perfection in a relationship). At its core, OCD is based on completing a “formula” that is meant to prevent catastrophes. For example, “I need to wash my hands every time I touch something dirty to prevent myself from getting sick and dying.” Although a person with OCD may have an awareness that this logic is skewed, they feel like they don’t have a choice in not completing the compulsion.

What is Perfectionism?

In understanding OCD versus perfectionism, it is important to understand Perfectionism is not a diagnosable mental health condition according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM 5). However, it is a common presentation with individuals who have learned to attach their sense of self to external validation. For these individuals, they do not have a static sense of self worth. Instead, they have a dynamic sense of self in which their value is associated with what they contribute in their different relationships. For example, perfectionism will tell an individual that they are lazy and unmotivated because they got a low grade on their last test regardless that all prior grades were exceptional.

Though it may seem that these two conditions present very differently, there can be a lot of overlap in behaviors, making it confusing to determine whether a person has OCD versus perfectionism. One way to determine if your behaviors are OCD or perfectionism is by looking at the behavior you feel compelled to do, and identifying the thought underneath it.

Core Motivation Behind OCD

Someone who experiences obsessive thoughts might display the same actions such as organizing their files in color-coded tabs, or triple-checking about the due date of a homework assignment, but the thoughts beneath it are more dire. For instance, someone with OCD might think “I need to organize my files in color-coded tabs because if I don’t, when I am audited, my boss will think I am a disorganized, terrible worker, and I will be fired.” Or “I need to triple-check with my kids’ teacher about this assignment because if I don’t, then my child might fail the class and flunk out of third grade.”

Core Motivation Behind Perfectionism

Conversely, people who struggle with perfectionism often have a lot of “shoulds” in their vocabulary. Some “should” thoughts include “I should organize my files in color-coded tabs because this is what a professional does.” Or “I should triple check with my kids’ teacher about this assignment because this will make me a good parent.” At the bottom of this is often a desire to prove one’s worth.

Compulsion Versus Desire

The rigidity of the “need” or compulsion is different in OCD versus perfectionism. People with OCD often ruminate on the worst case scenario, and think that in order to avoid this, they have to follow the formula. Often people feel they cannot deviate from the task at hand and if they do, awful things will happen as a result. There is a compulsive nature to OCD and people will often feel they have to do the action to prevent a tragedy.

Within perfectionism, there is often more of a “choice” about whether or not to do the action. People who are perfectionists are often working toward a goal. For instance, if they display perfectionism around their schoolwork, they might be motivated by getting straight A’s or making the Dean’s List. Someone with OCD might have the same desires, but the OCD would drive them to avoid the disaster of flunking out of school. If asked, people with perfectionism would likely say they do not want to flunk, but this fear is not at the forefront of their mind, driving them to spend hours on end studying, to avoid the disaster of failing. Someone with OCD will often be driven by the desire to avoid disaster more than the desire to achieve a particular goal.

The Role of External Validation in the Feedback Loop

People who have perfectionism will only repeat a task if it yields positive results. Perfectionism is external and all about identity affirmation. The goal is proving their self-worth, and if any actions do not lead to an increase in their positive sense of self, they will stop doing them. Often, the perfectionist will create the “perfect” system that is too labor-intensive to continue, especially without external validation to motivate the behavior. For example, if someone with perfectionism finds that organizing their files at work becomes too tedious and their boss doesn’t provide positive validation for the effort, then they will most likely stop doing it.

With OCD, the key difference is that people do not feel like they have a choice about whether or not to do a certain action regardless of the external feedback they get. For individuals with OCD, the significant motivator is internal. For example, even if a certain action does not yield a positive result (ie. organizing their files at work), they will feel compelled to continue doing the action. Even if the action leads to negative outcomes (ie. their boss telling them to spend less time organizing their files), they will still feel the need to do it. OCD is a formula to protect from catastrophe, and doing the actions does not feel like a choice, but rather a necessity. Some describe it as feeling “mandatory but exhausting”.

Putting it All Together

Due to the potential overlap of many OCD and perfectionism behaviors, here are a few questions to help you explore whether you are dealing with OCD versus perfectionism. It is important to note that an individual may have OCD and perfectionism, in which case, it might be helpful for the individual to know when the behaviors are OCD and when the behaviors are perfectionism.

  1. What type of behaviors feel like they are strong desires, needs or compulsions? Think back over the last week or two and identify behaviors or actions that you felt you spent a significant time thinking about or performing. Write out those behaviors.

  2. What is the story you are telling yourself about those behaviors? Are you trying to complete a formula to prevent a disaster, or are you trying to prove yourself to be a certain type of person?

  3. What happens if you don’t perform the behavior? What is the worst thing that can happen? Do you feel an overwhelming need to focus all your energy on completing the task, or do you feel some guilt about not doing it because it makes you feel like a “bad person?”

  4. How does negative feedback from other people impact the performance of these behaviors?

OCD and perfectionism are very complicated disorders or coping mechanisms. Though the behaviors may appear to be very similar, the motivation for and the influences of the behaviors can be dramatically different. Using the guiding questions above may help start understanding whether your behaviors are more OCD or perfectionism motivated. However, for some subtypes of OCD such as relationship OCD, it may be very difficult to distinguish it from perfectionism, and may need more clinical support from a mental health expert.