What is... psychology series

What Is… Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder

Key characteristics of obsessive compulsive personality disorder

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is obsessive compulsive personality disorder.

When people say that someone is “a little OCD,” chances are, what they’re referring to has little, if anything, to do with obsessive compulsive disorder. What they’re talking about is far more like obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) than OCD. Granted, most people haven’t heard of OCPD, but it’s a lot closer to the popular OCD stereotype than OCD itself is.

Symptoms of OCPD

Obsessive compulsive personality disorder involves a pattern of persistent preoccupation with order and control, as well as perfectionism. While it’s called OCPD in the DSM-5, in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), it’s called anankastic personaity disorder. The symptoms include:

  • preoccupied with details, rules, schedules, organization, and lists
  • perfectionism to the extent that it interferes with completing tasks
  • leisure activities and friends are neglected in favour of excessive work and productivity
  • unwillingness to get rid of worthless objects that don’t serve a purpose
  • reluctant to delegate work to others because don’t trust them to do it the right way
  • avoidance of spending money out of concern for future disasters
  • rigidity and stubbornness

People with OCPD also tend to be very rigid, and have difficulty adapting to change. They tend to be deferential to authority, not accept any bending of rules, and have a rigid moral code. Their inflexibility and excessive amounts of time spent on details causes inefficiency and delays getting things done.

Like any personality disorder, symptoms have already begun by early adulthood. While there may be fluctuations in intensity of different symptoms over time, the symptoms are persistent over time.

OCPD occurs in between 2-8% of the population, and it’s more likely in males. Depressive disorders or alcohol use disorders are often co-occurring with OCPD.

Obsessive compulsive personality traits vs. disorder

It’s “normal” for people to have some on these traits, to some extent, some of the time. What sets the personality disorder apart is the number of symptoms, the severity, the pattern over time, and the degree of impairment in the person’s overall functioning. If, like me, you are all about the organization and lists, but that actually makes your life easier, that’s not what the OCPD experience is. OCPD gets so caught up in the controlling and organizing that whatever the task is probably doesn’t end up getting done.

People may be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive personality traits if they have some of the traits, which are somewhat disruptive, but not enough to meet the criteria for the full disorder. OCPD falls in the DSM-5’s cluster C personality disorders, along with avoidant and dependent personality disorders.

The difference between OCD and OCPD

Obsessive thoughts in OCD are often ego dystonic, meaning they’re intrusive, unwanted thoughts that have barged into their heads and are inconsistent with who they are. Someone with contamination OCD doesn’t develop those obsessions and compulsions because they’re hyper-preoccupied with cleanliness, and there is no possible clean that could ever be decontaminated enough to satisfy the OCD.

In obsessive compulsive personality disorder, thoughts tend to be ego syntonic, so they’re consistent with what the person actually wants and believes. Someone with OCPD might want their house cleaned in exactly a certain way because that’s the only “right” way to do it. Friction can develop in social relationships because of the need for control on the part of the person with OCPD.

OCPD Treatment

Treatment options for obsessive compulsive personality disorder include CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and SSRI antidepressants. Treatment can be difficult, especially since part of OCPD is believing that one is doing things the “right” way. As a result, people with the disorder may not have enough insight to see the need for treatment. Psychodynamic psychotherapy might be helpful for developing more insight, but therapy is unlikely to have much success if the individual doesn’t see a need for change.


During my nursing career, I don’t think I ever worked with any clients with OCPD. I can’t think of anyone I knew socially that seemed to have it, either. But the people I’ve known that were “a little OCD” were definitely far closer to OCPD than OCD.

Is this a disorder that you were familiar with? And does it sound to you like there’s a resemblance to the way “a little OCD” gets used inappropriately?

Sources

Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

16 thoughts on “What Is… Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder”

  1. I would replace ‘you’re a little ocd’ with ‘you’re a little anal’ because it just sounds so much more fun to me!
    On a serious note, people throw these diagnosis around like there’s no tomorrow. I think OCPD is a serious condition and it’s not to used that lightly.
    I’m no expert but when I’ve worked with mothers and their babies, I’ve seen a baby getting cought up in a a very controlling cycle. The baby was actually rebelling and disrupting the mother’s habits and she needed to change. In a way the baby was a true gift.
    It was very hard though to find a balance that was also comfortable for the mother.

  2. Thank you for this insightful blog post. Granny Franny!!!! She definitely had this disorder. Not all of the symptoms–like, she’d definitely throw old stuff away–but she was so super-rigid to the point of cruelty. She got mad at me once because it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep, so I went downstairs and wrapped up in a throw blanket and read a book. She was upset that the throw blanket had been unfolded, and she was convinced I wouldn’t fold it back up neatly enough, or something. There you have it.

    Also on the personality-rather-than-major-mental-illness spectrum is my mom, who I’m pretty sure has some form of NOS depressive personality disorder. Not depression, but a pattern of thinking that supports and encourages depressive beliefs as fact. This is why she always has to tell me gloom-and-doom stuff, because would I want her to lie to me and protect me from the stark truths of reality? (Yes, I would love for her to do just that, but she never accepts that answer.) Very interesting!

    1. Personality disorders are still mental illnesses. Depressive personality hasn’t been a DSM diagnosis since the DSM-III, but neuroticism is a personality trait that involves being more inclined towards negative emotions.

      1. Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I was going to type! I hit refresh first to see if you’d commented, and there it was, word for word!! NERD POWER!!

  3. Is this a disorder that you were familiar with? And does it sound to you like there’s a resemblance to the way “a little OCD” gets used inappropriately?

    This is one disorder that has thankfully ‘mostly’ skipped me and my family members who have mental illness. However there is overlap for me with my social phobia concerns, and particularly with pre-occupation (as such) of ‘dirty’ surfaces at public places like swimming pools. The isolation recently has worsened that and I suspect it will be extremely difficult for me to go to a public pool (even a private one) in the future. So far (touch wood) public restrooms aren’t a problem.

    There is definitely a resemblance in the way I’ve used “OCD”. Thanks for explaining the difference today!

  4. A truly amazing article. Thank you for raising awareness on this. And I totally agree with you – OCPD is a lot closer to the popular OCD stereotype than OCD itself and this is something that actually took some time for me to realize like…..at the beginning of my OCD journey I did not use to understand why people were surprised that I had OCD. And over the years, I have learnt that for many of them, OCD actually meant OCPD.

    Hope it’s okay if I link to this post in some of my articles 🙂

    Cheers

    Mark

  5. Even though I know what true OCD is, I still say it jokingly. I have a huge preoccupation with lists, order, and numbers, mostly happily because I think it’s good (and right!), but sometimes it’s intrusive and annoying. Forex, you (your fault!) said we should add alt text to out media, right? Well, it bothered me to only have it going forward. Guess who spent hours adding it to EVERY PHOTO uploaded since my blog began in 2010? I am done now and feel very accomplished lol

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