A New Year, part 2: Why the obsession with perfection is dangerous

2015 A New Year

Let me start by saying that while many of OCD’s intrusive thoughts can be of other natures, today we’re focusing on the ones that push us to perfection, the ones that nag and tell us we’ll never be good enough or work hard enough. Part of the problem with these OCD thoughts is that they can really pull us away from what’s most important in our lives. No one has a perfect track record, but because of failures in the past, those intrusive thoughts will nag us to work harder until we’re haggard and spent.

According to Science Daily’s article, “Workaholic,” Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can be the reason the workaholic mindset. The article says that workaholism doesn’t just apply to work; it can also apply to music, art, or sports. (In my opinion, it can apply to any pursuit taken to the extreme.) Any good thing can become unhealthy when taken too far.

OCD Workaholism Perfectionism

The side effects? According to Science Daily, people who pursue interests obsessively often tend to ignore family, other social relationships, and can work less productively. The constant push for perfection can lead to health problems as well. I’ve struggled with many of these effects of “workaholism.” In high school and college, after each semester I would get sick with a mystery illness. I spent little time with friends, and I even felt guilty vacationing with my family.

Like I said, this part of OCD focuses on the obsessive side of the disorder. These are those nagging thoughts that just won’t leave you alone. They’re the ones that whisper that you didn’t turn off the stove (even though you’ve checked it), or that you made your boss so angry you’ll get fired (even though all he did was give you a tip on your performance evaluation). NPR’s article, “When Obsessive-Compulsive Thoughts Are ‘Triggered,’” says that contrary to popular opinion, OCD contains many of these, “intrusive thoughts.” They’re completely internal, not the general physical compulsions people think of like washing hands.

Psychology Today’s article, “Those Damn Unwanted Thoughts!”, says, “Your idea that thoughts=reality is what Jack Rachman of the University of British Columbia called ‘thought-action fusion.’” Those of us with OCD tend to believe whatever our mind tells us. We think our thoughts determine reality. As the author of the article points out, however, we can think about a pot of gold all day, but at the end of the day, we’ll still have nothing to take to the bank.

We can think all day that if we work just a little harder things will be perfect. But let’s face it, we’re human, and at the end of the day, no matter how many hours, days, weeks, months, and years we’ve worked, we’ll still be human.

Acknowledging this is more easily said than done, however. When our thoughts tell us that we’re going to lose our jobs because our performances are less than perfect, those intrusive thoughts can butt in on every enjoyable moment of our days that aren’t spent at work. When our thoughts tell us that we’ve failed at reaching a goal because we didn’t pursue it perfectly, those intrusive thoughts can drive us to work so hard that we lose relationships and health. Allowing these thoughts to run our lives is anything but healthy.

But what can we do about them? How can we work toward becoming well-rounded individuals, rather instead of obsessing over slices of our lives? How can we break away from the minute detail to see the big picture?

Well-Rounded Individuals

The Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders has a great article titled, “Four Steps: Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s Four Steps.” In it, Dr. Edna Gorbis, an assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine, lays out a basic 4 step program that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy patients are taught. While the article focuses mainly on compulsions, I believe the same principals are applicable to obsessive intrusive thoughts.

  1. Re-label – Recognizing the unwanted, intrusive thoughts and urges are from the OCD, not from you.
  2. Reattribute – Recognizing that the strength of the OCD urges and thoughts are the results of a chemical imbalance of the part of the brain called the Striatum.
  3. Refocus – Delaying the gratification of the OCD desire (thought or compulsion) by focusing on something else. Instead of beating yourself up for the unwanted thought or compulsion, see if you can push it off for a length of time by focusing your attention on something else first.
  4. Revalue – Not giving the thoughts and urges weight, knowing that the real value does not exist in the lies your OCD tells you.

Like I said, this year has been a real year of personal growth for me. I know I tend to fall into the workaholic mindset. Whether it’s working with children, writing, or keeping my house perfectly clean and organized, I’ve been learning to focus more on what’s really important in life. I’ll use writing for instance.

When I started this blog, I was gung-ho. I blogged three times a week, and spent hours on each blog, trying to make it perfect. I was also working on multiple other writing projects, reading books on getting published, and interacting daily on social media in order to create contacts. I was doing every single thing I could in order to be a successful writer. The books said I needed to do all these things, and my OCD whispered that if I didn’t follow the directions word-for-word, it would be my fault when my writing career ended in failure.

As usual, however, life started catching up with me. I was missing out on a lot of time with my husband, my house was in awful shape, and at least three or four days a week, I was spending an unhealthy amount of time on the computer at crazy hours of the night. And that was just for blogging. As time began to pass, however, I began to realize that I couldn’t keep up the pace. It wasn’t good for my marriage, my house, or my health. I had to step back and reevaluate the schedule I was keeping, and I had to ask myself why I was pushing that hard.

Without knowing it, I was applying the 4 steps from above:

  1. Re-label – I began to relabel the thoughts that insisted I would be a failure if I didn’t give this writing 100% of my time and energy.
  2. Reattribute – I had to recognize that my OCD tendencies were pushing me harder than I needed to be pushed. The push was all in my mind, not from any outside forces.
  3. Refocus – I began to blog less and spend more time focusing on other parts of my life…and I began to realize that my writing career wasn’t necessarily over just because I’d stopped blogging 3 times a week.
  4. Revalue – When my OCD makes me anxious about my blogging schedule, I’m trying to remember now that it’s my OCD insisting I get it done immediately. The sky will not fall if I get it done tomorrow instead of today. My health (and now my baby’s health) is worth not listening to the intrusive, bossy thoughts my OCD plants in my head.

This idea of putting intrusive OCD thoughts back in their proper place is where the idea “talking back to OCD” comes from. What I’ve found in my own life is what I’ve found in multiple articles, and though it sounds cliche, it’s the key to beginning to untangle those cruel OCD thoughts that butt in on our lives. It’s where we treat our OCD thoughts as thought they’re not part of us. We recognize that they’re present due to chemical imbalances in the brain. Not because we’re strange or odd or crazy, but because our minds are simply hardwired a little differently from everyone else’s.

And that’s OK. The key is to remember this before we begin to blame ourselves.

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