Mental Health Tips
March 13, 2024

Perfectionism vs. OCD: Understanding the Differences

Written by
Two Chairs Content Team
Reviewed by
Nick Forand, PhD, ABPP
Updated on
Colorful books on a shelf of a bookcase with a green plant in the foreground

Perfectionism and OCD are two commonly misused mental health terms — and are often thought to be the same thing. But, OCD is a diagnosable mental health issue that’s about more than just wanting to get something right — it’s a condition that can disrupt daily life, often both professionally and personally. 

In this blog, we’ll break down the key differences between the two, why they’re often confused, and how anyone can get help for either struggle.

What is perfectionism?

To best understand perfectionism, let’s look at a hypothetical example. 

Lisa spends hours revising a work presentation, feeling compelled to make every detail flawless. She frequently works overtime, triple-checks her work, and spends hours refining and revising to ensure that her projects meet impossibly high standards. 

At night after work, Lisa feels anxiety and stress thinking about possible errors in her project and fears that not producing the perfect product will mean she’s incompetent. She quite often, when working overtime, experiences burnout.

While plenty of people have great work ethic, perfectionism takes striving for achievement to an incredibly high, almost unattainable, level. And while not all perfectionist traits are problematic, they become a concern when these tendencies interfere with a person's ability to function effectively.

Typically, signs of perfectionism include:

  • Setting the bar really high: Perfectionists expect nothing but the best from themselves.

  • Being scared of making a mistake: For a perfectionist, the thought of failing can be so stressful that the individual might even avoid certain tasks.

  • Craving approval: Perfectionists often tie their self-worth to their achievements and don't like the idea of people thinking they're not up to par.

  • Having all-or-nothing thinking: Perfectionists tend to see things as either perfect or a total disaster.

  • Needing to feel in control: Perfectionists try to have a grip on every little detail of their lives to avoid mistakes.

  • Comparison: Perfectionists often compare themselves to others — a tendency that only seems to be getting worse with the rise in social media

What is OCD?

OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is a mental health disorder that affects 2.5 million adults or 1.2% of the U.S. population.

To better understand OCD, let’s take a look at another hypothetical example, just like we did with Lisa. 

Riley — clinically diagnosed with OCD — is very particular about certain things in their life — even things that aren’t particularly important to other people. For example, when Riley walks up a staircase at school, they feel the need to count each step they take. 

Riley feels physical discomfort and anxiety if they don’t count the steps. And if they lose count, they go back and start again until they get it right. Riley often, while not wanting to, shows up late to class or to other obligations in order to get the staircase counting right.

As we see in the case of Riley, OCD is characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts (like needing to count the stairs) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (like the act of counting the stairs) performed in response to the intrusive thoughts.

As we see with Riley, some key features of OCD include:

Obsessions: These are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly enter a person's mind. In Riley’s case, the need to count the stairs could be considered the obsession.

Compulsions: These are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to the obsessions or to prevent a feared event or situation. In the example of Riley, the act of counting the stairs — and needing to get it right — could be considered the compulsion.  

Impact on daily life: The time-consuming nature of compulsions and the distress caused by obsessions can make it challenging to focus on other aspects of life. In Riley’s case, they often show up late to class because they are compelled to get the staircase counting correct.

OCD vs. perfectionism: what’s the difference?

Perfectionism and OCD, the latter of which is a diagnosable mental health disorder,  are commonly confused. However, they are distinctly different.

Let’s look at another example, of Jason and Adrian, for a better understanding:

Perfectionism: Jason spends a lot of time arranging a bookshelf in his apartment to look symmetrical and neat. 

OCD: Adrian arranges books on the shelf so that they are perfectly aligned and grouped by size. If a book is even slightly out of place, it causes significant discomfort, causing him to feel compelled to stop what he’s doing to fix it.

As we see with these two examples, OCD and perfectionism share some similarities, but they are distinct concepts. Namely, they differ in the following ways:

Nature of thoughts and behaviors

OCD: In OCD, individuals experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that cause anxiety. 

Perfectionism: Perfectionism is more focused on achieving an ideal result rather than performing specific rituals in response to obsessive thoughts.

Involvement of rituals

OCD: Compulsions in OCD are ritualistic behaviors or mental acts that are performed in response to the obsessions. 

Perfectionism: While perfectionists may engage in repetitive behaviors to achieve their high standards, these behaviors are not driven by an obsession.

Emotional response

OCD: The compulsive behaviors in OCD are typically driven by the need to reduce anxiety or prevent a feared outcome.

Perfectionism: While perfectionists may feel frustrated if they don't meet their standards, the emotional response is not typically characterized by intense anxiety and distress.

Impact on functioning

OCD: The compulsions and obsessions in OCD can significantly impact a person's daily functioning, relationships and overall quality of life.

Perfectionism: While perfectionism can be a motivator for achievement, it doesn't necessarily interfere with daily functioning to the same extent as OCD.

How to get help for both OCD and perfectionism

One of the best ways to understand and cope with either OCD, perfectionism, or both, is through therapy.  

Types of therapy for OCD

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): In CBT, individuals work with a therapist to identify and challenge obsessions, often through exposure.

  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): MBCT incorporates mindfulness techniques to help individuals manage the distress associated with obsessive thoughts.

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT focuses on helping individuals clarify their values and commit to behavior changes aligned with those values.

Types of therapy for perfectionism

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Similar to its role in treating OCD, CBT can be effective for individuals to identify and challenge perfectionistic tendencies and thoughts.

  • Mindfulness-Based Therapies: Mindfulness practices can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and develop non-judgmental awareness.

Understanding perfectionism vs. OCD with Two Chairs 

Whether you’re struggling with perfectionism or OCD — or even need help determining which of the two you’re facing — Two Chairs can help.

Two Chairs helps individuals find the right therapist with a successful, research-backed matching process. In fact, 9​​8% of Two Chairs clients find the right therapist on the first try.

To get started, book an appointment.

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