Thanks to Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash for this beauty!
Perfectionism and OCD
What is perfectionism? Oxford dictionary defines it as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” That’s automatically problematic. Perfectionism leads to a circumscribed focus, stress, and suffering for not only individuals, but for loved ones nearby who feel the weight of being perfect.
Is this the same as OCD? Nope. OCD and perfectionism often get confused. They both can affect and drive distress in one another, but they are separate. OCD involves unwanted (intrusive) thoughts, urges, and impulses that cause distress; furthermore, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that attempt to reduce distress or prevent something bad from happening. Perfectionistic manifestations of OCD, often referred to as “just right / not just right” fit this categorization. Separately, in Perfectionism, someone pursues “perfect” thought, behavior, or action initially out of interest or enjoyment (rather than to suppress an intrusive thought/urge/impulse, like in OCD). There are typically problems that go with this, however. So a difference between the two is that OCD is ego-dystonic and Perfectionism is typically ego-syntonic (you can check out my video here explaining the difference).
Examples of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors[4,5]:
I am a "recovering" perfectionist. And it’s a problem when I’m not, well, “recovering” from it. One of the mechanisms that keeps perfectionism going is the belief that it is helpful (this is a “Positive Belief” about perfectionism, and it is a cognitive distortion). When I succeed at a task- and especially if I get a lot of praise, it is a natural reinforcer that I must be doing well. However, if I spent 8 hours researching, writing, and proofing this blog today, that is problematic for me at this point in life (and I easily can spend that much time). What is a problem or not sometimes depends on the person and their situation- maybe a journalist would spend that much time or even more, but I am a full-time clinician with a family, church, volunteer involvements, and hobbies. If I make this post “perfect,” in my perfectionism, I will seriously miss out on other things.
This pursuit of perfection doesn't stop with one blog post. It will always generalize if allowed. So if I let it, the pressure of perfection will continue (and does, at times) to move on to other things like caring for my home, caring for people in my life, my relationship with others, my diet, exercise, my spiritual walk, my car, money, and so on. And being honest with you, these things are tied up in anxiety and simultaneously selfishness- attempting to control these things rather than to engage with them/others in a meaningful way by learning to lean into the fear and live based on what is valuable.
Parenting is probably the single biggest event that pressed me with the realization I need really challenge my perfectionism. There are two stark realities to me in life: I can either do my work/relationships/home life/etc. “perfectly” and end up in an ever narrowing scope of anxious overwhelm trying to keep all the balls in the air, OR learn to tolerate the distress that comes doing things "not just right" and focus on the big picture, growing towards what I love and value. And the reality usually is that in time, this fear habituates when not engaging in avoidance, rituals, or control strategies.
Whether in therapy or personal life, to change how I behave and think and respond in life, I need to be aware/monitor what it is that needs to change (good therapy, support, and resources such as on my website can help). Even if I know what needs to be done, if I can’t effectively observe and catch it when it occurs, I will not be able to change it. Next, I will need tools and strategies to effectively grow and mature. In therapy, some of these are Exposure Therapy, Cognitive Restructuring, and more. In essence, at the point of the problem I must be able to insert the solution- and consistently. Lastly, I want to continue to monitor and gain feedback to incorporate learning and solidify growth. I don’t want to oversimplify this- if you are having a problem with any of the areas I have discussed, please reach out to a competent trusted person and/or therapist.
Today I gave myself the time limit of 3 hours- start to finish- to research, write, upload and post. And it’s simultaneously stressful and joyous at the same time. I’m going to do a behavioral experiment and keep doing it- “testing” whether or not my choice(s) in leaning into my fear of failure a) doesn’t end up as bad as it feels like it will, and/or b) I was able to handle or face it anyway. We’ll have to see- I'm leaning in!!!
Justin K. Hughes
 First of all, it’s a whole mess to even get into a truly perfect standard- if I make and continue to make mistakes, I am not perfect. I cannot even begin to conceive what perfect is, then, since I would make a mistake in defining “perfect.”
 The Diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) may apply when a person pursues perfectionistic behavior to pathologically disordered levels.
 Grayson, J. (2014). Freedom from obsessive-compulsive disorder: a personalized recovery program for living with uncertainty. New York: Berkley Books.
 Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2015). Happiness is a choice: enhance joy and meaning in your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire.
The Myth of Disappearing Distress. If I do the right things, I won't have to face suffering, right?
It's easy for me as a therapist to exhort my clients to stay focused on the prize DESPITE the distress they feel. How easy it is to get off track! And while it's also easy for me to tell someone else this, it can be very cumbersome to do in practice. I, too, struggle to keep focused when challenges hit. But I'm always best prepared when I lean on my team: #support #faith #accountability #truth.
Did your anxiety increase over flying after news of the engine failure on Southwest Flight 1380? Even a little?
I have booked plane tickets twice since the incident in mid-April 2018, and when choosing seats, I hovered precariously as I decided whether to select my favored window seat, or if I go for the "safer" aisle. My wife mentioned slight concern over the window seat because of the tragedy that occurred.
Working closely with the CBT treatment of Anxiety Disorders and OCD, I knew the moment I read the news- first about engine failure and the sad death of a wife and mom, Jennifer Riordan, and more recently the loss of cabin pressure and a window crack on a separate flight- there would be increased fear and anxiety about flying. Why? Flying commercially is statistically more safe in the U.S. than it’s ever been. Even with these incidents. Even with 100 of these incidents.
The fear is natural, and even normative, to some extent. It makes sense that we’d instinctually be a bit curious about our well-being in a metal tube soaring at 500 mph with tons of jet fuel propelling it. Even the possibility of flight has been denied in most of human history.
But what about when fear starts to cause problems ? Affect choices? Leads to avoidance of life pursuits and goals? Or becomes one more in a cumulative list of anxieties and worries? One way to be 100% certain that you will increase your fear load is by giving the aforementioned flight(s) unrealistic credit. By associating personalized, catastrophic meaning to a situation that is one of the safest things you can do (safer than riding a bike), a distortion has taken place. Some disorders, such as Specific Phobias, PTSD or OCD, make it pathologically difficult (i.e., neurobiologically) to change how one feels and thinks, regurgitating fear quicker than your vertigo-experiencing seatmate with their airline-branded “barf” bag.
With Flight 1380 being the first fatality on a U.S. passenger airline since February 2009 (over 9 years), flying on a plane is a remarkably secure form of travel. Unconvinced? Check out Forbes’ mining of some reputable stats.
Here’s the thing; education and stats are helpful, but only go so far. Fear is more than a reasoning thing- or in neuro terms, more than a prefrontal cortex (PFC) thing. Fear is an emotional thing. An amygdala thing. A learned response and genetic thing, along with a pervasive attitude and decision thing. It’s something that can destroy, harm, and erode, or it’s something that can be used in its rightful context, and set aside when not useful (e.g., PTSD treatment where a person can balance both safe and smart decisions, while facing disordered fear, so they can live life more fully).
So if you’re like most people who need a bit more than statistical education to counter anxiety and become stress resilient, remember this:
What you think and believe (cognitively) is vitally important.
What you do (behaviorally) is vitally important.
Your health and well-being are intricately tied to these. Small decisions today can lead to a long-term impact. For many of us, the greatest threat we face today is fear. So I chose the window seat.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
This post was originally published on 09/14/2016 on my wordpress and is newly updated.
Happy September (Recovery Month)! School’s back in session and vacations are over for many. If you’re like most, you’ve been seeing everyone’s summer pics on facebook and Instagram. While you might expect this post, written by a Professional Counselor, to talk about the influence of social media on self-esteem or depression, I want to invite you into a more personal journey- one of compulsive behavior, learning, and communication.
The Back Story
Starting early in 2015, I had been recognizing for months how distracting my daily social media consumption was to me- and how much time and emotional energy was being spent. And then a stroke of insight came- why not just stop? I didn’t have to make any extreme commitment or do a PR campaign. Why not just see what happened? And see what happened I did. With no end in sight, I stopped personal social media use through May 2016.
My days started to become more efficient at work; I found creative ways to engage or disengage with people; I was less stressed over the high dose of negative news I was seeing; I let go of the pressure of having to keep up with posting or needing to respond; I focused on the core things that mattered as opposed to the (look, a SQUIRREL!) distractions.
I began to see how compulsive I had become, even a little dependent. I felt fear about missing out on something. I got a “hit” (or high) from that next new message or like or share in my notifications. I had worried if someone didn’t respond soon enough.
The Addiction Framework
In the addiction world, physiological dependence is two things: tolerance (more is needed to achieve the same result) and withdrawal (I feel powerfully adverse negative affects when the “drug of choice” is removed). The treatment world has been closely watching the impact of using the internet, apps, social media, and the like- to see how it activates and affects the brain and body and mind in similar ways to substances. And we’re starting to acknowledge how behavior can trigger some of the same brain processes as a substance being ingested. DARN, I guess I can’t say, “Well, it’s not like I’m abusing drugs or anything.” Actually, sometimes I am abusing the chemicals already in my brain that drugs simply play with. Varying levels of compulsivity exist, and my expertise in Professional Counseling focuses on providing help and hope when a person can’t break through their compulsive patterns.
Even though a year break taught me about my personal misuse of social media, don’t expect a crusade AGAINST social media from me today. As much as I benefited from my “vacation,” there were a few things I missed out on, too. I overlooked a few announcements (sorry for missing that birthday heads-up). I lost a bit of connection to the world around me. In essence, some communication was actually stunted for me. And I missed out on a little healthy distraction I find encouraging.
The Rest of the Story
My personal story may not be yours. Here are some observations:
The modality of communicating by tech IS effective and helpful for many. We can complain all day about children not learning to communicate well because they “can’t even” (and I do believe that is a concern to be aware of as a parent). However, social media can be helpful.
Social media is a communication platform. Whether we like it or not, things like social media are the new telegram or front porch conversation of years ago. And they don’t appear to be going away any time soon, only adapting and changing.
As with many things in this world, the actual vehicle of social media may be relatively neutral- what makes it egocentric, compulsive, and harmful OR helpful and relational, is likely the purpose and motivation and heart behind its use. I want to be “linked in” to the latter so I can live free, not compulsively.
Dr. Geraint Evans- “What I Learned in My Year Off Facebook”
Dr. Kristen Fuller- "Social Media Breaks and Why They Are Necessary"
Shala Nicely, LPC- "Are You Handcuffed To Your Devices, and Is OCD At Fault?
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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