How to Work With Obsessive People

December 23, 2019
by Kevin RR Williams

Do you envision someone with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) as a fast-food employee discarding dozens of hamburgers because the patty is not centered on the bun?

Their Obsessions Annoy You

People with OCPD are generally very high-functioning individuals, even though some mental health profes­sionals may try to “fix” them and the uninformed attempt to avoid them. Because of their attention to detail, many become entrepre­neurs. In fact they are, quite justifiably, ideal candi­dates for most employers who are privileged to find them and know how to manage their temperament.

Don’t Confuse OCD With OCPD

To allay apprehension of these special individuals, first distinguish the difference between OCPD and OCD. Those with the former will quickly recognize the omission of the “P” in the latter. As a “personality” trait, its designa­tion relates more to a tendency to focus on extremely high standards. They are self-starters and generally do not require nagging to get a job done. Doesn’t this appeal to employers? People with OCPD are generally efficient software programmers, architects, designers, accountants, engineers, and mechanics—ones said to have type-a personalities.

Though OCD and OCPD share some symptoms of compulsion, the two disorders are only distantly related. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are often aware that their compulsions (multiple hand washings; repeatedly circling the block) are abnormal but are compelled to perform them anyway. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, however, believe their need for strict order and rules is perfectly normal. It is possible, though not common, for an individual to have both traits.

Those with OCPD generally feel their actions are quite normal and justified.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is characterized by a preoccupa­tion with orderliness, perfectioni­sm, and mental and inter­personal control, at the expense of flexi­bility, openness, and efficiency. Individuals with this disorder usually express affection in a highly controlled or stilted fashion and may be very uncomforta­ble in the presence of others who are emotionally expressive.

The Difference Between OCD and OCPD

Nevertheless, OCPD employees do require commendation for their often over-the-top efforts. An employer might say, “Your hard work really paid off. The immediate benefit that comes to mind is how easily it will now be to maintain this list. And I’m certain you can point out many other features.” Just don’t be surprised if he diminishes commendation by showing indifference or listing personal errors.

Don’t Go “There”

Because OCPD describes a personality, and those with it generally feel their actions are quite normal and justified. It does little good to tell them they are paying “too much attention” to quality, are “too efficient,” or they make “too many lists.” This would be akin to telling a comedian he is odd because he tells too many jokes. However, someone whom they trust can interject an outside perspective when they are awkwardly transferring their obsessions.

Avoid making it sound as though he [*] is deficient, saying: “Since you apparently have OCPD, you need to just do it this way.” In fact, any criticism is best if constructive—not presented as condemnatory faults. It is better to praise his good qualities and share ways in which they are beneficial. “This is good as it is; but how much better do you think it will be if you do this…” Remember, a person with OCPD does not think he has a problem. Though behavior may strongly suggest the conclusion, medical diagnosis is best left to a professional.

Benefits of OCPD

The fact is, companies require structure, organization and lists. It is therefore prudent to assign such responsibilities to OCPD employees. This doesn’t mean they must rein absolute control over every depart­ment. But they may receive relative authority to make schedules or maintain detailed information. They can work well in accounting or human resources depart­ments or be ideal executive assistants. Accurate job descrip­tions may be important since OCPD employees will vigorously strive to follow established rules.

If you can read this entire article, you probably have OCPD.

If they question the logic of instructions, it may be that they genuinely can suggest an improvement. In a large company, policies and procedures must be properly documented, so an OCPD employee can be reminded of this while assuring him that the suggestion is noted and will be given consideration.

Relationships With Others

Those with OCPD can manifest traits of outwardly- or inwardly-focused perfectionists. IFP often prefer to work isolated where they can enforce extremely high personal standards and obsess over details. OFP tend to be concerned about how they appear to others and may expect perfection from coworkers or sub­ordinates. Both tend to have difficulty delegating—preferring to maintain control by doing everything themselves.

People with OCPD can’t be “cured” of their personality.

In attempting to control outcomes by doing the work them­selves or spending time and energy worrying about or checking the work of others, perfectionists are prone to waste time and offend others. By doing so, they inadvertently communicate that they do not trust the work of others or believe their work is not good enough. Those who understand their trait are less offended.

How to Work With Obsessive People

People with OCPD can’t be “cured” of their personality. So when their behavior gets in the way of relationships, they may shift the focus of their obsessions on what appears to be more important (intellectual) things. There are aspects of engineer­ing, architec­ture, or programming that require extreme personal discipline and concentration. Hunting down who didn’t rinse out a coffee cup in the break room is superfluous. Someone with OCPD may swing from one to the other.

While excelling in most areas, he is actually a procrastinator by choice. He might cope with compulsion by intentionally limiting the time he has to work on assignments. This way he gets a greater number of smaller projects done to the best of his ability, “given the available time.” As an OCPD employee learns to delegate, he can be assured that the individual who has the responsibility he relin­quished will do the best that he can. It may not be as good as an OCPD would like but it will free him up to focus on more important things.

Since they are the risk-takers and will push themselves beyond the typical worker, people with OCPD are often elevated to managerial positions. If surrounded by well-qualified individuals, things can work out well. Conversely, when dependence shifts to those who do not excel, the incompetence leads to frustration.

When Help is Needed

It is possible for someone to have an obsessive personality without it being characterized as a disorder. As with most personality disorders, individuals seek treat­ment for items in their life that have become over­whelming to their existing coping skills. Someone with OCPD may begin the use the expression “overwhelmed” to signal work is piling up or people are not responding kindly to his work ethics. Perfectionists expect themselves to perform perfectly and to rarely make mistakes. Their preoccupa­tion with details can sometimes paralyze them to the point where they are not able to make decisions or move things along.

The creative ones have characterized periods of intense obsession as “being in the zone” or “going down the rabbit hole.” It is like “letting open the valve of a water hydrant.” During a euphoria, one with OCPD is incapable of dividing his focus on other people or assignments. As other important tasks mount, he may feel “trapped” in his own creativity or methodical processes. When a large project is around 90 percent completed, it can be followed by a feeling of elation and then by calm. A scientist remarked, “We never actually finish a project. We just surrender to it.”

Sometimes self-imposed standards are unattainable. Or a certain task may remind him of a past failing he wishes to avoid, so he emotionally distances himself from the undertaking, even if he has the ability to complete it. With sufficient pent-up anxiety from a heavy workload or prior criticism, such situations can send a hard-working OCPD employee retreating into a cocoon of isolation, negative mental rumination or depression.

To curb this, perhaps excessive workloads can be redistri­buted. A supervisor might ask him to separate the tasks that can be assigned to another department or to subcontractors. Since the time he spends is exponential in relation to other employees, likely, he will prefer to take on many small tasks or those for which he already has “a system” and relinquish larger ones (he is capable of fulfilling but would absorb his valuable energy away from others).

Since someone with OCPD may not be prone to take vacations, a supervisor or spouse should not ignore signs of irritability, frustra­tion and anxiety (compounded negative emotions). When individuals with OCPD feel the need for therapy, they truly need help—since it’s their nature to figure out everything themselves.

Individuals with OCPD can see the world in a very “all-or-nothing” manner.

Individuals suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder often are not in touch with their emotional states as much as their thoughts. A qualified therapist can examine social relation­ships, reinforcing strong, positive ones while having the patient re-examine negative or harmful relation­ships. One important aspect is to try and have the individual examine and properly identify feeling states, rather than just intellectualizing or distancing himself from his emotions.

Is There a Need for Professional Help?

Therapy with people who have OCPD can sometimes be trying, since they can see the world in a very “all-or-nothing” manner. The individual may be helped to see that instead of something being absolutely brilliant or utterly worthless, there are degrees or percentages of good. Something can be 70 or 90 percent well. Clinicians must be willing to undergo verbal attacks on their pro­fessionali­sm and intellect, as such skepticism about a therapist’s treatment approach from the client with this disorder can be expected.

OCPD is diagnosed based on symptoms and personal history. As other medical conditions can mimic obsessive compulsive personality disorder, it is imperative to differentiate and rule out other causes, including:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Chronic substance abuse
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Hospitalization is rarely needed for people who suffer from OCPD unless an extreme or severe stressor or stressful life event occurs that increases the compulsive behaviors to an extent where regular daily activities are halted or they present possible risks of harm to the patient. Hospitaliza­tion may also be needed when the obsessive thoughts do not allow the individual to conduct any usual activities, paralyzing them in bed or with accompany­ing compulsive behaviors.

    There is no drug for OCPD, though medication may be required for OCD or depres­sion, if severe. Someone with extreme and unhealthy perfectioni­sm might also benefit from psycho­therapy. “But these people often don’t seek help, because they don’t think that anything is wrong,” says psychiatrist Joseph Baskin, MD. Long-term use is rarely indicated, appropriate, or beneficial. In the end, an OCPD client can rebound from a low spell or burnout through cognitive behavioral therapy or self-help support groups. Afterwards, they will not be “cured” of themselves. They may just acquire better coping skills, as should those with whom they work.

    * Since twice as many men are treated for OCPD, this article uses the male gender, though information may equally apply to women.

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    Kevin Williams is a health advocate and writer of hundreds of articles for multiple websites, including: A Bit More Healthy, KevinMD, and Sue’s Nutrition Buzz.

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