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The Difference Between OCD and Perfectionism

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Perfectionism is not a disorder.


OK, sometimes brevity explains everything, but I am not one for brevity. I’d like to explore the differences in these two entities: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and perfectionism.

Perfectionism is born from goals that are pre-specified in the mind. One wishes things to be a certain way, and most importantly here that “way” has an end game. Perfectionists often get stuck in fractal-like loops where they dive deeper into more and more minute details of the product of their creation to hone it towards this end game. This can be counterproductive, it can waste time — but the key here is perfectionism has an end game in mind, achievable or not. Not achievable by external forces, or internal issues most likely — but achievability as a possibility of something that can be framed out. 

Simply put, regardless of its ability to happen, perfectionism starts with a goal and has an end game.

OCD is quite different. At the root, OCD does not start with a goal in mind. OCD is an ongoing condition of the mind that the world around the person with OCD is not right. Indeed, the “compulsive” end of OCD may be tied to goals — usually irrationally. However, as a whole, OCD does not start with a goal. Or at least, not one that is ever achievable.

I mentioned the term “product” when discussing perfectionism. That is important in the distinction we’re laying out. “Product” in this case merely means anything at all being produced. Something created, a project, to sum it up: something being done on purpose. Those with OCD are often seen by many as doing something on purpose towards an end game of sorts. What is not being seen, and what encapsulates OCD here, is those things, those obsessions over things, are merely a byproduct of an over-arching condition of the mind.


A perfectionist wishes to arrange the chairs in a room so that everything seems nice and tidy for those who will be sitting in these chairs. This perfectionist may go as far as making sure every chair is facing in the absolute perfect angle so that everyone sitting in said chairs can see what needs to be seen from these chairs. Whatever the reason for the chairs, something is being produced. And the perfectionist is getting this thing right. The perfectionist may go to a point of irrationality in wasting time, spending energy getting the chairs well beyond the bare necessity of their arrangement. 

Someone with OCD sees chairs out of order as a part of a whole world that is out of order. Arranging the chairs — the compulsion to — is part of an attempt to make some assemblage of order out of the whole world. To somehow contribute — in his or her mind — to soothing a major worldview problem. And to be sure, arranging the chairs will not soothe this worldview, it may help for a bit. It doesn’t matter though! There is no true end game, as compared to the perfectionist who has a goal and end game in mind, and a reason for arranging the chairs.

Someone with OCD is constantly living in a world they consider should be perfect and bear the brunt of it not being perfect on a second-by-second basis. OCD is constant, though it manifests itself in actions that seem to have a finiteness to them. OCD is also personal, in that one with the disorder tends to feel the universe they live in is theirs alone, and as well is not the right universe. Thus, obsessions are constantly cropping up over all of the various details of this person’s world, because this world should be, in their minds, perfect. And expanding on “perfect” in this arena — it is amorphous and liquid. There is no end game, ever. Just imperfection, known.

To summarize these two entities: 

Perfectionism has an goal, an end game, is a mechanism within the (generic definition of) production of something, and often is approached irrationally with work expended that does not need to be expended to reach the end game.

Perfectionism: “I must do these things to produce this thing to its optimum level by my standards.”

OCD is part of a worldview that is askew in terms of overall lack of perfection in every single thing, and it manifests itself in what appears to be “production” but is really not. Wheels spin from the get-go because OCD is purely irrational almost always. And if not 100 percent irrational, its manifestation is always well more than a majority irrational.

OCD: “I must do this thing because it has to happen to help make the terribly imperfect universe in my mind some form of OK.”

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Getty image via Victor_85

Originally published: April 5, 2018
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