Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

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Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder



Causes and symptoms








Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is a type of personality disorder marked by rigidity, control, perfectionism, and an overconcern with work at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Persons with this disorder often have trouble relaxing because they are preoccupied with details, rules, and productivity. They are often perceived by others as stubborn, stingy, self-righteous, and uncooperative.

The mental health professional’shandbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , fourth edition, text revision (2000), which is also called DSM-IV-TR, groups obsessive-compulsive personality disorder together with the avoidant and dependent personality disorders in Cluster C. The disorders in this cluster are considered to have anxiety and fearfulness as common characteristics. The ICD-10, which is the European counterpart of DSM-IV-TR, refers to OCPD as “anankastic personality disorder.”

It is important to distinguish between OCPD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder characterized by the presence of intrusive or disturbing thoughts, impulses, images or ideas (obsessions), accompanied by repeated attempts to suppress these thoughts through the performance of irrational and ritualistic behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). It is unusual but possible, however, for a patient to suffer from both disorders, especially in extreme cases of hoarding behavior. In some reported cases of animal hoarding, the people involved appear to have symptoms of both OCD and OCPD.


People suffering from OCPD have careful rules and procedures for conducting many aspects of their everyday lives. While their goal is to accomplish things in a careful, orderly manner, their desire for perfection and insistence on going “by the book” often overrides their ability to complete a task. For example, one patient with OCPD was so preoccupied with finding a mislaid shopping list that he took much more time searching for it than it would have taken him to rewrite the list from memory. This type of inflexibility typically extends to interpersonal relationships. People with OCPD are known for being highly controlling and bossy toward other people, especially subordinates. They will often insist that there is one and only one right way (their way) to fold laundry, cut grass, drive a car, or write a report. In addition, they are so insistent on following rules that they cannot allow for what most people would consider legitimate exceptions. Their attitudes toward their own superiors or supervisors depend on whether they respect these authorities. People with OCPD are often unusually courteous to superiors that they respect, but resistant to or contemptuous of those they do not respect.

While work environments may reward their conscientiousness and attention to detail, people with OCPD do not show much spontaneity or imagination. They may feel paralyzed when immediate action is necessary; they feel overwhelmed by trying to make decisions without concrete guidelines. They expect colleagues to stick to detailed rules and procedures, and often perform poorly in jobs that require flexibility and the ability to compromise. Even when people with OCPD are behind schedule, they are uncomfortable delegating work to others because the others may not do the job “properly.” People with OCPD often get so lost in the finer points of a task that they cannot see the larger picture; they are frequently described as “unable to see the forest for the trees.” They are often highly anxious in situations without clearly defined rules because such situations arouse their fears of making a mistake and being punished for it. An additional feature of this personality disorder is stinginess or miserliness, frequently combined with an inability to throw out worn-out or useless items. This characteristic has sometimes been described as “pack rat” behavior.

People diagnosed with OCPD come across to others as difficult and demanding killjoys. Their rigid expectations of others are also applied to themselves, however; they tend to be intolerant of their own shortcomings. Such persons feel bound to present a consistent facade of propriety and control. They feel uncomfortable with expressions of tender feelings and tend to avoid relatives or colleagues who are more emotionally expressive. This strict and ungenerous approach to life limits their ability to relax; they are seldom if ever able to release their needs for control. Even recreational activities frequently become another form of work. A person with OCPD, for example, may turn a tennis game into an opportunity to perfect his or her backhand rather than simply enjoying the exercise, the weather, or the companionship of the other players. Many OCPD sufferers bring office work along on vacations in order to avoid “wasting time,” and feel a sense of relief upon returning to the structure of their work environment. Not surprisingly, this combination of traits strains their interpersonal relationships and can lead to a lonely existence.

Causes and symptoms


No single specific cause of OCPD has been identified. Since the early days of Freudian psychoanalysis , however, faulty parenting has been viewed as a major factor in the development of personality disorders. Current studies have tended to support the importance of early life experiences, finding that healthy emotional development largely depends on two important variables: parental warmth and appropriate responsiveness to the child’s needs. When these qualities are present, the child feels secure and appropriately valued. By contrast, many people with personality disorders did not have parents who were emotionally warm toward them. Patients with OCPD often recall their parents as being emotionally withholding and either overprotec-tive or overcontrolling. One researcher has noted that people with OCPD appear to have been punished by their parents for every transgression of a rule, no matter how minor, and rewarded for almost nothing. As a result, the child is unable to safely develop or express a sense of joy, spontaneity, or independent thought; and begins to develop the symptoms of OCPD as a strategy for avoiding punishment. Children with this type of upbringing are also likely to choke down the anger they feel toward their parents; they may be outwardly obedient and polite to authority figures, but at the same time treat younger children or those they regard as their inferiors harshly.

Genetic contributions to OCPD have not been well documented. Cultural influences may, however, play a part in the development of OCPD. That is, cultures that are highly authoritarian and rule-bound may encourage child-rearing practices that contribute to the development of OCPD. On the other hand, simply because a culture is comparatively strict or has a strong work ethic does not mean it is necessarily unhealthful. In Japanese societies, for example, excessive devotion to work, restricted emotional expression, and moral scrupulosity are highly valued characteristics that are rewarded within that culture. Similarly, certain religions and professions require exactness and careful attention to rules in their members; the military is one example. OCPD is not diagnosed in persons who are simply behaving in accordance with such outside expectations as military regulations or the rule of a religious order. Appropriate evaluation of persons from other cultures requires close examination in order to differentiate people who are merely following culturally prescribed patterns from people whose behaviors are excessive even by the standards of their own culture.


The symptoms of OCPD include a pervasive over-concern with mental, emotional, and behavioral control of the self and others. Excessive conscientiousness means that people with this disorder are generally poor problem-solvers and have trouble making decisions; as a result, they are frequently highly inefficient. Their need for control is easily upset by schedule changes or minor unexpected events. While many people have some of the following characteristics, a person who meets the DSM-IV-TRcriteria for OCPD must display at least four of them:

  • Preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the point at which the major goal of the activity is lost.
  • Excessive concern for perfection in small details that interferes with the completion of projects.
  • Dedication to work and productivity that shuts out friendships and leisure-time activities, when the long hours of work cannot be explained by financial necessity.
  • Excessive moral rigidity and inflexibility in matters of ethics and values that cannot be accounted for by the standards of the person’s religion or culture.
  • Hoarding things, or saving worn-out or useless objects even when they have no sentimental or likely monetary value.
  • Insistence that tasks be completed according to one’s personal preferences.
  • Stinginess with the self and others.
  • Excessive rigidity and obstinacy.


Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is estimated to occur in about 1% of the population, although rates of 3-10% are reported among psychiatric outpatients. The disorder is usually diagnosed in late adolescence or young adulthood. In the United States, OCPD occurs almost twice as often in men as in women. Some researchers attribute this disproportion to gender stereotyping, in that men have greater permission from general Western culture to act in stubborn, withholding, and controlling ways.


It is relatively unusual for OCPD to be diagnosed as the patient’sprimary reason for making an appointment with their doctor. In many cases the person with OCPD is unaware of the discomfort that his or her stubbornness and rigidity cause other people, precisely because these traits usually enable them to get their way with others. They are more likely to enter therapy because of such other issues as anxiety disorders , serious relationship difficulties, or stress-related medical problems. Diagnosis of OCPD depends on careful observation and appropriate assessment of the individual’s behavior; the person must not only give evidence of the attitudes and behaviors associated with OCPD, but these must be severe enough to interfere with their occupational and interpersonal functioning.

The differential diagnosis will include distinguishing between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and OCPD. A person who has obsessions and compulsions that they experience as alien and irrational is more likely to be suffering from OCD, whereas the person who feels perfectly comfortable with self-imposed systems of extensive rules and procedures for mopping the kitchen floor probably has OCPD. In addition, the thoughts and behaviors that are found in OCD are seldom relevant to real-life problems; by contrast, people with OCPD are preoccupied primarily with managing (however inefficiently) the various tasks they encounter in their daily lives.

Some features of OCPD may occur in other personality disorders. For example, a person with a narcissistic personality disorder may be preoccupied with perfection and be critical and stingy toward others; narcissists are usually generous with themselves, however, while people with OCPD are self-critical and reluctant to spend money even on themselves. Likewise, a person with schizoid personality disorder , who lacks a fundamental capacity for intimacy, may resemble someone with OCPD in being formal and detached in dealing with others. The difference here is that a person with OCPD, while awkward in emotional situations, is able to experience caring and may long for close relationships. Certain medical conditions may also mimic OCPD, but are distinct in that the onset of the symptoms is directly related to the illness. Certain behaviors related to substance abuse may also be mistaken for symptoms of OCPD, especially if the substance problem is unrecognized.

As described earlier, diagnosis may also be complicated by the fact that behaviors similar to OCPD may be normal variants within a given culture, occupation, or religion; however, in order to fulfill criteria for the personality disorder, the behaviors must be sufficiently severe as to impair the patient’sfunctioning.



Psychotherapeutic approaches to the treatment of OCPD have found insight-oriented psychodynamic techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy to be helpful for many patients. This choice of effective approaches stands in contrast to the limitations of traditional forms of psychotherapy with most patients diagnosed with OCD. Learning to find satisfaction in life through close relationships and recreational outlets, instead of only through work-related activities, can greatly enrich the OCPD patient’s quality of life. Specific training in relaxation techniques may help patients diagnosed with OCPD who have the so-called “Type A” characteristics of competitiveness and time urgency as well as preoccupation with work.

It is difficult, however, for a psychotherapist to develop a therapeutic alliance with a person with OCPD. The patient comes into therapy with a powerful need to control the situation and the therapist; a reluctance to trust others; and a tendency to doubt or question almost everything about the therapy situation. The therapist must be alert to the patient’s defenses against genuine change and work to gain a level of commitment to the therapeutic process. Without this commitment, the therapist may be fooled into thinking that therapy has been successful when, in fact, the patient is simply being superficially compliant.


For many years, medications for OCPD and other personality disorders were thought to be ineffective


Anankastic personality disorder —The European term for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Compulsion —A strong impulse to perform an act, particularly one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

Obsession —A persistent image, idea, or desire that dominates a person’s thoughts or feelings.

Therapeutic alliance —The technical term for the cooperative relationship between therapist and patient that is considered essential for successful psychotherapy.

since they did not affect the underlying causes of the disorder. More recent studies, however, indicate that treatment with specific drugs may be a useful adjunct (help) to psychotherapy. In particular, the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs ) appear to help the OCPD patient with his or her rigidity and compulsiveness, even when the patient did not show signs of pre-existing depression . Medication can also help the patient to think more clearly and make decisions better and faster without being so distracted by minor details. While symptom control may not “cure” the underlying personality disorder, medication does enable some OCPD patients to function with less distress.


Individuals with OCPD often experience a moderate level of professional success, but relationships with a spouse or children may be strained due to their combination of emotional detachment and controlling behaviors. In addition, people with OCPD often do not attain the level of professional achievement that might be predicted for their talents and abilities because their rigidity and stubbornness make them poor “team players” or supervisors. Although there are few large-scale outcome studies of treatments for OCPD, existing reports suggest that these patients do benefit from psychotherapy to help them understand the emotional issues underlying their controlling behaviors and to teach them how to relax. Since OCPD sufferers, unlike people with OCD, usually view their compulsive behaviors as voluntary, they are better able to consider change, especially as they come to fully recognize the personal and interpersonal costs of their disorder.


Most theories attribute the development of OCPD to early life experiences, including a lack of parental warmth; parental overcontrol and rigidity, and few rewards for spontaneous emotional expression. Little work has been done, however, in identifying preventive strategies.

See alsoGender issues in mental health.



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Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). 11900 Parklawn Drive, Suite 100, Rockville, MD 20852-2624. (301) 231-9350. <www.adaa.org>

Freedom From Fear. 308 Seaview Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10305. (718) 351-1717. <www.freedomfromfear.com>

Jane A. Fitzgerald, Ph.D.