Obsessive and Compulsive Personalities

“Personality” refers to how a person functions in life, including all the ways he or she perceives things and behaves. For more on personality in general, see the first post in this category entitled “Personality 101”

People with obsessive and compulsive traits have personalities organized around thinking and doing. They tend to be concerned with issues of control and what is morally right or wrong and are oftentimes self-critical, hardworking, and dependable. They tend to worry a lot, and even agonize to the point of paralysis, when they have to make an important decision. They usually also derive their self esteem from meeting the very high standards of behavior that their parents have usually set for them.

Though some people have both obsessive and compulsive traits, some may be more organized around thinking and less around doing (an example is the philosophy professor) while others may be more organized around doing and less around thinking (an example is the workaholic business executive). From a developmental perspective, many obsessive compulsive personality traits, such as stubbornness, a tendency to engage in power struggles, concerns with punctuality and cleanliness, are associated with toilet training.

People with obsessive personalities use isolation of affect and intellectualization as their principal coping and defensive mechanisms. As a result, they overvalue thinking to address life’s challenges and will oftentimes describe their thought process when asked how they feel. Though their feelings are mostly suppressed or otherwise unavailable, their unconscious affective experience alternates between rage (at being controlled) and fear (at being punished or embarrassed).  

People with compulsive personalities use undoing as their principal defense. Undoing means taking some action that has the unconscious meaning of providing protection from things beyond one’s control or of providing absolution for some forbidden wish. The baseball pitcher who performs a ritual before each pitch or the teenager who keeps packing and repacking his bags before his first year away at college are examples of the former type of undoing. Taking a shower after feeling attracted to your best friend’s boyfriend is an example of the latter type of undoing.

Much of the content for the above was derived from passages of Nancy McWilliams’ book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in Clinical Process.