The obsessive-compulsive personality struggles to contain conflict between obedience and defiance by overconforming to rules and strictures, becoming almost a caricature of order and propriety. Western society seems to encourage these traits by valuing hard work, efficiency, and attention to detail, but at the disorder level, order turns into perfectionism and discipline into rigidity. Compulsives become preoccupied with rules and lists, force others to conform to their rules, and become so overwhelmed by details of life that decisions become impossible.
Within a normal range, Oldham and Morris (1995) describe the conscientious style, who is particularly hard working and devoted to moral principles and order, while Millon's (Millon et al., 1994) conforming style is more concerned with following rules and conventions, tending to exhibit black-and-white thinking, and shunning emotionality. The compulsive personality is rarely confused with other personality patterns, although it is theoretically related to the dependent personality, the schizoid personality, and the paranoid personality.
A variety of adult subtypes of the compulsive personality exist. Conscientious compulsives exhibit a strong conforming dependency, puritanical compulsives are particularly troubled by ambivalence and prone to displacing their aggression in sadistic ways, bureaucratic compulsives use external structures to compensate for their internal ambivalence and may become sadistic, parsimonious compulsives are preoccupied with hoarding, and bedeviled compulsives are blended with the negativistic personality.
Freud explains the compulsive personality as a fixation at the anal stage of psychosex-ual development. Anal-retentive types are believed to be caused by a rigid, impatient, or demanding attitude taken by parents toward toilet training and children subsequently internalizing a harsh superego, ready to condemn themselves for thoughts and actions. Alternatively, children may react by becoming anal-expulsive types, a strategy of resisting parental controls. Later, ego psychologists and object relationists shifted the focus to the compulsive personality's intolerance of ambiguities, with the use of a host of defense mechanisms such as reaction formation, displacement, undoing, and isolating affect to overcome feelings of anger and insecurity aroused by the conflicts.
From an interpersonal perspective, we can see that compulsives are extremely deliberate in their social interactions. They seem incapable of spontaneity, instead following almost a flowchart for personal interactions. Their interpersonally distant and calculating qualities can be seen clearly in the work setting by their interactions with superiors and subordinates. As in the psychodynamic perspective, parental overcontrol is one factor contributing to the development of the compulsive personality. Interpersonal psychologists believe that parental failure to reward real achievements is also a contributing element.
Cognitions seem to play a large part in the functioning of the compulsive personality. Abhorring ambiguity, compulsives need to categorize their thoughts into discrete compartments and cling to order and rules as a defense against the dangerous unknown. Having an unflagging focus on minute detail, compulsives often miss the big picture and usually fail to recognize the emotional nuances of a situation. So fearful of making an error, many compulsives become mired in a paralysis of analysis. Compulsives have overdeveloped schemas for control, responsibility, and systematization and are trapped by black-and-white thinking, "should" statements, and ruminating about the past and future, causing them to miss out on most of the joys of life.
The compulsive personality is prone to displaying other symptoms when experiencing stress; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), other anxiety disorders, somatoform disorders, dissociative disorders, and depression are the most common.
In therapy, compulsive personalities are likely to intellectualize their experiences and refuse to open up emotionally, but this does not mean that therapy cannot be successful. Couples therapy, psychodynamic therapy with dream analysis and free association, and framing therapy as scientific research are all useful techniques in treating the compulsive personality. Issues of control and power are likely to take center stage in therapy.
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