This is the last in a series of four posts describing in greater detail four types of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality (OCP). You can have the same basic driven, perfectionist tendency of the obsessive-compulsive personality and end up a Thinker-Planner rather than a Leader-Teacher, Doer-Worker, or Server-Friend.
Here are some of the questions we’ve been addressing in this series:
• Which is your type, when is it helpful, when is it not?
• Do you use these tendencies to approach what you do want (e.g. fulfillment), or just to avoid what you don’t want (e.g. anxiety and insecurity)?
• Do you utilize all four aspects of the compulsive personality, or have you limited yourself to just one approach?
If my descriptions of the four types don’t resonate, identify your own type, your own specific way that you use order and perfectionism to navigate your world. That will enable you to make more conscious decisions about how to live, rather than falling into ruts with an outdated strategy.
I’m 12 years old and sitting down for my first Boy Scout meeting. Sam, the Scoutmaster, leads us in a recitation of the scout pledge, the most prominent aspect of which is “Be Prepared.”
My friend Randy, who is admirably snarky for his age, asks, “Just what are we supposed to be prepared for?”
“A good scout is prepared for anything and everything,” our Scoutmaster answers with the assurance that only someone who hasn’t thought it through could muster.
“Everything?” Randy asks incredulously.
“Yes, that’s part of our duty to the troop and our community,” Sam says with the confidence that that settles that.
Clearly, our Scoutmaster had never read Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, in which we’re extolled to live in the present rather than always preparing for the future. I suppose we can’t blame the Scoutmaster since it was 30 years before the book would get published, but still….
“Be prepared” as a motto is as unbalanced as a graduate student’s checking account. This should probably come as no surprise since preparation is a deeply ensconced part of North American culture. Yes, it’s beneficial, but so is choosing meaning, following through, and savoring the hot dogs with ketchup and mustard that were such a major part of our scout diet.
Yeah, yeah, if you look at the rest of the Scout motto, “Be Prepared” is only part of a larger more rounded prescription, which also includes leadership, hard work and duty to others. But I’m afraid the lasting message for many still prioritizes looking to the future.
The Impact of “Be Prepared”
Whether it was the Boy Scout motto, or just my own way of handling anxiety, preparation has certainly been one of my own ways of navigating the world (though not my primary way). For example, always carrying at least two maps, far too much water, and a first aid kit when hiking, has had its practical benefits: I’ve never been lost (for long), I’ve never died of thirst, and I’ve never had to use the first aid kit because that’s just how it works. Whatever you’re prepared for never happens.
But I have had to learn that there will always be unknown unknowns that I can’t prepare for, except by cultivating confidence that I can handle just about whatever comes my way.
For some of my fellow scouts, Be Prepared was meaningless incantation they needed to go through just to get to the hot dogs. But for those like me, born with a meticulous nature, it has probably magnified compulsive aspects of our personalities, adding cultural weight and approbation where, clearly, no additional weight was needed.
Thinker-Planners have the capacity to use thinking and planning to bring about what they do want and avoid what they don’t want. They envision perfect scenarios that everyone can benefit from. And they lean heavily on thinking to make them happen.
However, humans do not live by thinking alone. By itself it isn’t a durable, robust approach. Lean on anything singular too long and it’s going to break.
But, as sometimes happens, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the sturdy parts of the Thinker-Planner first.
Strengths of the Thinker-Planner
Thinkers look ahead to figure things out first so that when they start leading, working or serving they won’t make mistakes. They can use imagination in service of fixing or creating. They set high standards and are cautious.
They may plan parties or pipelines, spotting potential problems before they transpire.
Thinker-Planners can map out how to get their three kids up, clothed, fed and inspired despite an entire week of distractions, intrusions and routine-destroying events such as car breakdowns, basement floods, and visits from the Poop Fairy.
They make great project engineers, foreseeing bottlenecks, shortages, outages, and acts of Dog before they happen.
And, used craftily, the Thinker-Planner personality can slow down enough to imagine, proactively, what their partner will need from them when they return home exhausted from another day of saving the world from its demise.
Dangers for the Thinker-Planner
But caution can freeze progress in its tracks, imprison it, and starve it of fulfillment. Caution is their way of trying to control and perfect everything. In moderate doses, it’s adaptive. In over-doses it’s maladaptive and paralyzing. Nothing leaves the head, and nothing enters it either.
Thinker-planners obsess (think) more than they compulse (do). They also think more than they allow themselves to feel. Obsessing is an attempt to think ourselves out of an uncomfortable feeling. It rarely works.
This strategy feeds on itself, as the more you try to think or plan your way out of a problem, the more you lose touch with your gut and feelings, the only source of data that could possibly break the stalemate.
If you live mostly in the thinking part, and fail to incorporate the other potential benefits of the compulsive personality, you are at risk of at least two problems:
• Ruminating: The anguish of repetitive, indecisive and regretful thinking. The Hamster Wheel. While I’ll be focusing on the overuse of foresight, hindsight can be just as much of a problem: it’s just the same strategy of trying to think your way out of a potential problem turned around and aimed at the past. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
• Procrastination: Failure to take action. Thinker-Planners may keep putting off starting or completing a project for fear that it won’t be perfect. The Roadblock. This often takes the life out of lives that could otherwise have been very productive and fulfilling. The approach of always looking ahead for what could go wrong may feel like it reduces anxiety, but really prolongs it.
Many people with OCP are reluctant to ask for help or delegate for fear that others wouldn’t execute their ideas as well as they would. This can apply to loading and emptying the dishwasher, or trusting someone else with the camerawork for their film, 12 years in the making.
A typical clinical example of an unhealthy Thinker-Planner is of someone who has magnificent plans for a composition, book, non-profit foundation, or celebratory evening on the town, but their need to have it perfect prevents them from ever bringing it to fruition. It’s very sad. I lament the many wonderful things we’ve never seen actualized because the people who conceived of them could never break through their roadblocks of excessive caution.
And it’s sad because of the torment it causes those creators; never feeling fulfilled and always drowning in thoughts.
Let’s look at two contrasting examples.
Prometheus: The Archetypal Bad Boy Thinker-Planner
One way for me to describe the Thinker-Planner in action is to share my experience with the Greek god Prometheus, who had both a talent for, and a problem with, thinking and planning. As you may recall from part one in this series, I was on the Mount Olympus Preferred Plan, and so many of the gods came to me for psychotherapy.
My initial sessions with Prometheus had to be held via Zoom. He was chained to a rock in hell and couldn’t get away for his sessions. Nor was he getting anything done, which was driving him crazy.
In our first session, Prometheus explained to me that his name means “foresight,” the capacity to see the future. It was clear that he also had a powerful and imaginative intellect. He created humans, cultivated civilization, and used fire as a craftsman. He’s the kind of god you want to have on your side. And you probably do.
For better or worse.
It also became clear in our first session that Prometheus had a fatal flaw. He liked to maintain control, “just a little” as he put it. More like complete control though, really. He was stubborn and uncooperative. He disobeyed Zeus and the other gods, and cheated them in favor of humans. That might sound like a noble thing to you, but if you think about it psychologically, you might think about it differently.
The Greek gods are personifications of unconscious parts of our personality, such as power (Zeus) and love (Eros), along with their strengths and weaknesses. In mythology humans represent the conscious ego—the controlling aspect. So, Prometheus is supporting humans, but at the expense of their relationship with anything greater. His actions prevent input from other gods of the unconscious. This leaves you without reference to meaningful priorities or feelings. (I addressed this in a recent post titled Who’s In Charge? You or Your Inflated Rogue Ego? Episode 11 of the podcast)
Coming back to our story, Prometheus told me, in painful detail, that two things had happened because of his need for control.
• Zeus had had him chained to a rock in Tartarus (Hell), where an eagle tore out his liver every day. That’s a good description of obsession. It eats at you. You’re stuck in suffering and make no progress. This is a metaphor for all those people who try to create, but because of their need for control and perfection, procrastinate and get nowhere. They are so busy thinking about how great or terrible their project could be that they leave out feelings and their creative source, the unconscious. They don’t cooperate with the other gods.
• Zeus sent Pandora to punish Prometheus’s creation, humans. Pandora is the one who released all manner of evil that we still haven’t been able to put back in that fateful box she opened. You know, things like sickness, death, and health insurance companies. Prometheus told me that he felt responsible for this, but could not think his way out of it.
To return to our theme from the first two episodes in this series, this God, Prometheus, can become a disease for Thinker-Planners.
In this case, our capacity for foresight, has become a disease because we are so caught up in plotting and controlling that we are no longer able to be present to the present, or to be present to our feelings. The head no longer communicates with the body. There is no circulation. And that’s a serious disease.
In our sessions Prometheus did eventually learn to let go of some control and cooperate with the other gods, rather than push against them. He also shared his gift of foresight with them. For this he was freed from that rock in hell and he was able to get back to work coaching humans in how to be civilized.
How does this translate into our practical lives? Our capacity to think ahead needs to work in harmony with other aspects our psyche—aspects such as leadership, work and relationships. It means not trying to figure things out in isolation, with just the head and not the soul. It also means learning to be present in the present, rather than always focusing on Being Prepared for the future.
Chidi: The Archetypal Good Boy Thinker-Planner
As a contrasting example I’ll turn to one of my favorite Thinker-Planners–the endearing and exasperating character Chidi from the television series, The Good Place. (He even has his own fan page.) I’ll describe him because his motivation, at least on the surface, was different from that of Prometheus, and he will give us a more diverse picture of what the Thinker-Planner can look like.
Chidi is the archetypal Good Boy, and is obsessed with controlling himself rather than the outer world.
He is a professor of ethics and morals so bogged down by wanting to do the right thing that he can’t do anything. He can’t commit to his best friend’s wedding, or decide which flavor muffin to get for breakfast. His girlfriend leaves him because he is so indecisive.
He’s over-conscientious. His strategy is different from Prometheus’s because he is more interested in moral perfectionism, self-control, than controlling others.
Chidi is always trying to perfect his behavior, and, as a result, is unable to live fully in the present or to be fully present to his feelings. Imagine that your eyes have become stuck, focused on an object one hundred yards away. You’re no longer aware of where you are, what you feel, or when it’s time for some good canoodling. He suffers from a disorder called “Directional Insanity.” He doesn’t really know where he is going. He once got lost on an escalator.
Life is one big out-of-body experience in the worse possible way for Chidi. Always wondering what the future effects of his behavior on the world would be, and unable to decide whether he wants the blueberry or cranberry muffin.
He ends up in the Bad Place because his attempts to be virtuous actually cause suffering to others. Over the course of the series, Chidi is able to enlist his skills in productive ways for his community and in learning to be more balanced. And, in the end he is able to make the ultimate decision about life, to learn direction, rather than go around eternally in circles.
Moving Toward Balance
If any of this feels familiar to you and you want to change, you will need to value action, completion and decisiveness over control and perfect decisions.
A basic rule of thumb about obsessing is to ask what feeling you’re trying to avoid. The feelings that I have observed clients avoiding most often are fear and shame at not being able to control a situation, and not being perfect. These are very disturbing feelings for people with OCP, but our best strategy is to sit side by side with those feelings of shame, expose ourselves to our fears, and accept imperfection as proof of our human condition. You can’t think your way out.
Try these tools instead:
• Break plans down into smaller steps. Celebrate the little victories.
• Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the realized. Cultivate respect for Good Enough.
• Keep in mind your priorities: proving your worth, or being healthy and fulfilled?
• Practice listening to, and with, your body. Move your center of gravity from your head to your gut. Improve circulation with other aspects of your psyche.
• Incorporate other, potentially beneficial aspects of the obsessive-compulsive personality.
Life is to be celebrated and savored, not calibrated and fixed.
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For a systematic guide to optimizing your driven personality, read my book, The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality.