I was working with a client recently when we realized that his ideals had become commandments. What had originally seemed simply like the best ways to do things had become decrees, followed with absolute religious commitment, as if his salvation was at stake. These commandments had helped him succeed in his career, but they made him unhappy and caused problems in his relationship.
This isn’t unusual. And it’s understandable. It’s neither intentional nor conscious, but commandments can give us a sense of assurance that we’re doing The Right Thing. And for many of us, that’s A Big Thing.
Rules, Commandments and Religion
Commandments imply objective truth. The etymology of the word refers to an order from an authority. When we adopt commandments, there is an implication that we’re signing on to a moral insurance plan backed by the powers that be. But who is this authority and why do we give it so much power?
We can’t avoid a discussion of religion at this point. It seems to be a natural function of the psyche to seek transcendent meaning. Which is not to say it always goes well, but that it’s more engrained, both socially and genetically, than you might think.
Many people do not consider themselves religious these days, but it seems that when there is no concrete, conscious choice of religion, another set of values rushes in to fill the vacuum. Perfection is just one of many that can take over this religious instinct. It could also be sex, money or pickleball.
As Bob Dylan warned us, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
So, while I could just go on about The 10 Most Popular Compulsive Rules, I’ve chosen to pontificate about commandments instead because I believe that what we might call rules often take up more space and take on a deeper dimension than the term “rule” would imply. Commandments become far more absolute and intractable. To simply call them rules misses their severity.
Rules are created to help us live in a safe, predictable and efficient world. Rules seem human-made, and therefore, changeable. So, rules don’t carry the same weight as commandments.
Commandments take on a life of their own. They answer to no one. And they really hate it when we answer “no” to them.
But we still follow these commandments with the hope that doing so proves that we’re good, that we haven’t crossed over to the dark side and become sofa spuds. They serve a function, but not one that Oprah would put on a list of healthy life strategies. The commandments that we adopt are defensive, protecting us against real or imagined charges of lethargy, weakness and depravity.
(I’m not referring to the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While we could have a discussion about how people understand and live those, in this post I’m writing about commandments that we create.)
The Ten Commandments of the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality
Based on personal and professional observations, here’s my best guess as to what the commandments that people with OCP adopt most often are:
- I will never make mistakes.
- I will always keep things in order and I will never leave a mess.
- I will always be productive and I will never waste time.
- I will never waste money.
- I will always do what I say I will do.
- I will always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter who it hurts, so help me God.
- I will never be late. Even if it doesn’t matter.
- I will never let others get away with doing or saying the wrong thing (partners and bad drivers beware).
- I will never disappoint others.
- I will always complete my work before relaxing.
There are of course differences among people with obsessive-compulsives tendencies. Those who are more obsessive might say “I will never start a project until I know it can be perfect.” Those who are more compulsive would say “I will never finish a project until it is perfect.” Both have their commandments.
These commandments constitute The Compulsive Bible, the instructions we live by–no matter what.
The Poisonwood Commandments
There’s a good story about this. In her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the tale of Nathan Price, a Baptist minister whose mission to enforce God’s commandments drove him and his family on a painful journey through Africa. I should say, his version of God’s commandments drove them there. The result is a morality tale for people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Price deserts his battalion after being injured in battle in WWII and is the only one who survives. He concludes that he’s a coward, and, after the war, gets religion in a big way. He tries to compensate for his cowardice by becoming a preacher, a soldier of the Lord, fearlessly brandishing commandments like a sword wherever he sees iniquity.
Upon arrival in Africa, his family is treated to a feast and celebration by the natives. Price returns the favor by quoting scripture and preaching against the sin of nakedness—this to a crowd where most of the small children have no clothes, and the women haven’t gotten the email about covering their breasts. Damn the relationships. Commandments rule.
As his daughter Rachel says, “Father would sooner watch us all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself.” This is because he believes his commandments arrived plug-and-play directly from God. And, because he needs to prove himself worthy after abandoning his comrades in the war, he executes his commandments with the intensity of someone desperate for refuge from the self-attack of a shark-infested conscience.
In his efforts to speak the native language, Kikongo, he uses a word which can mean “precious.” But the way he uses it it means “poisonwood.” So, when he says, “Tata Jesus is Bangala!” He thinks he’s saying “Father Jesus is Precious!”, but instead says “Father Jesus is Poisonwood!” Poisonwood is a type of sumac tree that causes a painful, itchy rash. Make a bible out of that and you’re in for trouble.
In psychoanalysis we call this a Freudian slip—the “accident” has meaning, intended by the unconscious, not by consciousness. It reveals his reverence for suffering. He confuses the tree that causes so much pain with that which is precious. He loses track of what’s really important (precious) and preaches the gospel of poisonwood (suffering). His daughter wrote years later, “I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible.”
That’s the point about the Poisonwood Bible—it’s his version of The Good News and the Ten Commandments, not God’s. And it hurts anyone who touches it.
Price conducts all of his relationships, and delivers all his sermons, with the cluelessness and insensitivity of a lobotomized reptile.
He urges members of his “congregation” to get baptized in the river—oblivious to the fact that the river is infested with crocodiles, and children have already been had for dinner there far too many times. Price decided that it was a commandment to be baptized in a river. Nothing else would do.
The family meets another missionary who clearly has a different interpretation of the Bible. He’s committed to serving the local people rather than converting them. He’s a backslider in Price’s opinion. But Kingsolver sends us a message: religion doesn’t have to go down Price’s Poisonwood way.
Price took things that seemed ideal to him, things that may have been beneficial to some folks back in Georgia, and made globalized, absolute commands out of them.
It can be ideal to have a spiritual perspective, to try to live with virtue, to spread good news and to be of assistance. Maybe it’s not even a bad idea to host a ritual like baptism wherein people feel rejuvenated and cleansed of their sins by simply getting dunked in the water. But Price converts these ideals into commandments.
He presents classic OCPD symptoms at the furthest end of the healthy-unhealthy spectrum. He’s the bossy type, to boot. He justifies his domineering, rigid style with his role as father and minister. Stubborn as all get out, he keeps the family in Africa long after it’s clear it’s become too dangerous and they should be heading home. He converts no-one. He alienates everyone. Including his family.
Here’s the takeaway for people with obsessive-compulsive personality: don’t confuse your ideals with an objective absolute that applies to everyone in all situations. Kingsolver helps us to vicariously and viscerally experience the suffering that results when we follow rules literally and rigidly. In the same way that she describes a Congo colonized by westerners with tragic consequences, I see individuals and families that are colonized by commandments not native or natural to them–with equally tragic consequences.
Most of us are repelled by the sort of proselytizing Nathan Price did. But if we turn our own ideals into commandments with the expectation that others will comply and that we’ll feel more secure, are we any different?
The Need for Commandments
Why would anyone do this to themselves, to set such harsh standards? I’ve already mentioned one possibility. I’ll add two more.
• In order to compensate for a sense of moral defectiveness.
• To pre-empt criticism or attacks from other moral police.
• A lack of trust in oneself. If you don’t trust yourself to behave appropriately you bolt yourself down with commandments so that you don’t go flying off to Partyland with the Kardashians.
I would suggest questioning each of these motivations:
• Do you really need to prove your virtue? And if so, to whom?
• Do you really want to give over so much power to keep from getting in trouble with people who themselves have been commandeered by commandments?
• Are you really so depraved that you need to wear a moral chastity belt to stay out of trouble?
My role as a therapist is not to tell people what their ideals, rules or commandments should be. But it is to help them sort out these possibilities consciously. So here are a few questions to ask yourself. I suggest writing out your reflections so you can keep your focus.
• Do I live by ideals or commandments? What are my top 10?
• How did I arrive at them? Is there an objective basis for them?
• Do they serve integrity, or insecurity?
• Do they lead me to wellbeing, or dissatisfaction?
• What keeps me hanging on to them?
To slightly paraphrase Albert Camus, “Integrity has no need of commandments.” Neither does fulfillment.