In my last post I wrote about how people with obsessive and compulsive traits try to avoid anxiety by controlling the people and world around them. In this post I’ll focus on how they try to avoid anxiety by controlling themselves. This creates problems that are just as serious, such as repressing feelings, not even being aware of them, and starving relationships by holding back communication.
Let’s look at how this happens, an example, and what to do about it.
But first, for all the perfectionists out there who are distracted and disturbed by my not hyphenating “self control,” you have my empathy and my apologies. I hear your pain and I can relate. But it seems that if I want people to be able to find this post, Google’s algorithms dictate that I drop the hyphen.
I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I could possibly be so sloppy or inconsiderate to do such a thing as leave out a hyphen. But sometimes the world forces us into these terrible compromises and we just have to let go of proper self-control. I hope I’m setting a good example.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest we can move on.
The Beginnings of Self Control
Self control is the ability to restrain yourself from acting on emotions or physical urges. Self control is essential to getting along with others and reaching goals. We naturally learn early on that doing whatever we please doesn’t always work so well.
But this capacity to exercise self control may become exaggerated during childhood if our emotions and physical urges lead to us to do things that our caretakers don’t like. Finger painting on the wall, tantrums in the grocery store, justified counter-attacks on uncivilized siblings, and peeing in that fancy new outfit Mom just bought can lead to punishment that makes us become tight and hold back.
Worse, if feelings of affection or need are rebuffed, we begin to feel that our most basic emotional self makes us too vulnerable. We not only turn down needs and feelings so that others don’t hear them, we might even turn them down so low we can’t hear them ourselves.
Obsessive and Compulsive Defenses Against Feelings
This has happened to many people who have obsessive and compulsive traits. While they’re usually aware of discontent, anxiety and anger, they may not be aware of affection, appreciation, and connection—feelings which might make them feel too vulnerable or out of control.
And whether they are of aware of these feelings or not, they tend to restrict their expression.
They can recite their to-do list, express anger at the imperfections they see in others, and share their endless internal debates about whether to buy the green shirt or the teal shirt, but they often have difficulty acknowledging feelings that would allow them to be more connected with others.
When you aren’t aware of these feelings, or you don’t allow yourself to express them, you starve your relationships of the emotional exchange they need to thrive.
Like that dead houseplant you forgot to water.
What Self Control Can Look Like to Others
We can also come across in ways that we don’t intend. For instance, as a result of their restraint, compulsives may come across as:
- Rigid and cold
- Judgmental and critical
- Stiff and formal
- Socially detached or aloof
- Withholding of affection and compliments
To the degree that you inhibit or control your self-expression, you may unwittingly get people to experience you this way. Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be on the other end of that.
The problems caused by this presentation are magnified by the lack of awareness about how you might come across. You might assume people know how you feel when they don’t.
Poor Social Signaling
These are all examples of what’s known in psychology as poor social signaling.
One aspect of poor social signaling is the failure to communicate emotions:
- I was impressed with what a great job you did with that client today.
- I’m feeling really down (or happy) today.
- When you come home late it really makes me nervous.
- The risotto was delicious and you look so good I can’t wait to make love with you.
Compulsives tend to be concerned mostly with fixing problems and getting things done. Communicating about anything that doesn’t immediately push those projects forward is considered superfluous, and therefore a waste of energy. Compulsives can become so distracted that they only communicate about what they’re trying to correct or accomplish.
And this isn’t just about how many words you speak, or even the choice of words, but also the expression you put into them. Too much self control and others might hear your words but not the music, the tone that’s needed to communicate what you really feel.
Non-verbal aspects figure into this as well: facial expression, eye contact, and body posture communicate far more than we’re usually aware of. Too much self control makes us appear wooden.
Starving Relationships of Nutritious Communication
The less people see of the real you, the less safe they feel trusting you or getting close. If your self control keeps you from expressing how you really feel, others will sense that and will trust you less. This leads to distancing on their part, and then, naturally, you express yourself even less because you’ve become more anxious since they’ve distanced themselves. Etc., etc.
And when compulsives do express themselves, it may be more negative, direct and edgy than others feel comfortable with. Brutal honesty is considered conscientious. The fact that positive feelings are absent seems irrelevant.
Humor is often chiding, “teasing” others about their shortcomings from a holier-than-thou position.
The anxiety that often underlies the unhealthy obsessive-compulsive personality (OCPD) activates the sympathetic nervous system, hijacks emotional bandwidth, and diminishes your natural capacity to accurately read the feelings of others and to express your own feelings.
All of these tendencies work against having a healthy relationship.
Example: Andrew and Raphael
Andrew and Raphael had been married for ten years. Andrew was the more reserved one. He seldom expressed his feelings and instead downplayed them. “Yeah, I’ll be away on a business trip for 10 days. What’s the big deal?”
He was a perfectionist and didn’t give compliments easily…if at all. He criticized Raphael for not hyphenating “self control.” Andrew would never not hyphenate self-control.
Raphael was more exuberant and spontaneous. He let Andrew know what he felt. And while Andrew would roll his eyes about that, Raphael’s communication made the relationship easier for him because he knew where Raphael stood, and that he was loved and respected.
Andrew’s lack of expression, on the other hand, made things hard for Raphael: he felt like he couldn’t make Andrew happy, and he felt insecure because of it. Perhaps worse, he felt disconnected. With time he became more angry than insecure.
When Raphael tried to talk about it, Andrew thought he was being critical. He didn’t understand that Raphael really liked to make Andrew happy and he was frustrated because he couldn’t do it.
Andrew made a lot of assumptions about how he came across. “Don’t you know I love you? Why do you need me to say it all the time?”
Put simply, in the terms of the five love languages, Andrew knew only one: acts of service. Words of affirmation, quality time, receiving and giving gifts, and physical touch were all neglected.
He had been taking Raphael for granted, and when Raphael finally said he couldn’t tolerate it anymore, Andrew woke up. Not all compulsives wake up so easily, but he knew on some level that he loved and needed Raphael.
Welcoming Feelings and Increasing Expression
Improving the situation wasn’t as simple as teaching Andrew to use the other love languages. While those were important, Andrew also needed to know what made it hard for him to use those languages. It required intention, honesty with himself, and the willingness to be vulnerable by releasing some self control.
Here are some of the steps Andrew took over time. Many of them he actually put on his daily to-do list.
- Acknowledged that what he felt was not what he expressed
- Acknowledged that it was not unreasonable for others to want him to convey more of what he felt
- Monitored how affectionate feelings made him feel anxious
- Tuned in to feelings other than discontent, including ones that made him feel vulnerable
- Noticed how self control and tension in his body restricted what he expressed
- Whenever he had a positive thought he expressed it. He counted how many positive thoughts he could express each day.
- He learned to laugh with Raphael about how silly his self control could be, especially the hyphenated variety.
It helped that Raphael acknowledged that he had his own issues to work on, including taking things personally, dependence, and people pleasing. And he was willing to work on these.
Change was gradual for Andrew, and he never became the life of the party. But it was enough for Raphael to feel more loved, and for Andrew to feel more alive.
If you’re the non-compulsive partner in a relationship, you may find this previous post helpful: How To Get Along With a Partner Who Has OCPD (Compulsive Personality).