Key to becoming a healthier compulsive is identifying the type of obsessive-compulsive personality (OCP) that you inhabit most of the time.
If you start watching, you may realize that you gravitate toward certain clusters of personality traits and behaviors within the larger cluster of obsessive-compulsive personality traits. And that realization is good. People can be very different and still meet the DSM-5 criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). It’s helpful to know that you’re in the general state of OCPD, but even more helpful to know which neighborhood you’re in.
I’ve outlined four obsessive-compulsive types in a previous post, [podcast episode 8] and if you haven’t read it yet you might want to because it’s Really Good. But despite how enlightening it is, it’s not complete. The subject is so important it merits a separate post for each type, and I’m going to proceed accordingly. My hope is that you’ll recognize which of the four aspects of the compulsive personality you use the most, and read the other posts as well so that you get to know those which you have not developed yet.
Here they are, with a slash separating the healthy from the unhealthy version:
- Teacher-Leader/Bully or Tyrant
- Server-Friend/People Pleaser
- Thinker-Planner/Obsesser and Procrastinator
Each of these four types has at its core natural, potentially beneficial traits, traits that are sometimes hijacked to prop up insecurity, and are then used in unhealthy ways. For instance, someone who is a natural leader may become a bully if they fear that beneath their bravura they’re really inadequate.
While there is overlap between each of these types, different types emphasize different aspects of the compulsive personality, each using perfectionism and control to try to manage their world and their anxiety in their own way. Which type you usually inhabit may change over time and with circumstances.
Ideally someone with OCP examines themselves and integrates at least some aspects of each of the types—motivated not so much by insecurity but by desire to achieve meaningful goals. Knowing which of the types you don’t normally inhabit can give you a sense of what you need to cultivate to be healthier and more balanced.
In the next four posts I will go into more detail about the perils and possibilities of each of these types. I’ll refer to the obsessive-compulsive personality as OCP, intentionally leaving out the “D” for Disorder, as not everyone with an obsessive-compulsive personality has a disorder, but might be described as “subclinical” if they have fewer than 4 of the symptoms of OCPD. Others may even have an obsessive-compulsive personality but use all of their traits in a healthy way.
Qualities of The Teacher-Leader
The Teacher-Leader has a great deal to offer. They can exercise authority productively and compassionately. Think of Moses, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela—all three of whom used their remarkable energy and determination to free their people.
Healthy Teacher-Leaders are typically decisive and are willing to take risks—which is not typical of most compulsives. They cultivate their opinions and share them. They can be centered in themselves, know what they want, and pursue it. They enlist their well-developed sense of right and wrong for the benefit of the community, and will take a strong stand when they need to. Like good prophets, priests and police, they ideally make contributions to their community through their leadership.
In the hands of someone like the Reverend Martin Luther King, compulsive determination finds its meaning. King was known to be diligent, persistent, resolute, a constant planner, and unbending in his ideals. He could not stop his march to achieve justice, even though he was well aware of the danger in which it placed him.
He was compelled by an inner urge to fight for justice.
“If you can’t fly then run,
if you can’t run then walk,
if you can’t walk then crawl,
but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
That’s a good example of the determination characteristic of a healthy compulsive leader.
Teacher-Leaders can also be great mentors. If they’re at the healthier end of the OCP spectrum, the Teacher-Leader helps others to become more actualized. They are authoritative (not authoritarian!) in their support of others. While their results might not seem as dramatic, collectively they gradually shape our world by educating the next generation.
Mentor or Bully? Dangers for the Teacher-Leader
But Teacher-Leaders are also the ones that are most likely of the four types to cause suffering for others. Too often they are reluctant to self-examine. Most of the complaints that I’ve read and heard about people with OCPD are about this type. In fact, many people circulate the erroneous and destructive idea that this is the only type of compulsive there is. This just isn’t true.
While the other three types of compulsives keep busy trying to perfect themselves in some way, the Teacher-Leader focuses on at least correcting, if not perfecting, others.
If he or she is on the unhealthy end of the spectrum, the Teacher-Leader becomes authoritarian, a cruel tyrant or bully, trying to fashion others into what they think they should be, through rigid rules, criticism and control. This has been referred to at times as the externalizing compulsive subtype. They see problems as outside of themselves. They blame habitually.
The DSM-5 describes over-conscientiousness as one symptom of OCPD. In the Teacher-Leader it may manifest as righteousness or sanctimoniousness, a Holier-Than-Thou attitude. This supposed moral superiority leads them to feel justified in their domination of others.
Authoritarian Control Breeds Anxiety and More Control
Elevating themselves this way actually sets them up for more problems, because then they may feel, even if they are unaware of it, more pressure to be perfect. And if anyone else gets in the way of them being perfect, watch out! This can manifest in road rage because they fear being late and getting less work done, in persecutorial parenting if they fear their kids keep them from feeling like the perfect mother or father, or in belligerent bullying of employees if they fear those employees will tarnish their reputation as effective and productive managers.
So you see the problem: they try to ameliorate their anxiety about not being perfect by trying to control others, which only makes them more vulnerable, which makes them control more which….You get the picture.
They’re usually not aware of how they came to be who they are. They assume that they are “right,” unaware that controlling others is just a strategy they developed to deal with their insecurity. It’s not good stewardship of the skills they have to offer.
These compulsives may be confused with narcissists. Narcissists need to feel special. Compulsives need to feel that they are good—in the moral sense. Narcissists are unwilling to work for their admiration. Compulsives work endlessly to feel that they are not falling short. For more on the distinction between the two, see my post on the differences. [podcast episode 10]
Whether you are the Teacher-Leader type, or are partnered with one, here’s the important thing to remember: they often feel responsible for taking care of others, fear that they aren’t up to it (understandably because they set unrealistic goals), and go into overdrive trying to make sure everyone is as they should be. They bully when they feel anxious.
The Gods Have Become Diseases
My first clinical example is someone you’re probably familiar with. Zeus, Bully-In-Chief of the Greek gods. I’ll be using these ancient figures to illustrate the essence of three of the four compulsive types. These gods represent foundational aspects of the human personality. These characters have endured for thousands of years for a reason: they are us. Or, at least, parts of us.
But there’s another reason I’ll be using gods and goddesses to demonstrate these types. Psychiatrist Carl Jung famously said, “The gods have become diseases,” and that certainly applies to OCPD. What Jung meant by that is that these archetypes, these powerful psychological forces, once revered but now disparaged, have taken forms that pull our psychology down into neurotic symptoms. Recovery requires that we seek out the god that has been offended and find its proper place in our lives.
I should know. I’ve worked with many of the Greek gods and their diseases. Seriously. I was on their insurance provider panel for a few years and so a lot of them came to me for therapy. The panel was called the Mount Olympus Preferred Plan, referred to affectionately by its acronym, MOPP. It paid really badly, and the paperwork was a total drag, but I thought it might be interesting.
And it was.
Zeus Shows Up for His Session
Anyway, Zeus is the god or archetype at the core of the Teacher-Leader type of OCPD. He sought out therapy because his wife Hera had complained that he was throwing thunderbolts at everyone, and I mean everyone, who wasn’t perfect. And that’s a lot of people. It was clear that this was getting to be a serious problem when he accidentally hit the guy delivering the wine and they all had to go sober for 12 days. Nor was Hera pleased at his extramarital escapades with other women.
So he came to therapy—ostensibly–to get his wife off his case.
But he eventually admitted that he was also upset that he couldn’t control everything. He felt that he should be able to. And he wondered if I might be able to help with that.
Zeus and I spoke about his frustration with how sloppy everyone else was and how difficult they made his job. Eventually he was able to open up about the many affairs he had, and to acknowledge that beneath his bravado he was really quite insecure. Something about all his children wanting to overthrow him and usurp his role. Talk about a control freak! He would literally eat his kids before losing any power to them! His peccadillos made him feel better for about 15 minutes, but then it was back to reality.
Zeus was no easy client, but, to make an epic story short, he eventually had to acknowledge the negative impact his control was having on himself, his marriage, and all of his parishioners. He had to recall the real purpose of his role as leader of Olympus, and sort out what he was doing that was extraneous and noxious from that which was beneficial. No-one expected him to control everything. Like many compulsives, he had an outsized sense of responsibility and misread what others expected of him.
He had to sit with his fears of losing control, and to ask whether it was worth it to him to continue being such a dictator. He never gave it up completely, but he did learn to negotiate with the other gods, and to separate his personal needs for security from his role as leader. He only threw thunderbolts when he really needed to. And that was a pretty big win.
Leading, Governing and Managing
Jesting aside, the Teacher-Leader has the potential to do great damage. Especially when they are in leadership positions. Think nuclear thunderbolts.
In the same essay about the Gods becoming diseases, Jung also wrote, “Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.” [Emphasis added.]
I believe that what he meant by this was that the part of the human psyche that Zeus represented was no longer acknowledged or respected, and was lived unconsciously, wielding power recklessly. This is painfully true in the case of the Teacher-Leader compulsive. For without awareness of their own psychology, they oppress others with their need to control. Especially when they have political positions, they have immense power to try to remake the world as they think it should be, and in doing so they let loose psychic epidemics on the world.
On a smaller scale, Teacher-Leaders have potential to be great managers by taking interest in their employees, giving them constructive feedback, and helping them flourish.
But too often we hear about bosses who unconsciously identify with Zeus and lord over their employees with denigration while withholding encouragement and appreciation.
The healthy Teacher-Leader can bring decisiveness, direction, and positive feedback to a relationship. If shared from a personal position like “Here’s what I see,” rather than an authoritarian one, such as “Listen to me,” their suggestions can help their partner grow. This is why couples therapists encourage clients to speak in “I” statements rather than “you” statements.
But an unhealthy Teacher-Leader can wreak havoc on their partner. In the worse cases they totally undermine their partner’s confidence by consistently telling them they are wrong and that they can’t even see it. While not intentional, in effect this is gaslighting. As I’ve explored in a previous series of posts, someone who is obsessive-complulsive and enters a relationship thinking they are a rescuer, can become a persecutor, and both end up feeling like victims. (For ideas about how to get along with someone who has OCPD read this post.)
The Teacher-Leader parent is, potentially, a huge boon to a child. Their attention and concern can help educate the child and give them direction. Again, this is best done from a personal, subjective perspective, such as, “I remember when I was failing math. I was totally lost and totally embarrassed. Here’s how I handled it,” rather than dictating from above.
Kids rarely look to their parents for teaching in the formal, professorial sense. If the Teacher-Leader has children with the dream of raising a new and improved clone of him or herself, of passing on everything they’ve figured out, both parent and child are in for a very rough ride. Children look to their parents as models. But spare them the lecture. It will only backfire.
As I’ve pointed out in a previous post on the dangers of Type-A parenting, we may need to grieve our fantasies of shaping a child “in our own image.” If that bit about “in our own image” sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. That’s what God did. To do so as humans is inflated.
Achieving Balance: What’s Important and What’s Forgotten
The unhealthy Teacher-Leader has forgotten what’s most important. They may crush the very people they would assure you they’re trying to help.
Here are some suggestions to find a better balance:
• Ask whether your directions to others are actually helping, and whether those directions might be more accurately applied to yourself.
• Ask what the limits of your responsibility and control are.
• Ask whether you have insecurities that you are trying to compensate for, or anxieties that you are trying to calm. How good do you need to be?
• Cultivate the capacity to be more receptive to the ideas and feelings of others, to follow, as the Server-Friend type does.
• Consider whether you are accomplishing enough yourself, cultivating your own projects as the Worker-Doer does.
• Consider whether you take enough time to reflect as the Thinker-Planner does.
• Be willing to consider that other people may experience you very differently from how you feel you are behaving. What may feel like only a deliberate voice to you, may sound like yelling to another person.
If you have natural leadership or teaching abilities, cultivate them consciously. Don’t let Zeus take them over.
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