Since we’re beginning a new year, I thought it might be a good time to step back and look at the big picture.
What’s most important and what are our priorities? This is especially crucial for people with obsessive-compulsive personalities, whose real values can get lost when their temperament collides with psychological challenges.
In my initial consultation with new clients I usually ask, “What’s most important to you?” I’m no longer surprised when they’re surprised by the question and come up blank. It confirms my hypothesis that one of the causes of the unhealthy compulsive personality is a failure to name and live in accord with one’s values and priorities.
Even when people can name priorities such as family, well-being or fulfillment, look more closely and you’ll see that their behavior indicates that something else is at the top of their list.
It’s not unusual to lose track of the things that mean the most while trying to survive practically and emotionally. But that loss of order can get particularly bad when compulsive superpowers such as working hard, precision, and control are enlisted not in service to the goals that give our lives meaning, but to reassure ourselves that we’re okay–worthy, respectable, or loveable.
If the avoidance of psychological insecurity takes the lead as the new priority, original, more fulfilling goals sink far down the list, and our priorities are no longer in order.
Priorities Out of Order
For instance, the fulfillment of making art tumbles a few notches when internet metrics rise to the top of the list of priorities to reassure ourselves that the art is good. The desire for close connections slips down when we begin to control the other person to feel more secure. The much-needed rest from a vacation loses priority when the trip has to be picture perfect.
Rarely do people begin therapy by telling me that their goal in life is to prove their worth to the world and to themselves, or to feel secure by controlling the world around them—though that’s partly how they’re living. It usually comes to the surface with time.
The most obvious example of losing sight of priorities happens when the primary breadwinner in the family spends so much time at work (ostensibly to provide for the family), that their connections with their partner and children suffer. Their need to work long hours may have more to do with self-esteem than family.
And the primary caregiver may lose sight of wanting their children to be happy when they focus on their academic or athletic success.
And when a partner focuses more on keeping order in the apartment than having a loving relationship and peaceful home, their priorities are out of order.
Keeping the Blog in Order
Or, as another example of how things could get out of order, let’s look at my original intentions in writing this blog. I wanted to explore the world of the compulsive personality, help people be healthier compulsives, and experience the gratification of writing.
I find it really satisfying to put words in an order that can be helpful to others.
But, let’s say that I felt insecure and my goal changed to propping up my self-esteem by getting higher Google rankings. My priorities then would be out of order. I’d press myself to post more often and I’d feel oppressed and rushed. I wouldn’t get the gratification of putting words in a pleasing order. Quality would go down so neither I nor my readers would experience the benefits that come with my original intentions.
If I can maintain this blog without losing the order of my priorities, that’s great. But not if I forget my goal and my original priorities fall down the list.
Loss of Gratification of the Original Goal
Loss of our original aspirations causes at least three cross-reinforcing problems:
• We become rigid, rule-bound, overworked and over-controlling because we feel things need to be a certain way. .
• We fail to get the gratification of our original goals.
• The lack of gratification then drives us to more unhealthy compulsive behavior.
The original aspiration, which may be experienced as a compelling urge, is not in itself the problem. If the original intent is gratified in a healthy way, we are less likely to enter into the sort of unhealthy compulsive behavior that makes us sick and hurts our relationships.
Our new dog Bodhi recently gave me an example of this principle. Bodhi is a 90-pound, 11-month-old Labrador retriever. Notice the retriever part. We’ll come back to that.
Bodhi is a going to be a great dog. He’s not anxious and he loves everyone. But he’s still young, and if we leave him alone in the kitchen or back yard for a little while he starts eating the cupboards or digging holes. Taking him for walks helped…Some. Play-dates with other dogs helped…Some.
But what really did the trick was spending half an hour a day at a big, open field playing fetch. Retrieving. This is who he is and what’s important to him. He can love, but he also needs to work.
This is what nature and hundreds of years of breeding built him for. When he’s able to do the thing he feels compelled to do, his original, healthy intention, he settles down and stops the unhealthy compulsions, chewing the cupboards and digging holes.
Using The Need for Order To Support Priorities
I’ve always found it ironic that OCPD is a disorder based on the need to have things in order.
While the desire to put things in order can push us toward the unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum, it’s also the key to living a more satisfying life.
We need to use our potential strengths consciously and deliberately to make sure that we don’t get off course. If you naturally drive 80 miles an hour rather than 40 miles an hour, as most compulsives do, you can get where you want to go faster. But you can also get further off course more quickly if you aren’t paying attention.
If the energy and need for order is invested in putting priorities in order, we have a chance at being healthy compulsives.
Getting Lost and Returning—The Archetypal Theme
This loss of priorities is very human. Many great stories tell us about people getting pushed off their course, and, sometimes, how they get back on. In the end, things might not work out just as they expected, but the original intent can still be honored. This is the drama that’s at the heart of becoming a healthier compulsive.
So, if you’re starting to get the feeling that you got lost somewhere along the way, you’re not alone. The theme of getting lost and returning home is a common one in literature.
Think of the Greek hero Odysseus: he went away to war and took ten years to find his way home to his wife and son. There were lots of distractions on his trip home: mythical beasts, irate Gods, sex, and drugs. Odysseus didn’t completely forget what was most important to him, but other things kept getting in his way.
Then there’s the story of the prodigal son in the bible. He went away, forgot what was important, and returned to be enthusiastically welcomed by his father.
And most mid-life crisis films are about remembering what’s most important, and making decisions based on that realization.
We only have a disorder when we get stuck in a place where our values are not honored.
The Value of Returning
So we don’t need to pathologize this veering away from what’s most important. It seems almost baked into us—a necessary chapter in realizing who we really are. Maybe we need to forget what’s important before we can truly appreciate it.
Sometimes it might seem that we do need to change priorities. Some youthful goals are best confined to our youth. But I suspect that there is still something buried beneath the premature steps that calls for our attention in a mature form, informed by everything we’ve been through since then.
The important thing is always coming back. In meditation we find an anchor such as the breath and each time we return to it is a small victory. Losing concentration and our priorities is inevitable. Returning to them is one of the most fulfilling things we can do.
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