Composer John Cage reputedly said, “I don’t like elevator music, but I’d be better off if I did.” Coming from such a radically avant garde composer, this says a lot.
The composition he prized the most, and probably his most famous, is 4’33,” (1952). He instructs the performer to not play their instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds (or however long they wish to “make” silence) while they’re on stage. His goal was to help listeners appreciate any sounds that occurred during the performance as music. Steeped in Zen, Cage was encouraging us to be open to our experience, whatever it is.
Dang. That would be real nice.
According to the DSM-5, OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) is characterized by a pre-occupation with orderliness and perfectionism at the expense of flexibility and openness. We tend to focus on the orderliness and perfectionism, not so much on the fact that they annihlate flexibility and openness. So today I want to look at just how expensive the loss of flexibility and openness is.
By openness I mean that we at least allow, if not welcome, unexpected situations, rather than closing down and resisting them mentally and physically. You’re open when you think, “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” You’re closed when your shoulders go up, your mood goes down, and you say “NO, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING. I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO STOP OR FIX IT.”
Lack of openness and inflexibility are both emotionally and practically expensive. It can cost us days, weeks or months of peace of mind if we continue to resist something that isn’t as we think it should be. And how many good ideas, great pieces of music, and innovative solutions to problems with in-laws have we missed out on because we dismissed them too quickly?
For what it’s worth, according to research psychologist Pawel A. Atroszko, OCPD appears to produce the highest direct and indirect medical costs among all the personality disorders because its emphasis on perfectionism and productivity leads to significant depression and burnout.
Some people, when they don’t like their experience, try to fix it. Others give up and get depressed. Others get angry. All three methods close us off to our experiencen of the world–and of ourselves.
The Cost of Not Being Open to Experience
This happens in regard to both mundane experiences and more serious ones. Here are some examples, along with the cost of being closed. First the mundane:
• Your 10-year-old daughter spills her milk. You scold her and miss the opportunity to laugh and bond with her, and to use it as a teaching opportunity about how to put things in perspective.
• A colleague is late for a meeting. You fume, miss the opportunity to breathe as you wait, and miss the next 27 minutes of the meeting because you’re distracted by your rightheous resentment.
• You meet someone for the first time and find their politics, well, unconventional. You put up a wall and miss the opportunity to be friends with someone who’s really intersting and enriches your thinking.
• You get so frustrated with customer service you unceremoniously hang up on them to teach them a lesson before they’ve had a chance to solve your problem. You miss the opportunity to get help and have to pay for it elsewhere.
• You encounter road construction and traffic. You focus on the idiot who decided to do this during rush hour and miss the trees’ colorful, ecstatic celebration of falling into their winter rest.
And now the more serious experiences:
• The contractor repairing your bathroom decides he needs to go to Puerto Rico for two weeks just after ripping it all apart. You call the Better Business Bureau in a rage and miss the psychological and medical benefits of understanding and forgiveness: it turns out he’s going to visit his child who lives there with his grandmother and has a grave illness.
• Your computer stops breathing. You get so distressed that you rush it to the local computer urgent care. You find out the problem was with the electrical plug in your home, not the computer. You’ve lost two hours, and missed this as a sign from the gods that you’ve been spending far too much time entranced by the glass, plastic and tin oxide we call a computer screen, and that your whole psychological energy system isn’t turning you on anymore.
• Your presentation doesn’t feel ready for the meeting tomorrow. You cancel dinner with your fiance (again) so you can work on it. That’s the abandonment that breaks the camel’s back and she calls off the engagement.
Typically, people who have obsessive-compulsive personality sweat, swear, and swerve, rather than laugh or get curious when things aren’t just right. After all, Things are supposed to be A Certain Way. And if they’re not, someone needs to be blamed and punished because it indicates some moral shortcoming on their part. Could be you. Could be the other person. Doesn’t matter. Justice needs to be done and you can’t rest until then.
That’s very expensive.
Benefits of Inflexibility
There are times when it’s not good to be open or flexible. After all, your skepticism kept you from falling prey to that scam about a free, luxury trip to Turks and Caicos that you would have gotten simply in exchange for your social security number.
And there are times to fight the things that are not Just Right. Most obsessive-compulsive traits have benefits in their original form, and being stubborn serves well when standing up for yourself, your family or community. As I point out in my book, much of the good that’s been done in the world has been done by people with obsessive-compulsive personalities.
But a lot of the bad as well.
Openness to Experience: The Research
Let’s visit the land of psychological research to see how expensive it is to be closed. Openness to Experience is one of just five factors that comprise the aptly named Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality, the map of the human personality most commonly used in studies. The other factors are neuroticism (or emotional instability vs. stability), extraversion (vs. introversion), agreeableness (vs. antagonism), and conscientiousness (or constraint vs. disinhibition).
(To get a description of your personality according to the Five-Factor Model you can take a self-test here.)
Since it constitutes one fifth of the FFM, Openness to Experience comprises a substantial portion of your personality. It describes a wide range of loosely related traits, including tolerance of ambiguity, low dogmatism, need for variety, aesthetic sensitivity, absorption, unconventionality, intellectual curiosity, and intuition. The abundant research indicates that this factor determines a great deal about us.
Openness to Experience is about your interface with the world: your reaction to everything and everyone you come into contact with. That’s a lot.
There are advantages of being aware of this factor: it’s as if you have to take a test (Life, that is) and there are just five subject areas that you need to know to do well. One of them is to be open to different ways of seeing things.
Is that worth studying for?
Openness to Experience as explored in the Five-Factor Model is slightly different from what I want to focus on today. The FFM describes the degree of intellectual curiosity and creativity we have, and seems to focus on openness to new experience. But I would suggest that it’s also related to openness to everyday things being different from what we expect them to be.
R U So Zen?
When people say, “Yeah, she was so Zen about it,” what they usually mean is that the person who ran into some disaster was not reactive. They might have responded, but they didn’t throw the remote at the television because they didn’t like what the announcer (or the politician or the athlete or the artist) had to say. They might respond with curiosity or empathy for them being so uninformed, or even interest in their own intense reaction to the offending announcer. But they hold their fire with the clicker. They’re open to their experience.
In another emoji-deserving research finding, some long-time Buddhist practitioners did not flinch when a gun was fired next to them as they meditated.
Part of their secret is that they’ve identified aversion as one of the three poisons in life. (The other two being craving and ignorance.) That means that they systematically practice not responding negatively to things they might have dismissed with disgust before.
Zen originally meant meditation or quietude. While I don’t like the way this spiritual term has been co-opted, I can see the connection. People meditate in quietude to practice being open to experience. This helps in passing the Life Test.
The Old Zen Farmer: Who Knows?
Zen practitioners also tell a story that helps them to be open rather than react with aversion to disappointments in life.
There once was an old Zen farmer whose horse worked his fields and kept him company on their long days for 10 years.
But one day the horse disappeared. His neighbors said, “We’re so sorry to hear this. This is such bad luck.”
But the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”
The villagers decided he was wacko, but harmless, and chose to ignore his obvious obliviousness.
Seven weeks went by and then one morning the farmer looked up to see his horse galloping toward him, grinning from ear to ear, along with ten new close horse friends, also grinning from ear to ear.
His neighbors came by to congratulate the farmer and said, “Wow! This is such good luck!”
But the farmer responded, “Good luck. Bad luck. Who knows?”
A few weeks later, the farmer’s son came over to visit and help his father work on the farm. While trying to tame one of the horses, the son fell and broke his leg.
The villagers came by to commiserate and said, “How awful. This is such bad luck.”
Just as he did the first time, the farmer responded, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”
A month later, the farmer’s son was still recovering. He wasn’t able to walk or do any manual labor to help his father around the farm.
An army regiment came marching through town, drafting every able-bodied young man to join them. When the regiment came to the farmer’s house and saw the young man’s broken leg, they spat with disdain, marched past and left without him.
Of course, all the villagers came by and said, “Amazing! This is such good luck. You’re so fortunate.”
And of course, he said, “Bad luck. Good luck. Who knows?”
As usual, the farmer was really Zen. He was open to experience. He didn’t conclude events were disasters when others did.
There are times when saying “Who Knows?” would be Pollyannish and insensitive. There’s no silver lining if your child dies. But often we don’t know how it will turn out. And, according to Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert, we usually handle it better than we imagined we would.
It’s Not Just Right
But here’s what makes being Zen so difficult. Many with OCPD struggle with a related research construct, “Not Just Right Experiences” (NJREs). NJREs are the enemy of Openness To Experience.
Cue the dark music with trombones and timpani approaching in a pounding, menacing minor key. The threatening NJREs manifest as feelings of distress lurching up from within and declaring war on whatever you’re experiencing. Any efforts to be open are rebuffed with justifications ranging from “The edges aren’t straight,” to “This is a violation of The Right Way to Park at Wendy’s.”
NJREs are the bad guys that threaten the good guys trying to be openminded. Not Just Right Experience is the feeling of discomfort we have when anything is slightly off, whether it’s the salmon a tad overcooked, the pencil that needs sharpening, or the potential partner whose hair is a little too thin to be considered seriously as a mate. NJREs produce distress and urge us to fix or reject things that aren’t Just Right.
Most of the research that’s done on the subject is in regard to people with OCD, not OCPD, which seems unfair to those with OCPD. It’s par for the course, but still, it’s Just Not Right.
So, I channeled my indignation and wrote to Thomas Fergus, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Baylor University who researches NJREs. I asked him if the concept would also apply to those with OCPD. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my question and confirmed that it would apply to them as well.
But I suspect that there are differences between the two in how they handle NJREs. OCDers are less likely to believe the sensation that things aren’t just right. They may detest it as a nuisance, even if they succumb to it by trying to fix it. But OCPDers might take it further, believe the disturbing feeling that something is Really Wrong, and react with aversion to situations that don’t deserve aversion—like silence when they’re expecting music–making the life of the averter a little more impoverished each time. OCPDers are also, I suspect, more likely to get angry–rather than just anxious–when things aren’t just right.
Making it Right
But don’t despair. That too would be a Not Just Right Experience. As with their very close cousin, perfectionism, NJREs can be managed so as not to deprive you of the good stuff. In fact they can be enlisted in the cause.
To turn things around you would need to:
- Recognize the tendency to see so many things as wrong as if that tendency were a sentry who no longer distinguishes between intruders and potential friends.
- Take back control from it by saying, “Who Knows?”
- Reward yourself mentally or physically each time you’re able to be open to a new experience.
To take back control from an NJRE, you turn it on itself. The thing that’s really Not Just Right is the habitual experience of thinking things are Not Just Right. So, the idea is to notice when you have aversion, and label that as the problem. Choose not to believe it because it has the same automatic complaints for just about everything.
In doing so, you construct a new atttiude, valuing courage, growth and new experience, as opposed to valuing security and comfort that closes us off from the world.
As long as you continue to believe that every NJRE you have is objectively correct, you’re in for a lot of aversion.
And that’s not only Not Just Right, it’s also very expensive.