The sources of obsessive-compulsive personality are found in genes, family, culture and coping strategies. The resulting disposition is relatively stable, but can shift gradually with time. Think of this as the climate. You will always have tendencies to perfect, order and control, but whether these are adaptive or maladaptive can change over time.
Another factor in how obsessive-compulsive tendencies are expressed is a particular circumstance that triggers you. You may react in unhealthy ways, such as becoming stuck in planning or working, or being overly upset with yourself or with others. Triggers are like the weather—far more changeable than climate. Squalls come and go. These episodes can last six seconds or six days.
The effect of experiencing a trigger can be as strong as a trance. You may lose your baseline of awareness and reason.
In our quests to become healthy compulsives we will inevitably be visited by things out of our control that can provoke destructive and self-destructive reactions. When others set off triggers, we may need to tell them the effect they have had on us, or put some distance between ourselves and them. But more importantly, we need to take responsibility for our reactions. Here’s how.
Guns, Triggers and Squeezes
Triggers are often experienced by people with a history of trauma or addiction. In the case of trauma, a trigger usually activates a memory that makes the individual feel they need to fight, flee or freeze to prevent something terrible from happening again. In the case of addictions, a trigger may activate craving that’s hard to resist.
For those with obsessive-compulsive personality, triggers activate urges that may also feel impossible to resist, but these urges are different from those resulting from trauma or addiction. Triggers for people with OCP activate needs to bring order to chaos, to correct, control, or meticulously catalogue everything we need to accomplish in the next week.
The trigger is the part that activates the gun. The potential to fire is already there in the OCP climate, but it needs to be squeezed to propel the bullet.
My readers may have differing reactions to guns, from comforted to disturbed. I hope that my discussion of guns isn’t upsetting for those of you who have had bad experiences with guns. And while the reactions I’ll be discussing today are not as bad as being shot, the word “trigger” does carry a certain violence that we can’t ignore in the subject.
Even with our differing reactions to guns, I think that we can probably all agree that we don’t want any gun, including a metaphorical one, going off of its own accord when we don’t want it to. Nor do we want it pointed at ourselves. And that’s why I’m using this language.
I find the metaphor of squeezing helpful, because I don’t like feeling squeezed and that can lead to squeezing my trigger. I feel squeezed when I feel like I don’t have enough time, energy, food, sun or brilliant metaphors. Any of these things could lead me to contract and squeeze that trigger unconsciously, work too hard, obsess about commas, hyphens and semi-colons for far too long, or tell some poor, innocent call center operator exactly what they’re doing wrong.
Good and Bad Triggers
Now, technically, triggers can also be good. That’s what inspiration is–a circumstance that moves you to create, complete, fix or put things in order that really do need to be put in order. If we want to squeeze a trigger, we should do it intentionally, aiming it at someone or something that really needs to be stopped, not squeeze it accidentally by our over-reaction to feeling squeezed.
So, if you really think firing a shot is called for, be it pulling an all-nighter, giving a productive reprimand, or embarking on a deep, deep kitchen cleaning, make sure you’re aiming it consciously and carefully. Obsessive-compulsive aptitudes can be powerfully constructive.
But, when triggers work badly it’s usually because we don’t recognize them as triggers, rather as a sort of obvious truth that calls for urgent, though blind action. In unhealthy cases, the urge to control bypasses consciousness and goes straight through your trigger finger to the trigger itself without reflection.
If you can tolerate me combining my metaphors, when the psychological weather is bad, if it’s rainy or windy or freezing cold, we may squeeze the trigger unconsciously out of fear that that bad weather will prevent us from being able to finish off our list or achieve perfection. Flight delays, comments we could interpret as questioning our virtue, or reports of a coming bug infestation are all examples of “bad weather” that could activate our triggers and our potential for compulsive behavior.
Typically we refer to potentially negative triggers when we use the term, so for clarity that’s what I will focus on in the rest of this post.
This business of triggering can be very subtle and completely unconscious. Triggering could be considered an example of what research psychologists call priming. Priming occurs when you’re exposed to a stimulus that then affects how you respond to a second stimulus.
So, imagine we’re doing an experiment. If I flash the word “chaos” across your computer screen without your knowing it, you’re more likely to meticulously tidy things up at the messy desk where I’ve placed you. So, the word “chaos” would be the priming first stimulus, the second stimulus would be the messy desk.
The demoralizing aspect of this is that we are far more subject to influence than we would like to admit.
The inspiring aspect of it is that if we know our triggers, we’re more likely to prevent them from getting pulled. In the real world outside of the psychologist’s lab, it would be harder for me to manipulate you with the word “chaos” because you’ve read about reactions to chaos so many times in this blog that you’re forearmed.
I chose my priming example of chaos and tidying up the desk because I believe that what we experience as chaos is one of our most potent triggers. Kryptonite for compulsives. Just why is this?
Hyper-Responsibility and Threats to Moral Self-Perception
Let’s go back to the DSM-5 for a moment, the American Psychiatric Association’s menu of diagnoses and their symptoms. One of the symptoms of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) is being overly conscientious, taking too much responsibility. And the APA won’t tell you this, but I’ll tell you: we feel it’s our responsibility to prevent and manage chaos.
So, if things start to get out of order, you get triggered because you feel it’s your fault for not preventing them from getting out of order, and it’s your responsibility to get them back in order. Even when someone else set the chaos in motion.
After all, you do serve on the International Chaos Police Force.
Many of you who have read my book or blog, or listened to my podcast, are probably aware that one of my life missions is to help people see the difference between OCD and OCPD. But I’m going to cheat and cite a study that was done in regard to OCD, because I believe that it applies at least as much to OCPD.
The title of the study is Threats to moral self-perceptions trigger obsessive compulsive contamination-related behavioral tendencies. So, I believe that what they’re getting at is if anyone (including yourself) implies that you’re a Bad Person, that you have failed in some way to meet your responsibilities in life to prevent chaos, you’re more likely to engage in some sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as going about your life as if there are dangerous germs nearby that you have to both avoid and repel. You get triggered.
Despite my sometimes playful tone, I know this can be deeply disturbing. And while the picture is not as specific for people with OCPD as it is for people with OCD, it can be just as disturbing for them.
Let’s look at a few examples of how triggers can get triggered.
Instant Replay and Constant Replay
You’re a defensive end on a football team and somebody gets past you, gets a touchdown, and gets the Division Championship. All you get is triggered. You feel like crap for letting everyone down and start obsessing to try to make the feeling go away. An implosion of Monday morning fullbacking ensues. (This is not fractional remorse. It’s full on.) Then you start compulsively practicing backward sprints so that no-one ever gets past you again. Instead, you injure yourself, are out for the next season, and everyone gets past you. Again.
Your own “mistake” has triggered you to engage in unhealthy obsessing and compulsive behavior.
Planning and Injustice for All
Let’s say your team at work has a presentation. Your colleague Johnny has a more, well, let’s say, relaxed approach to the event. He’ll get around to his part when he’s good and ready. Why rush when you can binge watch Succession?
It’s not fair.
This is really bad weather for you and it’s happening on top of your perfectionist climate. Johnny certainly deserves a trigger response, but that’s not going to help. Besides, he’s the CEO’s son-in-law.
Instead, you stay up all night, prepare his part of the presentation yourself, and obsess about everything that could possibly go wrong. You get anxious, get triggered and become a planning machine. You create spreadsheets, lists, and even your own app to prevent disaster from striking. All else, family, friends, and well-being, are neglected. That’s not fair either.
Cousin Winnie Fights and Creates Disodrer [sic]
Your cousin Winnie is visiting and, out of the goodness of her heart, attempts to defend your kitchen against what she sees as chaos. She rearranges it entirely while you’re away at work. You know she meant well, but you’re completely thrown off. A cat dropped in the ocean. You’re conflicted between being grateful and demanding to know how she could possibly have been such an idiot. Plates should always be in the cabinet above the dishwasher, not next to the refrigerator.
Terrible weather you’re having.
Not only do you have external chaos to deal with, you’ve got your inner chaos (anger) to manage as well.
Another triggering weather event is rule-breaking. You spend your life trying to do the Right Thing (climate) and then someone comes along and breezily does the Wrong Thing (bad weather). It could be someone using the breakdown lane to bypass traffic. Could be your son’s school counselor going MIA when he’s frantically trying to get his college apps done. Could be your father-in-law disregarding every rule of logic and love when lecturing you about Central American politics.
In each of these cases you get triggered and want to shoot someone, but are left with the bullet exploding inside of you.
Intimations of Immorality
Insinuations that you haven’t been diligent can be triggering.
You work hard for your kids. Doubly hard in fact, since you also have a job, and no-one is going to out-do your parenting. But when one of the other soccer moms suggest that it’s okay for you to bring a store-bought desert for the party, since they know you’re busy, you’re fit to be tied. Triggered.
You’ll show them! You spend the entire afternoon baking a classic white layer cake with marshmallow buttercream. Store-bought their ass! Never mind your kid needed help with their science project that day.
Illness, Injuries and Death
If you get sick, or someone you love takes ill or dies, you may well have emotional reactions that could trigger OCPD behavior. Illness can make you feel that you‘ve let things get out of your control. You’d like to engage in compensatory behavior, but that’s hard to do when you’re sick.
As I was writing this post I came down with a nasty case of COVID. The aversion I have to being virtually paralyzed by illness, unable to get much work done, can destroy any peace of mind I’ve achieved. But I’ve come to recognize this as a trigger. I know that whenever I start to feel sick I will accuse myself of malingering. I’ve learned to remind myself that this is not something I’m responsible for. I’m not being bad by lying around, so why not just enjoy the break?
Rest is a sacred act of self-compassion, whether we’re sick or not.
More complex are the feelings that some have when a loved one dies, including guilt. They feel that they could have—should have–done something to prevent their death, so that becomes a trigger for endless obsessing. Or endless compulsing, purging the house to try to get rid of the guilt inside yourself.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of a similar dynamic went viral. After pressing her husband to kill the King and others so she could become queen, Lady Macbeth now literally has blood on her hands. She commands, “Out, damned spot: out, I say,” rubbing her hands compulsively as if that would clear her conscience. Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes, this meme seems to have touched on something we all experience, even if when we aren’t guilty of regicide.
I’m not saying that you would kill the King, but, with your heightened sense of responsibility, you might feel as if you have.
Out-of-Control and Out of Self-Respect
One final example. When you can’t control something, life may feel futile to you. You may feel useless and get depressed, even depressed to the point where you consider ending it all.
While it might seem completely reasonable to you at the moment, you are most likely under the spell of absolutist thinking, and under the spell of hormonal imbalances. If you feel this way, please pause and consider that it may only feel futile, and that something in you is skewing your perceptions. For help, call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Triggers are inevitable, an opportunity for gentle, healing exposure, and not a cause for blame.
If you can recognize when you’re being triggered, you’re more likely to be able to slow down, and tell yourself that having a fit or going into overdrive is not the mature, reasonable or productive thing the trigger purports it is. Yep, it sure feels that way, but when you’re triggered it’s as if you’re temporarily under a spell or trance.
Once certain neural modules (triggers) are firing, it’s hard to figure what to do on the spot. But if you recognize the trigger and have a plan, you’re more likely to run that impulse by your cerebral cortex first, and make a more conscious decision before squeezing the trigger. You may dodge your own bullet.
To squeeze more out of the climate/weather metaphor….You know it’s going to rain, and you know that you hate getting your hair wet, so you bring a very large umbrella.
Here is a set of tools to keep you dry in the rain:
• Know your triggers
• Recognize the trigger as it starts to come up
• Pause–notice the squeeze, the contraction in your body–release the pressure
• Breathe (this activates the parasympathetic nervous system which will moderate your trigger reaction)
• Remember the suffering triggered reactions can cause
• Put something more meaningful in its place
Here is a list of some common triggers:
• Feeling too much responsibility
• Chaos and Disorder–anything out of your control
• Falling short or feeling guilty
• Feeling that others are breaking the rules
• Injuries, illness and death
• Accusations of being lazy, sloppy, irrational, or selfish
• Feeling insecure around others
• Feeling a lack of control or futility
This list of our most beloved triggers is limited by my experience and blind spots. Please share your triggers in the comment section below to help others recognize theirs. The world will be a better place.