Many people wonder how they became controlling, driven, and perfectionistic. Or, to use the clinical label, they wonder about the origins of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).
Mental health professionals generally agree that a combination of genes and environment, nature and nurture, leads to this personality style, even if they disagree about which has more influence.
But there are two other factors that shape our personality that most people don’t think about. And these two factors are actually the most important to understand if we want to change. I’ll get to those after reviewing what research tells us about the first two factors, genes and environment.
Scientific Research About the Origins of OCPD
Many of our ideas about what causes obsessive-compulsive personality are based on the subjective clinical observations of psychotherapists like myself who like to theorize and write about what we’ve seen over the years and what’s most effective in achieving change. As one of these observing therapists, I admit to the possibility of skewed sample, personal bias, and human error in calculating the typical origins of OCPD.
So, I like to review the research to see if and where my own personal and clinical experience might mislead me.
But the truth is, there just isn’t that much research about the origins of OCPD. As the German research psychologists Alice Diedrich and Ulrich Voderholzer[i] wrote in their review of the subject, “The literature on psychological and biological theories regarding [the origins of] OCPD is scant and often contradictory.”
So, if you have a fantasy of some sexy, intelligent-looking woman or man with stylish glasses in a white lab coat handing you a neat and tidy answer, forget about it.
It’s far messier and more complicated than that. We’re going to have to use both research data and informed theorizing to make sense of this.
Nature: Genetic Origins of OCPD
Research does indicate that genetic factors contribute to OCPD. You were not born a blank slate. Just how much these genetic factors contribute is not clear, but probably more than most practicing psychotherapists such as myself were trained to believe.
Of the two largest studies done, one suggested that 78 per cent of the obsessive-compulsive personality was determined by genes. The other study suggested only 27 per cent is determined by genes.[iii] For the sake of simplicity here, let’s split the difference and postulate that maybe 52 per cent of the personality is determined by genes. That’s a lot of genes that you can’t just talk yourself out of.
While not specific to OCPD, we do have research which suggests that genes account for close to half, or more than half, of the origins of traits such as perfectionism, conscientiousness, and self-control.
Theorizing: The Adaptive Benefits of OCPD
This data leads us to theorize, as psychologist Steven Hertler has,[iv] that the genetic components of OCPD helped us to adapt and survive as we were evolving. Being meticulous, detailed, reliable, driven, determined and conscientious planners helped us procure food, protect our young, and get along in a tribe of 75 people. These traits made it more likely that these genes were passed down. And many of us still have these genes–sometimes to a far greater degree than we need to survive.
These genes have potential purpose. And potential problems.
Remembering this will come in handy when we get to the fourth cause of OCPD.
Nurture: Environmental Origins of OCPD
Research about the effects of the environment (e.g. family, parenting, etc.) on OCPD is equally scarce.
We do have data which suggests that people with OCPD received less emotional care and did not form secure attachments. And we have research which suggests that the caregivers of people with OCPD tend to be overprotective. [v] [vi]
Research has given us information in very broad terms about what factors are associated with the condition. But we still have to interpret this data, even if it doesn’t give us the certainty that we would like to have from science.
Theorizing: Rigid and Unemotional Parenting
Before we had any research on the subject, Sigmund Freud hypothesized that premature and rigid toilet training lead to compulsive personality in children who were born with particular sensitivities. Thus the description, he or she is “anal.” While this might be true in some circumstances, we don’t have data to prove it’s the case.
Other theorists have suggested that the overall quality of parenting and parental relationships are the primary environmental factors. The theory has been that parents who are domineering, controlling, and intrusive cause their children to develop unhealthy compulsive tendencies. Most psychotherapists have emphasized these types of environmental issues and paid less attention to genetic aspects. (Carl Jung was an exception to this, but that would take us too far afield for now.)
But if we theorize in light of the research we do have, it would make sense that over-protective and less emotionally demonstrative parents would communicate to the child that quantity of life (how long you live) is more important than quality of life (whether or not you actually enjoy it). “The world is a dangerous place that must be managed with control and caution. How you feel is not important. Relationships are less important than behaving well. Just make sure you do everything right.”
This makes sense, but it still leaves us missing parts of the puzzle: How does this actually lead someone to become compulsive, obsessive or perfectionistic? This doesn’t happen to everyone with cold or anxious parents.
The Third Factor—A Brilliant but Limiting Coping Strategy (Attached with Gorilla Glue)
The third factor is what the child actually did to cope with the situation they were born into. What strategy did they (unconsciously) use to cope with the fact that their parents seemed unconcerned about their feelings?
My own take is that when people born with traits such as perfectionism, determination, or attention to detail feel insecure about whether they are good, respectable, and loveable, they use those traits to prove that they are good, respectable and loveable. This step is too often left out of the discussion of what causes OCPD. Faced with a conflict between who you were and what was expected of you, how did you use your inborn tendencies?
- Take charge?
Not everyone responds to deficit parenting in the same way.
Whatever your strategy, it was the best way you could conceive of at the time to deal with the situation. I’m not saying you did it consciously. Kids don’t operate that way. It all went on behind the scenes.
The problem is, what’s developed unconsciously usually remains unconscious. It becomes automatic, whether it’s effective when you are an adult or not.[vii] Worse, the motivating insecurity amplifies the intensity of those traits, in effect putting them on steroids. So traits that could be helpful become exaggerated and rigid. And unless you make a conscious effort to uncover the motivation for that strategy, it will stay unconscious, automatic, and rigid.
Example of the Complying/Overachieving Strategy
There are many ways that family influences the shaping of compulsive traits, including ones in which the parents were well within the good enough range.
But let’s say just for example that you were born with mild compulsive and obsessive traits. By nature you’re very meticulous and perfectionistic. You’ve got a parent who appears to be worried to death about you, but is mostly pre-occupied with their own underlying anxiety. The only way they know how to deal with their anxiety is to constantly prod you to make sure you aren’t doing anything “dangerous.” He or she is critical and intrusive.
You don’t feel loved so much loved as controlled, an object of theirs rather than a separate person with their own feelings, loved for who they are. “Must be something wrong with me,” most kids conclude. “I must be out of control and not very loveable.” This leads to insecurity.
So you develop the strategy of using your perfectionism to prove to your parents that you are loveable. “I’ve got this!” You’re such a good girl or boy that your parents don’t even have to tell you what to do!
- Obey the rules? Check.
- Follow a schedule? Check.
- Complete lists of things to do? Check.
- Delay gratification? Check
Brilliant! Your parents’ control is kept to a minimum and you feel more loved! Problem solved!
Problem is, though, again, you weren’t aware of what you were doing and that strategy got glued in place. You can’t stop using it even when it’s counter-productive.
Unless you stop investing in it.
The Fourth Factor—Sustaining or Detaching from the Old Strategy
The fourth factor in the origins of OCPD is whether or not you continue to invest in the original strategy you used to deal with your environment, and whether you thereby sustain it. This old strategy won’t continue to run your life if you:
- Bring frequent awareness to it,
- Stop using it to avoid feelings of insecurity, and
- Put a more fulfilling strategy in its place, using your inborn capacities in a healthier way.
Even Gorilla Glue wears out if you don’t keep putting more on.
For instance, it you don’t keep trying to prove to everyone that you’re exceptionally conscientious, and if you allow yourself to experience the fear that comes from letting go of the old strategy, eventually it will diminish and lose the power it has had as you put your energy into more fulfilling projects. I’m suggesting something similar to exposure therapy, which while not tested for OCPD, has been found helpful to others with anxiety.
Using Your Compulsive Traits Rather Than Having Them Use You
I said earlier that it would be helpful to remember that there were evolutionary advantages to compulsive traits. Just as they helped our forebears survive and adapt 75,000 years ago, you might have used them to survive in your family. And you’ll never get rid of them completely. But you can channel them in a more productive way. They have great potential if you use your compulsive determination to use these traits more effectively.
As I explain in more detail in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality, you can get behind the wheel of your car rather than have your insecurity driving.
With awareness, intention and perseverance you can begin to make better choices about how to use these genetic traits, rather than have them use you.
[i] Diedrich, A., & Voderholzer, U. (2015). Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: a current review. Current Psychiatry Reports, 17(2), 2. doi:10.1007/s11920-014-0547-8
[ii] Torgersen, S., et al. (2000). A twin study of personality disorders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 41(6), 416-425. doi:10.1053/comp.2000.16560
[iii] Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., Czajkowski, N., Neale, M. C., Orstavik, R. E., Torgersen, S., Tambs, K., . . . Kendler, K. S. (2007). Genetic and environmental influences on dimensional representations of DSM-IV cluster C personality disorders: a population-based multivariate twin study. Psychological Med, 37(5), 645-653. doi:10.1017/S0033291706009548
[iv] Hertler, S. C. (2014). A Review and Critique of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder Etiologies: Reckoning With Heritability Estimates. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 10(1), 168-184. doi:10.5964/ejop.v10i1.679
[v] Pollak JM. Obsessive-compulsive personality: a review. Psychol Bull. 1979; 86:225–41. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.86.2.225.
[vi] Nordahl HM, Stiles TC. Perceptions of parental bonding in patients with various personality disorders, lifetime depressive disorders, and healthy controls. J Personal Disord. 1997;11:391–402. doi:10. 1521/pedi.19220.127.116.111.