Introducing The Healthy Compulsive Project Podcast, offering information, insights, and inspiration to optimize the obsessive-compulsive personality. From clinical, personal and Jungian perspectives, help with depth and a light touch for OCPD, perfectionists, control freaks and micro-managers.
Wait, The Healthy Compulsive? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Not in my book. And I’ll tell you how I got there.
Five years ago I launched The Healthy Compulsive Project, starting with a blog, and later adding a book. Today I'm launching a podcast, an OCPD podcast, but for many more than just those with OCPD.
The goal of the Project has been to help people with obsessive, compulsive, perfectionistic, micro-managing and type A personalities live healthier and more fulfilling lives, lives that are better not despite their compulsive tendencies, but because of them.
The audience for the Project includes people with Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder—OCPD, and those who might just have a few of the personality traits and don’t meet the full criteria for the personality disorder. It’s not intended for people with OCD, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a different condition, with different implications for treatment. I’ll explain the differences later.
The obsessive-compulsive personality type has much to offer. Harness the drive at the root of it and you’ve got direction, energy and purpose.
The word compulsive derives from the words compelled and driven. And that’s not always bad. Lots of good has come out of having an inner drive that’s hard to resist.
But I’m not Pollyannaish about this either. When hijacked by anxiety and insecurity, this energy can lead to a really lousy life: depression, rigidity, chronic irritability, work addiction, and paralyzing perfectionism. And it can destroy relationships.
Healthy and unhealthy compulsiveness are like water and ice. It’s the same material. But, one flows freely and the other’s frozen stiff. All the insistence and determination characteristic of compulsives can be used constructively or destructively.
To move toward the healthier end of the compulsive spectrum takes the willingness to face uncomfortable feelings and to forgo the security of overdoing everything with planning, control and perfectionism.
You may notice that I’m lopping together the terms compulsive, obsessive, perfectionistic and Type A. While there are differences between them, there is more overlap than distinction. In the great battle between specificity and efficiency, I’m going to side with efficiency on this one, referring to the lot of them as compulsives, rather than listing everyone that my comments might apply to each time.
I’ll explain the differences in future episodes, but for now I’ll say that a common denominator is that they all feel compelled to bring order to what they experience as chaos—for worse and better. And within the obsessive-compulsive personality there are four subtypes. I’ll also explain those later, but for now we can describe them briefly as leader, worker, server, and thinker.
The New OCPD Podcast
Getting back to The Healthy Compulsive Project I began five years ago…Reactions to the book and the blog have been gratifying and encouraging. It seems that they’ve helped lots of folks look at their condition in a very different way, and to behave in ways that leave them less depressed. It’s also helped some of their loved ones feel less oppressed. Many people who’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder have found hope in the perspective that I’ve outlined, helping them to shake the impression that having a personality disorder meant they were doomed to a lifetime of misery.
But a number of readers have suggested that, given how busy they are, and how much being efficient means to them, it would be easier if they could listen to the blog, rather than reading it. So, starting today, the Healthy Compulsive Project will also include a podcast. The content in the recorded podcast will be virtually the same as that in the written blog. This way you can listen to it while you drive to your job, walk your mongrel, cook your red beans and rice, and tackle other mindless projects so that you feel like you’re being more productive.
The blog has over 80 written entries at this point, with one or two new posts coming out each month. I’ll continue to post new, written blogs. The podcasts will include the recorded version of new blog posts, along with recordings of older blog posts.
Some episodes will be like an audio magazine—several articles addressing a central theme. Others will include only one blog article.
Upcoming themes in the podcast will include:
• Origins of the compulsive personality
• Psychotherapy treatment
• Relationships and Parenting
• Perfectionism and Control
• Shame and guilt
• Archetypes and Carl Jung
• Depression and Anxiety
• Mindfulness Meditation
One bummer about podcasts is that you can’t hyperlink. I like to hyperlink in the blog so that you know that I’m not just making this stuff up. Well, not all of it. Research on OCPD is still scant, but I do quote the studies we do have when they’re relevant. If you want to follow up on any research that I quote, you can find links to the studies in the blog.
Two final notes about tone and content in this podcast. Compulsives are a serious lot, and this is a serious subject. I will respect that. But compulsives are also too serious for their own good, and the path forward is being a little less tightly wound. (Or maybe even a lot less tightly wound.) So at times my tone will be lighter, more playful and even mischievous. Making room for mirth is an intentional part of the Project.
Film and television reviews might seem frivolous as well when trying to escape the confines of a personality disorder. But while information, logic and insight are powerful, they are not always powerful enough in themselves to change us. Characters such as Ove in A Man Called Ove (or Otto, in the more recent Tom Hanks version), Chidi in the television series The Good Place, and Mrs. Poulteny in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, can all repel or inspire us to make changes that reason and information cannot.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that doing the same thing the same way will lead to the same problem. Try different for a change.
How Has it Come to This?
So how did I get here? First of all, I have my own compulsive tendencies which you’ll hear about on occasion. Most days I don’t meet the full criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, but I do know all too well how the drive to perfect, plan, please and complete can get out of control.
Just as an example, as the outlines of this podcast began to take shape, excitement turned to despair as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to make it as elegant and as perfect as I wanted it to be. I almost backed out. My challenge will be not to make it perfect, but to welcome its imperfections—however imperfectly—while still producing something that makes sense and is helpful to you guys out there.
Back to how I got here….In my clinical practice I began noticing the obsessive-compulsive pattern in many of my patients, needing to get everything organized, completed, and perfected, and being driven miserable and driven away from other people because of it. Many of them were very successful in their outer lives, but failures in terms of creating a satisfying inner life. For some reason, even before I went public with The Healthy Compulsive Project, many of these people decided to work with me. Part of that probably has to do with having a practice in New York, which draws over-achievers like moths to the flame. But it also has to do with who I am.
I remember one woman who came for a consultation and told me, before I had said much, and without any hint of criticism, “You like to have your ducks in order.” For her that seemed to mean we were not a good fit, and she went on her way. But for others, my ducks-in-order personality seems to have made for a good fit, and I’ve gotten lots of experience with folks wound a little too tight.
Lights on Moments
I remember two particular moments when the lights went on and I first recognized patterns associated with the compulsive personality in action.
One was when a client was telling me about what someone had been doing wrong and how she set him straight—or rather tried to, unsuccessfully. What I noticed was that her original intention, doing things the right way for the benefit of everyone involved, had been completely lost in how she treated this man. The means to the end, adopting high standards, living by them, and getting others to live by them, had trumped the ends, which had originally been the well-being of everyone around her.
Another time when I noticed the obsessive-compulsive pattern was when a successful young entrepreneur's compulsive energy for collecting and organizing got completely turned around, and was enlisted instead in dispersing and cleaning out. Systematized clutter was traded for systematized spaciousness. It was less about the content or absence of all the stuff, and more about completing the process of bringing order to chaos—in both directions. For him, completeness was next to godliness, and incompleteness was next to chaos. At first his symptoms might have made you think that he had OCD—obsessive-compulsive disorder, rather than OCPD, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. But when you looked at the whole picture, you noticed that these were not specific obsessions and compulsions that intruded on his way of life as OCD does. This was his way of life.
OCD and OCPD
Which brings me to OCD and OCPD. I also noticed that too many of my clients had been previously misdiagnosed with OCD, an anxiety disorder, when they actually had OCPD, a personality disorder. Don’t get me started. I’ll be explaining this later, but far too many people have been inaccurately diagnosed with OCD and unsuccessfully treated with the wrong techniques. While OCD is the household term, some statistics indicate that there as many as twice as many people out there that have OCPD, than with OCD. In any case, there are a lot them—more than any other personality disorder.
The Jungian Perspective
The other thing that’s led me to my perspective on the obsessive-compulsive personality is my training as a Jungian psychoanalyst. You’ll hear more about Jung in future episodes, but in brief, Carl Jung was a 20th century psychiatrist who chose to study not just where symptoms had come from, but where they were heading, and what they might say about what was missing in this person’s psychology. He asked not just “Why,” but “What for?”
So, for instance, if you're obsessive and compulsive, it’s not necessarily because your mother dropped you on your head when you were a kid, told you to poop every day at 3:13 in the afternoon, or gave you way too many enemas. It could also be because there is something healthy inside of you that wants to produce, create and fix, but it’s been blocked from the gratification of achieving those goals.
It could also be that that energy to produce, create and fix has been hijacked to deal with how insecure the bump on your head, rigid toilet training, and enemas have left you feeling about yourself. Actually, research has debunked the whole toilet-training-causes-obsessive-compulsive-thing that Freud was so fond of, but it makes for salacious copy. Over-controlling parenting can contribute to one becoming an unhealthy compulsive, but it’s only one of many possible factors.
In either case, Jung urged us to ask what wants to be lived but has been blocked. Again, not why, but what for.
Jung was the inspiration for the positive psychology movement, which focuses on what leads to mental wellness, not just mental illness. He also recognized early on the positive role that a spiritual perspective can have in promoting mental health. You may notice my emphasis on that word can, since organized religion can also hijack spiritual energy and create the sort of guilt and shame that unhealthy obsessions and compulsions just love to feast on.
The Healthy Compulsive Book
The other part of the Healthy Compulsive Project is the book by the same name. Well, actually, it has a much longer name—The Healthy Compulsive, Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality, which I’m surprised has never won an award for the most elegant book title of its time. Anyway, the book offers a detailed outline of how to go about becoming a healthier compulsive. While no book can substitute for the specific help that mental health professionals offer, it does offer a more in-depth and systematic program than this blog and podcast can describe.
For those of you who have subscribed to the blog, it's great to have you here. If you'd like to start receiving email notifications for the podcast as well, go to The Healthy Compulsive Podcast at
and fill in the subscription form. Some of the podcast episodes will include previous blogs, some will be new.
So the Healthy Compulsive Project moves forward, with hope to make ourselves and the world just a little better. Enjoy the drive.
Introductory Blog Post from May 31, 2018
The Healthy Compulsive Project: Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality
Why A Compulsive Personality Blog?
It's so hard to stop. Hard to stop working, thinking, perfecting, controlling, planning and doing. This drive can be tormenting. But it can also be fulfilling--both the doing and the finishing.
What determines whether it's tormenting or fulfilling?
The answer isn't simple, and getting from torment to fulfillment isn't easy either. You'll never be completely free of the drive. But it is possible that you can be the driver, rather than being driven by unhealthy impulses.
The goal of this Project, including the blog, the podcast (coming soon to a platform near you), and the book, is to share what I've learned as a clinician and human about how to make this shift. It's intended for people who are by nature obsessive, compulsive and perfectionistic. And those that live with them.
I love having a project. And ones that have a personal component for me, and that can also be of benefit to others, are especially gratifying.
I love to write and I love to think about personality, what motivates us and what fulfills us. I love to focus on a challenge and bring it to completion, as perfectly as I possibly can. And I love to work, whether it’s helping clients, crafting a clear and engaging lecture, balancing my checkbook, or doing battle with my archenemy, the obstinate, invasive vines that threaten the woods near my home.
All of the traits that I’ve just described about myself could be described as compulsive. They all rise from inner urges that are hard to resist. These passions all spring from within me and I feel compelled to act on them.
And that could be a problem if I'm not driving consciously, if I'm not taking the wheel.
A Style with Extremes: The Compulsive Personality Spectrum
Anyone who has compulsive tendencies can become a victim of these urges. They can become rigid, judgmental, over-controlling, reactive, rushed, miserly and workaholic in order to meet their goals. They can become mean, Puritanical and destructive in the name of doing the "right" thing. They can also become anxious, burnt-out, and depressed.
The compulsive personality style can lead to extremes: really productive and caring, or really neurotic and callous. The American Psychiatric Association calls the negative end of this spectrum Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. (People often refer to it by its acronym, OCPD). The APA has no name for the positive end of the spectrum. It takes conscious effort to take the wheel of compulsive energy and guide it to the healthy end. That’s what The Healthy Compulsive Project is all about.
A healthy compulsive is one whose energy, passion and talents for achievement are used consciously in the service of love and purpose. An unhealthy compulsive is one whose energy, passion and talents for achievement have been hijacked by fear and its henchman, anger. Both are driven: one by meaning, the other by dread.
In this blog I’ll be exploring the inner workings and outer manifestations of the compulsive personality, or, as I prefer to call it, the Driven personality. I'll be getting into the nitty gritty of how these tendencies show up in everyday life, and the bigger picture of how to enlist them meaningfully. I'll be writing about how to become a healthy compulsive.
Taking the Wheel of Passion and Energy
But just so that you have a rough idea what I mean by this I’ll give you a bare bones preview. My personal experience, clinical experience, and study of the research literature have led me to conclude that there are a basic steps we need to take in order to take the wheel of this energetic disposition:
• Acknowledge that you have a compulsive personality style and take pride in it. The people who don't acknowledge it, and so don't see the dangers in it, are usually the ones who go off the deep end.
• Slow down enough to look inside and remember what your deepest passions are. Where do they really want to go? A sense of accomplishment? Mastery? Fulfillment? Contribution?
• Ask whether another part of your personality has taken over the wheel: Insecurities? A need to be respected? A need to prove yourself?
• Ask what coping strategy you enlisted to deal with insecurities: Overworking? Being perfect? Pleasing others? Controlling others? Planning and preparing?
• Take back the wheel by honoring the original intention of your drives, and don’t get caught in a blind and rigid execution of them. Given the realities of your life, how can you find peace, self-regard, or a sense of accomplishment?
• Don’t allow your tendencies to work, perfect, control, plan, and judge crowd out your other desires, such as enjoying and nurturing relationships, taking time for leisure and play, and savoring what's good in the present moment.
I'll be going into greater depth with these in future posts.
The Larger Project: Individuation
The way I see it, together these steps constitute a larger Project that everyone has the potential to engage in, compulsive or not: cultivating our unique gifts in a way that benefits us and the world around us. Psychiatrist Carl Jung called this Individuation.
Much of the good that’s accomplished in the world is accomplished by people who have compulsive tendencies. They get the job done. And much of the bad is wrought by people whose intense willpower gets hijacked by fear. Even if they do get the job done, they achieve it with lots of collateral damage.
(I need to add a caveat here. One type of compulsive, the type who tends more toward obsessing and thinking does not get the job done, despite ambitious intentions. Their way of handling their anxiety is to procrastinate, and all the work goes on in their mind. I'll describe the four types of compulsives later.)
The fate of our world is determined not by the people with the best ideas, but by the people with the most determination. Most of these people are Driven—often to their own detriment and the detriment of others--by judgement, punishment, and unrealistic expectations. Many who end up in leadership positions are compulsive, and many of them are unhappy, unhealthy, unbalanced, and, worst of all, unconscious. We need their energy, but we should also be asking how we can help them drive better.
That’s one reason why I’m taking on this project: to create awareness of the condition and to help people use their Driven nature in a more constructive way. Research tells us OCPD is too often not recognized by lay people or clinicians, and the result is that it too often turns destructive.
I’ll be exploring how the Driven personality operates, and how to get it running smoothly. I’ll be looking at it from very different perspectives: psychological research, Jungian psychology and spirituality, personal stories, and film and literature reviews.
Please join me in this project. We have good things to do with our drive.
Blog Post from May 30, 2018
Compulsive Personality: A New and Positive Perspective
Compulsive. It’s not the kind of trait that will get you a wink on a dating app. But let’s re-frame this: people who have a compulsive personality have a lot to feel good about--if they manage their energies well. Let’s remove the judgement about compulsive tendencies and find a more productive and satisfying way to live them out. Let's find the meaning in the compulsive style.
People who are compulsive can be hard-working, thorough, determined, focused, persistent, productive, meticulous, efficient and thrifty. According to research conducted by Douglas Samuel and Thomas Widiger at the University of Kentucky, people who are compulsive are characteristically conscientious. They aim to do the right thing the right way. They go the extra mile.
But they can also get carried away and become work-addicted, rigid, judgmental, sanctimonious, mean, angry, rushed and miserly. They can become over-zealous about doing things the "right" way and seethe with resentment if you don't go the extra mile just as conscientiously as they do.
Evolutionary Psychology and Adaptive Traits of the Compulsive Personality: What's it For?
As a therapist and instructor I try to keep up with what’s happening in the world of theory and research --while still maintaining an awareness of its limitations. A fair amount of new theory and research supports a view thatI arrived at on my own and have found to be both accurate and effective in an approach to treatment. In this perspective, rather than label people with a diagnosis based on whether they have certain symptoms, we can understand these symptoms as maladaptive versions of traits that were originally adaptive in our evolution. If we mindfully manage these traits, they can become healthy and adaptive.
In the case of compulsive traits, it’s as if nature needs some of us to have a one-pointed, determined focus that won’t let us rest until we complete a task and complete it as close to perfectly as possible. Imagine the people that made the first arrowheads, spears, or baskets, and the ones who tirelessly stalked the game that would help the tribe survive.
It's simple. If you're half-assed, you don't eat. The more conscientious our ancestors were about going the extra mile to make sure their arrowheads, baskets, or hunting skills were as good as possible, the greater the chances for survival.
Nature being imperfect, that compulsive focus can take over and overrun all other aspects of being human. Then going the extra mile isn't adaptive. Then rigidity blinds us to creative solutions and creates discord.
Fortunately not everyone gets these genes. Others might get genes that make them more spontaneous and more likely to find creative solutions rather than obsessing about weaving the perfect basket.
Genes and the Compulsive Personality: It's Not Fate
If you have compulsive personality traits it’s partly because you have compulsive genes. By and large, genes pass down traits that have been adaptive. There is a reason why you are this way. Most genetic dispositions and character traits have their adaptive potential.
Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy. It just wants you to survive so you can pass on your genes. If you’re compulsive enough to make good arrowheads that can kill game, weave baskets that can hold berries, or go the extra mile to find game, nuts or berries, you’re more likely to survive.
Genes are not fate and whether you become a healthy or unhealthy compulsive is up to you. These genes create tendencies that we can cultivate and enlist in healthy or unhealthy ways. Someone who is energetic, ambitious and determined may use her strength for leadership and the good of the tribe, and therefore for her own good as well. Or she may use her traits to amass power and sow discontent. Same genes, very different outcome.
In order to be happy, you'll need to figure out just what your adaptive traits are and how best to use them. That's part of the project of becoming a healthier compulsive.
Honoring Our Calling: Finding the Good or Running in Circles
I've referred to this as a new perspective, but it isn't really. It's just that science is catching up to the ancient wisdom of knowing and honoring our vocation, our calling.
My 30 years of working as a therapist has confirmed for me that when it comes down to it, the real healing that we have to offer people is to help them live in accord with their unique nature in a healthy and fulfilling way. Not to try to make them into something they’re not.
This also goes for those of us with a compulsive personality. If we don’t find the potential good in it, our conscientiousness only decreases self-confidence, our perfectionism prohibits productivity, and our control cuts connections. All the potential and energy is wasted. We run in circles rather than anywhere meaningful. Conscientiousness with no purpose creates a cycle of judgment and control: self judgment lowers self esteem and then we try to fix it with more judgement and control. Rinse and repeat.
On the other hand, if we can find where all that energy wants to go, where the extra mile ideally takes us, we can run were we really need to go. And we're all richer for it.
There are potential gifts in the compulsive personality. What will you do with them?
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