Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD and perfectionism have become common words that people use to describe themselves, but what is the difference between them?

Both look very similar to a family member, friend, or coworker on the surface level. However, they are very different in the ways in which people are affected in their daily life.

How are OCD and perfectionism different?

OCD is a diagnosable mental health disorder. There are a set of symptoms a person must meet to receive this diagnosis. Perfectionism is a set of personality traits and likes a person adopts and displays throughout their day.

OCD and perfectionism differ because of a person’s ability to suppress negative thoughts or feelings. An obsessive-compulsive person’s actions and behaviors are involuntary and uncontrolled. They are unable to control their behaviors, thoughts or feelings.

Also, to be diagnosed with OCD, a person must have an obsession. An obsession is a repetitive or persistent thought, urge or image. In many cases, these thoughts, images, or urges are unwanted or cause distress. For example, a man is obsessed with trying to prevent putting his life in danger. If he tries to ignore and suppress these thoughts, he finds it extremely challenging.

“OCD” has become an adjective when someone wants to say they pay attention to details and specifics. In reality, the individual is describing perfectionism qualities.

Perfectionism actions and behaviors are voluntary and optional. Detail-oriented behaviors include organizing one’s home, color coordinating, or refusing to touch items in a public restroom.

Perfectionists tend to enjoy order, goal-driven and have high expectations for themselves. A person will fear failure or rejection if they do not present themselves or their work as “perfect”.

As a result, the person can feel stressed due to the pressure they have placed on themselves. However, these can be viewed as habits of a perfectionist compared to life-hindering OCD obsessions.

Differences in Behavior

What makes OCD and perfectionism different from one another is the reasoning for the behavior. People diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder have repetitive behaviors. Hand washing, checking things, praying, counting, repeating words, etc., are all symptoms of OCD but not perfectionism. The reason for these behaviors is an attempt to relieve some anxiety or worry.

Additionally, repetitive behaviors are time-consuming. A person with OCD will be late to an appointment because he or she must check their stove multiple times to make sure it is off before leaving the house. A man locks his front door three times because it makes him feel more secure and less fearful.

Perfectionism actions tend to be intentional; it is the way in which a person chooses to live their life. A perfectionist holds high standards for themselves. Things must be neat and orderly. A woman reads over an email multiple times so it sounds professional.

Perfectionists may not adjust well to change, which causes them to become anxious. However, their behaviors do not affect their day-to-day life or seen as a hindrance.

Examples of OCD and Perfectionism

Example 1

Angela is moving into a new home. Angela has boxes labeled and placed in specific areas of her home based on the contents of the boxes. As Angela and her friends start to unpack the boxes, Angela becomes anxious because she notices one of her friends is not facing the spices forward in the spice cabinet.

As a result, Angela is increasingly agitated. Angela rapidly moves the spices into the order in which she likes and facing toward the front. Her friends remark how “perfect” Angela likes to have her things. They take note and start to face all of Angela’s items facing forward.

When looking at this situation, we can consider Angela to be a perfectionist. Her behaviors have to do with her high demands and are a specific trait of her personality. Angela’s behaviors do not hinder her everyday life or affect her thoughts.

Example 2

Brian is a young man living by himself in a metropolitan city. This is a big change for him, as he grew up in a small town. Being away from family is difficult. Brian prays multiple times a day for five to seven minutes to ensure he family stays safe.

Before leaving the house, Brian must turn his lights on and off seven times before leaving the house. If he does not turn the lights on and off, Brian believes an electrical fire will ignite while he is away.

Brian washes his hands five times before eating. If he loses count or doesn’t think they are clean enough, Brian starts washing his hands over again until he is satisfied. Because of these routines, Brian often is late for work and does not have many friends. He believes people will think he is odd or judge him for his behaviors.

Brian’s behaviors and symptoms fall under the diagnosis of OCD. What demonstrates the differences between perfectionism and OCD in this case is how the behaviors are repetitive. Brian’s praying, hand washing and turning on the lights are all done to alleviate his anxieties. If he does not complete these behaviors, Brian will be troubled and upset.

Final Thoughts

OCD is different from perfectionism in many ways. OCD dictates how a person goes about their day-by-day life and affects the quality of life. Perfectionism is a trait a person chooses to adopt. If a behavior is not done, the individual is not distressed as a result.

In contrast, the OCD individual will experience a high level of disturbance if they don’t complete an action to alleviate an obsession. OCD can become a debilitating mental health issue for those affected by the symptoms.

Often times, the behaviors are unwanted and cause self-loathing. Before using “OCD” as an adjective for one’s personality, it is important to remember the effects of this mental health disorder on others and whether this is an appropriate word to describe yourself.


  1. Fuller, K., (2016, December 20). Perfectionism Versus Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Psychology Today.
  2. Martin, S. (2017, December 26). What’s The Difference Between OCD And Perfectionism? Psychcentral.

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