Am I Type A—Or Do I Have OCD?

Here’s how to tell the difference between perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Am I Type A—Or Do I Have OCD?

You’re a worrier, you can’t sleep if the house is messy and you only submit work that’s absolutely perfect. But when you casually say, “I’m so OCD!” is it a fair statement? 

Mike Ashworth, PhD, a psychologist from Medical City Green Oaks in Dallas, Texas, weighs in on the differences between a Type A personality—someone who’s driven, detail-oriented and perfectionistic—and true obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Here’s how to tell the two apart and how to get help if you suspect you have OCD. 

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? 
OCD is an anxiety disorder that often affects people throughout their lives. Its symptoms may improve or worsen in response to major events, triggers or new treatments. 

“To be diagnosed with OCD, you have to have obsessions or compulsions, or both,” says Dr. Ashworth.  “Obsessions are thoughts or images that go through your mind over and over again. They’re unwanted and they’re disturbing.”  

“Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts the person must do in order to counteract or make the bad thoughts go away,” he continues. “They're only a short-term solution. Most of the time, people with OCD know their actions will only give them temporary relief.” 

For example, someone with OCD might have intrusive thoughts about a car crash. In response, they might get their car checked multiple times to ensure it’s in good working order. Someone else with OCD who has the same obsession could be compelled to touch the car repeatedly, or even say a particular word over and over in their mind, like “safe” or “okay.” For others, the compulsions aren’t logical at all—their response might have nothing to do with cars or crashes. 

Symptoms of OCD 
The obsessions that come with OCD typically cause intense anxiety. That fear—combined with the time it takes to perform compulsive behaviors, also called rituals—can interfere with a person’s ability to function. 

While everyone with OCD may think and act in different ways, people with this condition frequently report: 

  • Being unable to control their thoughts  
  • Experiencing negative emotions related to obsessions 
  • Spending at least an hour daily trying to rid themself of bad thoughts 
  • Achieving temporary relief after completing compulsive behaviors 
  • Feeling a lack of power over compulsions 

Here are some common obsessions and compulsions (although not everyone falls into these categories): 

  • Obsessions can include fears of germs, contamination, touch and tragedies. Some people also report intrusive thoughts about sexual taboos, violence or religion. 
  • Compulsions can include excessive cleaning, washing, checking for safety (Is the door locked? Is the stove off?), counting and repeating words. 

Some people with OCD have tics, as well. Tics are sudden, repeated movements that may be difficult or impossible to control, such as facial grimaces, shrugging or blinking. Throat clearing and grunting are examples of vocal tics.  

OCD vs. Type A tendencies 
The most important difference between true OCD and a Type A personality is the extent to which someone’s anxiety and behaviors interfere with daily life. “For example, somebody who’s a perfectionist might like to have their closet arranged in a certain order, so maybe they take the time to organize it once or twice a day,” says Ashworth. “But somebody with OCD will spend a tremendous amount of time on their compulsions, to the point where it creates difficulties for them at work, school and in their relationships—and they often feel they don’t have a choice.”  

Also, while a Type A person might say they’re “obsessed” with an issue like their career, they can probably control work-related thoughts. A person with OCD will have a much harder time thinking about other things. Their ideas may be irrational or catastrophic in nature, as well; instead of worrying about a warning from their boss, they might have intrusive thoughts about homelessness or starvation. 

When it comes to compulsions, a perfectionistic person might channel career worries into productive actions like proofreading an email three times before sending. A person with OCD, on the other hand, might need to open and close their laptop 20 times before even writing a draft. Their anxiety may not be productive and could actually hurt their job performance. 

The average Type A person probably doesn’t have OCD 
Statistically, it’s unlikely that the average person with perfectionist habits has this condition. Only about 1.6 percent of the adult population meets the diagnostic criteria for OCD, according to The National Institute of Mental Health. 

“Beyond it being statistically unlikely, people with true OCD are suffering from tremendous anxiety, distress and life impairment,” says Ashworth. “People with a perfectionistic personality may be stressed out occasionally, but most of the time, they actually like how they are.” 

Type A people tend to be competitive, impatient and achievement oriented. “They often do very well in the workplace and in school, for example,” says Ashworth. “But their achievements can sometimes come at the expense of relationships and personal care—they don't tend to do relaxation well,” he adds. 

Even though Type A people don’t have a diagnosable condition like OCD and—on the surface it might seem like they’re doing fine—they might still benefit from counseling. “A therapist can help you achieve self-awareness, understand what you’re doing and develop a lifestyle that incorporates stress management, self-care and stronger relationships,” Ashworth explains.   

Get help for OCD 
If you suspect you have OCD, reach out to a counselor for help. They can confirm your diagnosis, offer talk therapy and refer you to a psychiatrist for medication if necessary. Treatment options include: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy that helps you recognize incorrect thought patterns and change your behaviors. 
  • Exposure and response prevention, which is a type of CBT.  “Research has shown it to have about a 60 to 80 percent success rate,” says Ashworth. Exposure and response prevention involves safe, gradual exposure to situations that cause you anxiety in order to help you overcome fears. 
  • Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which may be prescribed alongside talk therapy. “Medications are also highly effective,” says Ashworth. “Research has shown that if a person follows their medication schedule and complies with treatment, patients can experience a significant reduction in symptoms.” 

In many cases, treatment involves a combination of counseling and medications. Learn more about OCD treatments or find a therapist near you.   

Medically reviewed in December 2018. Updated in February 2021. 

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