OCD and OCPD: What’s the Difference?

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


Every day, Mark is consumed with the fear that he might accidentally hurt somebody or cause them harm. He is often late for work because he circles his route several times, seeking to reassure himself that there is no evidence of a car accident. When Mark does hear of a car accident, he worries that is at fault because of an action he took or failed to take. For instance, he thinks “I saw a gum wrapped on the ground but didn’t pick it up. What if the driver of the car got distracted by reflection of the sun glinting off the foil?” These thoughts that repeat over and over in Mark’s mind are called “obsessions”. The ritualistic behaviors (he engages in to reduce the stress and anxiety (i.e. circling his route to work several times) are known as “compulsions”. Mark has a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) known as Responsibility OCD.

Jill’s life is dictated by rigidity and control and she becomes irritated when other people interfere with her rules of how things should be done. Jill spends long hours at work “crossing her T’s and dotting her I’s” because she believes that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. Despite her excessive devotion to her work, Jill’s job is in jeopardy due to her poor teamwork skills. Her employer has put her on a performance-improvement plan after hearing numerous complaints from Jill’s colleagues about her inflexibility and micromanaging behaviors. Jill’s life outside of work is also dictated by rules; she feels most at ease when she adheres to a strict daily routine. Anything that interferes with this routines sends her into a tailspin. Jill has obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).

As these narratives illustrate, OCD and OCPD are two very different conditions that happen to share a similar name. OCD is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by the presence of obsessions (irrational, repetitive thoughts) and compulsions (ritualistic behaviors used to dispel the anxiety of obsessions). OCPD is a personality disorder that is associated with rigid thinking, inflexibility and a need for excessive control over one’s surroundings. If you have one of these disorders, learning more about its unique characteristics can help you identify the best options for treatment. 

Here are some basic differences between OCD and OCPD:

1. The first difference involves the amount of control an individual has over their thoughts and behaviors: 

    • Persons with OCD have no control over obsessions, as intrusive thoughts can and do “pop in” to their heads frequently—often with no rhyme or reason. This is very distressing to the individual, and their compulsions are an effort to “push away” those obsessions and/or prevent them from happening again.


    • Persons with OCPD voluntarily exert control over their surroundings. Their rigid or ritualistic behaviors are not being driven by thoughts that are out of their control. 


2. Another difference is the effect of the thoughts and behaviors on the individual

    • Persons with OCD often seek treatment because they understand that their thoughts are irrational, their compulsions are unnecessary, and both cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety. As a result, individuals with OCD often seek treatment to alleviate their symptoms.


    • Persons with OCDP embrace their thoughts and actions due to their conviction that they serve a productive purpose. People with OCPD are more likely to think of themselves as “perfectionists” and deny that their behaviors are maladaptive.


3. The last major difference can be identified by looking at the pattern of symptoms: 

    • Symptoms of OCD can ebb and flow over time in relation to one’s anxiety level. 


    • OCPD is a personality disorder, which means that the accompanying behaviors are fixed and persistent throughout one’s life. 

These two disorders can be hard to tell apart due to the large role that anxiety and control play in each one. However, one does not need to be “diagnosed’ with one or both of these conditions in order to seek help. If you experience thoughts or behaviors that are causing distress or affecting your personal life, it is best to seek treatment from a mental health professional that specializes in working with OCD and Anxiety to learn more about your unique symptoms and options for treatment.     

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

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