Posted by: thealienist | September 8, 2014

Rollercoasters Don’t Have Steering Wheels

Many of us struggle with the desire to control our lives. For some of us, the desire to control our lives gets a little out of hand. For those of us who need to control too much of our lives, who set standards too high, and who don’t allow ourselves flexibility to deal with different tasks differently, we may have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. We also probably don’t like roller coasters because they don’t have steering wheels.

As a university psychiatrist, I see a lot of young people who are struggling with the stress of managing their lives.  They of course have their university studies, but many are also working part-time or full-time, volunteering with different programs, joining social clubs, and trying to have an enjoyable social life.  Most of the students at my university do this admirably well.  They are able to juggle the demands of their schedules and adjust priorities to make sure that they get the important things done and still live a fairly balanced life.  Others, on the other hand, find that they run into problems keeping their schedules running.  They take far too long to complete their required reading, homework, projects, and work duties.  They tend to do wonderful jobs on all the things they complete, but when the number of demands they are under increases they have trouble keeping up.  Often they come to my office saying that they are feeling depressed and undermotivated.  The word they often use is “overwhelmed.”  I don’t want to go over the DSM-V criteria for Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) in this post.  You could look that up yourself if you wanted to.  What I want to discuss is a condition that I am seeing more and more frequently in people from all walks of life, but especially young adults.

Our society and our families generally want us to be responsible.  They want us to do good jobs at school, at work, and at home.  For most people, this is not a big problem.  They have learned to do good enough.  For others, however, the concept of “good enough” is foreign and distasteful.  For these people, “good enough” means “lazy,” “slacking,”  and “uncaring.”  They have taken their society’s and family’s encouragement to do their best too literally.  They have set the bar for their behavior very high and will not move it for any reason.  The only goal worth working for is perfection.  Because of this, they often do very well in situations that are not very demanding.  If they have plenty of time to read or work, they produce very good results.  They usually dislike working with others because their co-workers do not perform to the standards that they set for themselves.  Problems usually arise when multiple tasks must be managed simultaneously.  The person with OCPD will have problems prioritizing the tasks because all of them must be performed perfectly.  As he falls behind in his tasks in his efforts to get them just right, other tasks are assigned and the backlog increases.  Eventually, my patients with OCPD give up — overwhelmed with the effort to keep everything perfect.  They often tell me that they would rather fail at a job because they didn’t try rather than because their effort was judged to be inadequate.  They interpret this condition as depression.  It is more closely related to learned helplessness.

People with OCPD have a need to control important aspects of their lives.  They are not “go with the flow” kinds of people.  They believe that there is a right way to do things and that everything should be done correctly.  When they feel in control, they are confident (but they rarely feel totally in control).  They are aware of their talents and abilities, but frequently feel that circumstances prevent them from fully realizing these abilities.  They tend to believe that if everyone had their work ethic, the world would be a better place.  They live by the saying, “If is job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”  Often, they have trouble understanding why people get frustrated with them when they work more slowly than others.  They think that the extra time and effort needed to get things right and complete is time well spent.  They see repeated demands to do the job “good enough” and move to the next job as evidence that society does not care about quality, craftsmanship, and responsibility.

People with OCPD like having the reins in their hands.  They like being the responsible people who make decisions and dislike being made to carry out the requests of people who do not share their interests in perfection.  They would rather be the driver than ride shotgun.  They would rather be the pilot than the passenger.  They prefer the joy of success in contests of skill and wit to the abandon of letting yourself be swept away by the passions of the moment.  They don’t like rollercoasters — they don’t have steering wheels.


  1. It’s good to see you posting again. I agree with your post, perhaps because it comports with my belief as a psychiatrist that the competitiveness of contemporary capitalism is behind a lot of the suffering we encounter. And how could this not be the case in a lackluster job market, when we increasingly read about computers rendering humans unnecessary? Perfectionists are not only competing against peers, especially those overseas–they are competing against machines. I am thinking of a patient who would freely acknowledge having OCPD, but he would view it as the necessary cost of keeping his job.


    • It’s good to hear from you. I’m sorry I dropped out for so long.

      I agree with you. The urge for more efficiency is logically reasonable but treats humans like machines. You read about worker productivity going up but pay stagnating — its an employer’s market. I have a lot of empathy for people with OCPD traits and understand why they see it as the price of keeping their job. It’s probably not strictly true but it is the niche they have found they can fill and possibly be considered indispensable.

      By the way, I have been looking for current posts on a blog by you. Do you have one active? I have enjoyed your posts for a long time.



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