Differences Between OCD and Perfectionism

I have to make sure every screw is tightened all the way.” (OCD: So that I don’t die.)

I have to make sure every screw is tightened all the way.” (Perfectionism: So that my bike is safe and functions efficiently.)

It is very easy to confuse OCD and perfectionism because on the surface they can look the same. 

What is OCD?

OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are defined by recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are intrusive and unwanted, followed by attempts to ignore these thoughts, urges, or impulses with an action (performing a compulsion). Compulsions are defined by repetitive behaviors (hand washing, checking) or mental acts (praying, counting, repeating words silently) that is performed in response to an obsession. These behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or preventing a dreaded event or situation. For example, an obsessive thought could be thinking that your family members might get hurt if you don’t put your clothing on in the exact same order every morning. A compulsive habit in response to this thought would be to get dressed and undressed 4 times to make sure that your clothing is put on correctly. 

Although someone who lives with OCD may not want to think these thoughts or do these things, they feel powerless to stop. Symptoms usually begin gradually and vary throughout life. OCD prevents people from functioning normally and can lead to personal, professional, and academic difficulties. These behaviors or mental acts are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to control or prevent and are excessive. In contrast, people without this disorder can quickly confirm and resolve these thoughts and move on with their day. Depending on the individual and the seriousness of the thought, a person with OCD could spend minutes to hours tormented by these thoughts and subsequent or associated compulsions.


The term OCD is routinely used in casual conversation to label someone who may be extremely detailed with specific tasks or their daily routines. We all have strange idiosyncrasies such as avoiding bath sponges, organizing our closet by color and pattern, or refusing to touch the restroom door in public, but these habits should not be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is often misunderstood as a disorder that simply means being overly detailed or perfectionistic.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is refusing to accept any standard short of perfection; it is a personality trait characterized by a person striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding the opinions of others. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable. 

When someone is a perfectionist, they have no room for mistakes and have a very specific manner in which things should be done. They may be excessively preoccupied with: past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes, or doubts about whether they are doing something correctly. With an all-or-nothing approach, they can be extremely hard on themselves whenever something goes wrong or even become depressed when they don’t achieve their extremely high standards.  

The Major Difference

The biggest difference between OCD and perfectionism is the level of rationale applied to the situation. For example, if you have dirt on your hands, it would be rational to wash them until the dirt is gone. An irrational response would be to continue washing your hands, even after the dirt is gone. While perfectionism is a controlled concept, OCD is a controlling disorder. OCD can even be characterised as an extreme form of perfectionism, where anything can lead to anxiety, fear, and distress. Perfectionism is a personality trait where one strives for flawlessness; it becomes OCD when those strives cause disorder in one’s life.