Treating the Compulsive Personality: Transforming Poison into Medicine

One summer during my analytic training, I committed myself to study, outline, and completely internalize Nancy McWilliams’s Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (1994). The idea that you could be more effective with clients by understanding their specific patterns ran contrary to the anti-diagnosis attitude at my training institute. But it appealed to my eagerness to be helpful.

Not long after I began, I recognized myself in the chapter on the obsessive-compulsive personality. While I didn’t meet the DSM-5 criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), I certainly had my compulsive traits: perfectionism, over-working, and planning, just to name the obvious. McWilliams’ description elucidated who I could have become, had I not had a supportive family and lots of analysis to rein in those tendencies.

But this wasn’t just personal or theoretical. I recognized the collection of traits found in the personality style in my many driven, Type A, and perfectionistic clients working in law, finance, and publishing in work-crazed midtown Manhattan. And I saw the suffering it caused.

The Unrecognized Stepchild of Personality Disorders

Captivated by the subject, I eventually got involved in some online OCPD support groups. There, I read many stories of people who thought they had OCD for years before finally realizing that their entire personality was characterized by compulsive tendencies. They had known that their struggles weren’t just with specific obsessions and compulsions, but that was the only diagnosis they were aware of that was even close to describing them. And in many cases, OCD was the diagnosis a clinician had given them.

This pattern of misdiagnosis became even clearer once I began receiving comments and emails from people reading my new blog, The Healthy Compulsive Project, and my book, The Healthy Compulsive.

While OCPD is one of the most frequently occurring personality disorders of the ten listed in the DSM, it is under-recognized and probably underdiagnosed (Koutoufa Furnman, 2014). Far too often, it’s confused with OCD by both the public and clinicians. One study indicates that the lack of recognition of the condition leads to a lack of empathy for it (McIntosh Paulson, 2019). And far more people suffer from obsessive-compulsive personality traits than those who meet the full criteria.

It doesn’t help that it’s ego syntonic not just for the sufferer, but to some extent for our culture as well. Capitalism doesn’t care if you work too hard. According to psychologist and researcher Anthony Pinto (2016), there is no empirically validated gold standard treatment for OCPD. I suspect that this is a function both of our tolerance of it and of the difficulty in treating it.

What’s the Meaning of This?

As I filtered all of this through my training as a Jungian analyst, my curiosity about the underlying meaning of the disorder was piqued. Jung emphasized the importance of asking what symptoms and neuroses were for. What potentially adaptive purpose did symptoms serve in the patient’s life, or for humankind at large? Could there be meaning under something so destructive? Was there some underlying attempt to move toward individuation gone awry?

Looking up the etymology underlying the word “compulsion,” I realized that it wasn’t originally a bad thing. A compulsion is an urge that’s almost uncontrollable. A drive or force. And that’s not all bad. Many of these urges lead to creative and productive behavior. But

before I could find any possible light in the condition, I had to acknowledge how dark it could be.

The Cost of OCPD

The more I observed the world of the obsessive-compulsive personality, the more I came to see its destructive potential. A review of OCPD by Deidrich Voderholzer (2015) tells us that people who have OCPD often have other diagnoses as well, including anxiety, depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, and hypochondriasis. OCPD amplifies these other conditions and makes them harder to treat. People with OCPD have higher than average rates of depression and suicide and score lower on a test called the Reasons for Living Inventory (Deidrich Voderholzer, 2015).

Medical expenses for people with OCPD are substantially higher than those with other conditions such as depression and anxiety. And the study indicating this only included people who had sought treatment—which excludes the many with more serious cases who don’t (Deidrich Voderholzer, 2015).

The cost for couples and families is great. People who are at the unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum can be impossible to live with. They can become mean, bossy and critical, and their need to control often contributes to divorce. Much of the correspondence I receive is from partners of people with OCPD who are at the end of their rope, looking desperately for hope that their partner can change.

Parents with OCPD often place unreasonable demands on their children. This can interfere with developing secure attachment and may also increase the chances of a child’s developing an eating disorder.

It also causes problems in the workplace. While some compulsives are very productive, others become so perfectionistic that they can’t get anything done. Still others prevent their coworkers from getting anything done because their criticism disrupts productivity.

Similar problems happen in other organizations such as volunteer groups and religious institutions. People with compulsive tendencies often become involved in community groups, and they’re so convinced that they’re completely right, and that they should control everything, that they contribute to the deterioration of the organization, partially because others don’t want to work with them (Deidrich Voderholzer, 2015).

Just as disturbing is knowing of the many personal, community, and cultural benefits that the condition prevents when it hijacks energy that would otherwise have led to leadership, creativity, and productivity. Compulsives can be movers and shakers, but instead they often end up being blockers and disruptors.

The people who shape the world are the ones with the most determination, not the ones with the best ideas. And compulsives have lots of determination.

The Adaptive Perspective on OCPD

As I looked more deeply into the condition, I could see that the original intention beneath compulsive control is positive: compulsives are compelled to grow, lead, create, produce, protect, and repair. It seemed to me that the obsessive or compulsive personality is not fundamentally neurotic, but a set of potentially adaptive, healthy, constructive, and fulfilling characteristics that have gone into overdrive.

I’m certainly not the only one to make this observation. A dimensional perspective of personality disorders is gaining momentum (Haslam, 2003). But this viewpoint is still sorely needed for sufferers, partners, and clinicians.

Realizing that evolutionary psychology might provide an understanding of the adaptive potential of obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I contacted psychologist Steven Hertler, who has been on the front lines of thought in this area. His ideas resonated with what I had suspected about the survival benefits of obsessive-compulsive tendencies: the behavior that those genes led to made it more likely that the offspring of those with the genes would survive (Hertler, 2015). For instance, being meticulous and cautious is part of what Hertler (2015) refers to as a “slow-life strategy,” which increases the likelihood that those genes will be handed down.

Most importantly, though, a perspective which highlights the possible benefits of a compulsive personality style has significant clinical benefits. Conveying the possible advantages of this character style to clients lowers defensiveness and encourages change.

There is a wide spectrum of people with compulsive personality, with unhealthy and maladaptive on one end, and healthy and adaptive on the other end. Clients on the unhealthy end of the spectrum can be very defensive about their condition. They tend to think in black-and-white terms, good and bad, and their sense of security is dependent on believing that they are all the way on the good side. This makes it hard for them to acknowledge their condition, enter therapy, and get engaged in treatment. When they do come in, it’s usually because their partner is pressuring them, or because they have become burned-out or depressed.

If we are to help people suffering from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, we need to find a way to get under their defenses so that they can make use of therapy. When we understand and convey that OCPD is a maladaptive version of something much more positive, we begin to forge a good working relationship.

But as therapists, we should also acknowledge that some individuals are so far to the unhealthy end of the continuum that even if they were to enter therapy, we might not be able to help them. It was important for me, at least, to be realistic, so that I didn’t set myself up to feel that I had failed if I wasn’t able to help someone.

Characteristics of the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality

The DSM-5 says that OCPD is defined by a “preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental interpersonal control at the expense of flexibility, openness, efficiency” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It goes on to list eight criteria; since these criteria are readily available, I won’t list them here. But I do want to emphasize what the DSM-5 (2013) points out in the first criteria: people with OCPD are preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost. I have found this to be a defining characteristic of people on the unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum—they’ve lost the point of their rules and efforts to control. They’ve lost their original intention, the thing they first felt compelled to do.

I remember being struck the first time I noticed this. A female client was talking about how she had berated some people for not following the rules. It struck me that she was so adamant about the rules that she had forgotten who the rules were meant to help and protect—the very people she was berating.

One goal of treatment should be to help clients recover, or uncover for the first time, the original impulse, the deeper motivation that has compelled them. [editquote:ne goal of treatment should be to help clients recover, or uncover for the first time, the original impulse, the deeper motivation that has compelled themThat original impulse could be service to others, creation of many sorts, or repairing the world. Ideally, identifying these original impulses allows the individual to fulfil them productively, rather than obsessively or repeatedly try to carry them out in distorted ways.

Four Types of Compulsives

The more I treated people with OCPD the more I came to recognize that while there were certainly significant differences amongst them, those differences seemed to fall into a few patterns. The desire for control and perfection was the same, but the strategies they used to relieve their anxiety or to prove their worth were different. Eventually I identified four primary, overlapping styles, with both adaptive and maladaptive possibilities:

  1. Leader/Authoritarian Boss or Bully
  2. Doer/Workaholic
  3. Follower/People-Pleaser
  4. Thinker/Procrastinating Obsessive Perfectionist

This helped me to recognize clients’ dominant strategy and what was needed for balance.

In Search of a Treatment Approach

According to psychologist and researcher Anthony Pinto (2016), while we have reason to believe that psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for OCPD, we don’t have a form of treatment which has been verified by research at the “gold standard” level for evidence-based treatment of OCPD. Most of the studies we do have are either not specific to OCPD or are not rigorous enough to be certain that a particular approach is effective.

I may be biased because I practice psychodynamic treatment, but it seems to me that because OCPD affects the entire personality, psychodynamic treatment will be the most effective. I say this because cognitive and behavioral treatments are most effective for very specific issues, less so for the sort of global issues that characterize OCPD.

But those of us who work psychoanalytically may need to budge a little on maintenance of the frame, disclosure, the use of goals, and our reluctance to diagnose. Just as the saying “the only way to peace is peace” goes, “the only way to flexibility is flexibility.” We need to be mindful of our own personal need to control, and a certain rigor that our training may have encouraged: we might think or feel that we are doing the “right” thing by following the rules. But in particular aspects of the work with compulsives, we may gain more through example than through analysis.

Eight Key Points

I’ve found that there are particular themes and tasks that I usually need to work through with compulsive clients over time. I don’t believe that these are unique to OCPD, but rather that they usually require more emphasis than might with other conditions. I outline these below with the suggestion that they be used in a flexible and organic way, rather than as hard and fast steps.

In each of these steps I try to enlist clients’ adaptive compulsive characteristics to foster change.

  1. Create a narrative respecting inborn characteristics. To help compulsives diminish insecurity and develop self-acceptance, I’ve found that it is important to create a narrative which distinguishes authentic, organic aspects of their personality from those which were the result of their environment. Compulsives are born with traits such as perfectionism, determination, and attention to detail. They usually like constructive projects, and this can be a joint project that nurtures the working therapeutic relationship.
  2. Identify the coping strategy they adopted. If there was a poor fit between the client and his or her parents, the child may have used their inborn tendencies, such as perfectionism, drive, or self-restraint, to find favor and to feel more secure. Most unhealthy compulsives become so when their energy and talent are hijacked and enlisted to prevent feelings of shame and insecurity, and to prove that they are worthy of respect, inclusion, and connection.
  3. Identify when their coping strategy is still used to cope with anxiety. Recognize if and how they still use that coping strategy as an adult. Most coping strategies used to ward off anxiety will diminish if the anxiety is faced head on rather than avoided with compulsions.
  4. Address underlying insecurity. Question their self-criticism and replace it with appreciation for their inherent individual strengths, rather than pathologizing or understanding them as reactive or defensive. Reframe their personality as potentially constructive. I’ve seen this perspective help many people as they participate in OCPD support groups.
  5. Help clients shift to a more “bottom-up” psychology. Nurture their capacity to identify emotions and learn from them rather than use compulsive behavior to avoid them. Help them to identify and live out the original sources of their compulsion, such as service, creation, and repair, actions that would give their lives more meaning. Help them to make choices based on how things feel rather than how they look.
  6. Identify what’s most important. Most compulsives have either lost track of what’s most important to them, or never knew. Projects and righteousness that they imagine will impress others fill the vacuum. Instead, once they can feel what they were naturally compelled to do, they can use their determination to fulfill it in a more satisfying way.
  7. Identify personality parts. Compulsives try to live in a way that is entirely based on direction from the superego, and they attempt to exclude other aspects of their personality. I have found it very helpful to have them to label the dominant voices in their head (Perfectionist, Problem Solver, Slavedriver), and to identify other personality parts that have been silenced or who operate in a stealth way. Depending on what the client is most comfortable with, we can use terms from Transactional Analysis (Parent, Adult, Child), Internal Family Systems (Exiles, Managers, Firefighters), or a Jungian/archetypal perspective (Judge, Persona, Orphan).
  8. Use the body, the present moment, and the therapeutic relationship. Compulsives rarely experience the present and usually drive their bodies as vehicles rather than nurture them. Bringing their attention to their moment-to-moment experience and using their experience of you as their therapist can help. For instance, bring their attention to tension in their body and, if possible, connect that with any feelings that they have about you. For instance, do they feel a need to comply with you, or any resentment about complying with you?

The Case of Bart


A man in his early forties, whom I will call Bart, came to see me when his wife said she could no longer tolerate his worrying and unhappiness. To his own surprise, he found himself tearing up as he described his life to me. He didn’t do that kind of thing. Ever.

Bart was handsome, fit and bright. Yet he was very self-deprecating.

He told me that he worked in finance and had done well enough to provide comfortably for his family. But his success didn’t register with him at all. He worried about what others thought of him. He feared that people would discover that he was a hoax at his job; he believed his success was accidental and that he could lose it all at any time. At this point in his career, he was just coasting and didn’t find any meaning or challenge in it.

Bart imagined that his family tolerated him only because he provided for them. During our initial consultation, he said he wasn’t feeling bad. But it was clear that he had experienced serious depression in the past, and I suspected that he was still depressed but couldn’t acknowledge it.

His wife was lively, talkative, and highly social, but their relationship was flat at best. He made it a point to say that he did not want to blame her for any of his problems or theirs as a couple. Nor did he want to assign any blame to his parents. Any problems he had were of his own making.

He admitted that he found it difficult to engage feelings. He avoided reflection, journaling, and talking. Like most compulsives, he controlled not just the outer world, but also his inner world. It was hard for him to tolerate uncertainty.

He played organized sports about four days a week, and he had great difficulty tolerating any mistakes on the field or court. He constantly monitored success and failure with a scoreboard in his head. He had quit playing golf because he got too upset when he didn’t play well.

At the end of our initial consultation, I told him that it seemed to me that while he had adapted very well to the external world, he had not adapted well to his inner world.

Achieving that would be one of the goals of our work together. I was confident that if he could put the same energy and attention that he had put into career success into his psychological well being, he would see change.

He told me that his impressions of therapy were based on media examples and that he didn’t have any idea how this worked. I told him that I was glad he was asking because we as therapists don’t always do a good job of explaining how the therapeutic process works. I agreed to be transparent about the course of our work, to share how I believed we needed to proceed, and to explain the rationale behind my suggestions. In particular, I would try to be clear about his role in the work.


His mother was depressed and a classic martyr. Masochistic, even. She seemed to enjoy her suffering. His father worked as a salesman and was willful, driven, and judgmental. He insisted on success: winning was his religion. For Bart this meant that if his behavior didn’t lead to points on the scoreboard in terms of some productivity or success, it was meaningless. His father said, “it’s good to win.” Bart extended this to “it’s terrible to lose.”

Bart internalized the strategies of both parents, and it caused a terrible conflict: he had imperatives both to lose and suffer (his mother’s masochism), and to win and achieve (his father’s need to triumph). He chose to be more like his father from his teens until he was 25; then he switched and became more like his mother. But he couldn’t let go of the feeling that he should still be winning all the time, in addition to learning, producing, and working all the time. He had lots of “shoulds.”

He had concluded that people want compliance rather than authenticity. He was raised Roman Catholic, and he’d make up things he had done wrong to have something to admit when he went to confession. He told me that he no longer believed in God, so he had to punish himself now. He felt guilty about any sort of self-assertion. He loved post-apocalyptic films because “in that setting, you don’t have to worry about being good anymore.”

Yet Bart didn’t feel that his parents or his environment had any bearing on his current struggles. So I said that the most important thing for us now was to understand how he had adapted to the situation he was raised in.

Coping Strategy

One aspect of Bart’s strategy was trying to control people by giving them what they wanted. Meeting his father’s expectations was only the beginning. Among the four types of compulsives, he was clearly a follower/people-pleaser. He tried to achieve self-acceptance through others’ opinions of him, but it didn’t work, even when he did get accolades.

Another aspect of his strategy was to not depend on others. To do so would rob him of control. It would take time for him to realize that he actually did have social needs, but that, so far, those needs had only gone into impressing others, rather than relating to them. As with many compulsives, Bart felt it was safer to seek respect than to want love.

In his martyr mindset, being a victim implied that he was good. So he often became very negative about his life to prove to himself that he was a victim. He wouldn’t complain verbally to others, but he did need to show himself, at least, how bad his life was. Later he came to realize that his depressed moods were also unconscious attempts to communicate the misery that he could not reveal directly.

He was aware that he had adopted a strategy of planning and perfecting to try to pre-empt the utter self-contempt he unleashed on himself when things didn’t go well. “But why the self-contempt?” I asked. “If I’m self-critical, it will show other people that I won’t tolerate mistakes. But it’s become habitual. I do it even when other people aren’t looking.”

Engaging Feelings

Much of our work involved learning to identify feelings and excavating different levels of feeling so that he could operate from a more “bottom-up” approach. We spoke of therapy as a gymnasium for exercising his capacity to tune into feelings. As with many compulsives, framing our work in terms of a project was helpful in engaging him. I tried to bring attention to what he was feeling in his body and to the present moment.

Most of his feelings were about “shoulds.” Desires were few and far between. Tuning in to desires was a heavy lift for him, but with time he began to be more aware of the difference between acting on fears versus acting on desires.

At times Bart felt like giving up, whatever that might mean. I recommended that he take that seriously but not literally: What is it that you really need to give up? What is the control that you would be happier without?

As he let go of self-control, anger began to surface and eclipsed his sadness and anxiety. Part of him believed that he always did the right thing, and he got angry at those who didn’t. While he was typically self-effacing, it was new for him to acknowledge that in some ways he felt superior.

But we also needed to continue to excavate even more deeply beneath his anger and judgement to see if there were yet other levels of fear or sadness. While it was scary and sad to acknowledge how much was out of his control, it was a relief not to be avoiding it.

When he first came into treatment he had imagined that therapy would remove all his uncomfortable feelings. But with time he came to realize that it was okay to have feelings—sad, anxious or angry—and that he could learn not to amplify those feelings or carry them needlessly. With time, he didn’t need to avoid them so thoroughly.

Identifying What’s Important

Even as he learned to turn his focus inward, he found it hard to articulate his goals in life, career, and therapy. He had lost track of himself and what he really wanted long ago.

Because he had little access to feeling, he was unable to find direction. He obsessed about his job and whether to change companies or even careers. He liked the idea of a new career, especially one with a new identity, but he couldn’t follow through on that. He feared losing the fantasy of what it would be like if he did change.

As he navigated his professional and personal world, I often had to ask him what was most important to him. At first this was distressing, since he had no idea who he was or what he wanted. He was always climbing mountains, but he wasn’t sure whether taking on challenges was something he felt he was supposed to do or something he wanted to do. This skill of distinguishing how something looks from how it feels has been essential to the improvement of most of the people I work with. He couldn’t tell the difference, and we kept revisiting the distinction.

In his efforts to succeed, he’d lost track of why he wanted to succeed.

Any sense of fulfillment in accomplishments was replaced by the need to achieve to prove to others and himself that he wasn’t a fraud. Over time he came to recognize that taking on challenges was fulfilling, that he genuinely enjoyed it, and that it was vital to his feeling better. But to enjoy it, he had to let go of using the challenges to prove his worth.

He had similar realizations when telling me about learning: this wasn’t just something he should do to silence his father’s demanding voice, it was something that was very satisfying. He didn’t have to do it, he wanted to do it. And that made it more pleasurable.

We explored his feelings about his marriage. He did value his marriage but was reluctant to depend on his wife: “I’d like to think that I don’t need my wife, but I do. And because I don’t want her to be too important, I don’t take in her support.” This would have made him too vulnerable and would have gone against the masochism he adopted from his mother.

It was a small revelation to him when he was recounting his weekend and noticed that spending time with his son had actually been pleasurable. It wasn’t just a “should.” Noticing this feeling of pleasure was a small window into what was most important for him. “I’ve been putting points in the wrong basket all along, thinking that making money was most important…I have to challenge the idea that piling one more dollar on the stack will make me feel better.”

He came to value more peaceful emotional states—being more present and accepting, and less regretful and judgmental.

Transference Countertransference

Coming to therapy was not comfortable for Bart, partially because he felt he wasn’t “good” at it.

I remembered that he had quit playing golf because he wasn’t good at it and wondered to myself if the same could happen with therapy. Still, his ability to speak to me directly about his discomfort was a success. Doing so served as a sort of psychoanalytic exposure therapy, staring down his deep fear of being real and of being known, with the added advantages of eventually understanding the causes and functions of those fears.

He once asked whether therapy was like confession. I explored what it was like in that regard for him and reminded him that when he was young he would make up sins to take to confession. Would he need to do that here? He didn’t think so.

He admitted that he wanted to learn the language of psychotherapy to please me. “Sometimes I tell you what I think you want to hear. I never lie to you, but I do try to figure out what you want.” He felt pressure in the silence to figure out what he was supposed to say. We explored this as a good example of his strategy.

“I’m afraid you think I’m a dick,” he said. “I’ve got so much, what’s my problem? Why am I complaining? You must think I’m just indulging here.” Was this feeling unique to our situation, or was this actually typical of how he felt with most people? He acknowledged that he never felt that it was okay to feel even tolerably accepting of himself, much less feel really good. That would be indulgent and arrogant. And it would invite humiliation.

He had imagined that I would give him a thumbs up at some point, certify him as mentally healthy, and send him on his way. We used this as an opportunity to distinguish what was more important: what I thought about him or how he felt about himself.

Allowing me to know him, and questioning how he imagined I saw him, was a step in the direction of being more open with people in general. Looking for parallels with what he imagined I thought of him, we explored the difference between what he imagined his wife thought of him, and what she really thought of him. As he felt less criticized, anxious, and depressed, she scrutinized him less, and he began to feel more comfortable with her.

I also experienced my own discomfort with him. I feared that he would run out of things to say and that I would be exposed as not having anything to offer him. I was not able to work this through completely, but in retrospect I suspect that my fears of being found inadequate were both induced and my own.

He missed a fair number of sessions. Even accounting for the fact that business meetings came up last minute, it still seemed that he avoided his issues at times by not coming. I thought it might be fitting for this to be an imperfect therapeutic process, and that my accepting that was going to be instrumental in his progress.

Despite how imperfect it was, he did make progress. Candor, which had been ego dystonic, was becoming ego syntonic. His coping strategy was changing, and we both came to enjoy his increasing freedom to be himself in the sessions.

Treatment Process: The Agents of Change

My goal in treatment with most compulsives is to enlist their natural impulse to become a “better” person and put it in service of their psychological growth. With Bart I never used the word compulsive, much less mention the diagnosis “OCPD.” But I did note his strong, natural drive to succeed and to be a good person.

Bart did seem to get this eventually: “It’s kind of like I’m waking up and realizing that the game I was playing, putting points on the scoreboard, was meaningless, but this process of understanding myself and feeling better is more important. It feels good when I get it, when I master it.”

These realizations included questioning the narrative that he had to be like either of his parents. Near the end of his treatment he told me, “I want to take the best of my mother and father, and not be so black-and-white about it.”

Another aspect of his narrative that we needed to question was whether his family needed him only for money.

Maybe they wanted him to be happy as well. Accepting this as a possibility required some vulnerability on his part. He couldn’t remain aloof if they actually cared about him. I believe that his work on opening to feelings in our sessions was instrumental in allowing him to feel closer to his family.

On occasion he wanted assignments for the week. I chose exercises to help him become more aware, in the moment, of how his old coping strategy affected him. For instance: “Try to notice when you stop yourself from feeling good. Count the times you do it. Just noticing it is great.” And, “Notice how many times perfectionism leads you to attack yourself.” Compulsives love to count. What he counted was changing.

We explored different parts of his personality. “What if I’m an asshole that just likes money? What if I just like being seen as generous but I’m really not?”

“Yes, part of you likes money, and part of you likes being seen as generous. Those are both okay. And there is more to you. There is also a part that genuinely likes to be generous whether anyone sees it or not.”

He wondered if it was okay to be ambitious. Somehow it didn’t feel right. The more we processed this, the clearer it became that it wasn’t so much money that was important to him, but achievement and mastery. There was a part of him that loved challenges. To say what he loved was a new expression and marked acceptance of a part of him that he had only vaguely recognized before.

Accepting his introversion was another challenge. He definitely liked his time alone but felt guilty about it, which of course meant that spending time with his wife and others felt like it was in the “should do” column, not the desire column. In the long run, he came to appreciate both being alone (without guilt) and spending time with his family, because it was no longer a “should.” As different parts of him came out of hiding, it became clearer what was important to him.

All these elements served to reduce the insecurity he felt, so that he didn’t need to prove himself…as much.


After 19 months Bart felt well enough to end treatment. We spent a few weeks processing the termination, especially what it was like for him to end it rather than me. I would have liked to see him longer, but that may have come out of my own perfectionist ideas about how long treatment should go on and what it should accomplish.

I would like to have seen him develop more comfort with the therapeutic process itself, but that too comes from someone whose intense interest in psychology developed when he was a teenager. Maybe not everyone needs to be comfortable with therapy, much less actually enjoy it. It was a very good sign that he decided to end treatment rather than feel he needed to stay to please me. I hope my acceptance was healing.

I will never know how much, if any, of his progress was a well-performed recovery. But I suspect that even if his first efforts to be authentic were to please me, they eventually became truly authentic. I suspect that he had experiences and insights that will help him change and be more fulfilled, even well after our work is finished.

Working with compulsives has forced me to examine my own biases, my own need to control, and my own rigidity. If nothing else, I learned that I can’t expect my patients to become any more flexible than I am myself. This includes challenging my own fixed ideas of how treatment should go with each new client.

Conclusion: Poison as Medicine

Jung said that individuation is a compulsive process, that we are compelled to become our true, authentic selves. When that process is blocked, neurotic compulsion ensues.

When we recognize the constructive potential of the obsessive-compulsive personality, we can help make it less “disordered.”

When we recognize the energy that’s gotten off track, we can help direct that energy back toward its original, healthier path. The adamancy about doing the “right thing” that turned against the client and the people around them can be enlisted to help them find their way to a more satisfying way of living.

The alchemists were known for trying to transform lead into gold, which was really only a metaphor for transforming the poisonous, dark struggles of our lives into the incorruptible gold of character. But I think that this metaphor works best when we understand that the gold was there all along, obscured and waiting to be released.


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