I have memories of walking around my college campus before evening class in the autumn. I was still using a portable CD player, and my regulars at the time were Alicia Keys’ new As I Am album and Norah Jones’ Not Too Late. I strolled and sat in the crisp air, listening to the music, staring contemplatively at the night sky, and aching in my loneliness.
My girlfriend and I had broken up earlier that year after only a few weeks of dating. Nothing serious, but she was the first person I considered a girlfriend in quite some time, and she would be the last for many years. Now I was alone at my favourite time of year with the Christmas season rapidly approaching.
I tortured myself with thoughts. The feel of someone’s warmth pressed up against me; how she smelled, how her hair smelled when she was close and how it lingered on my clothes after she left; how it tasted when we kissed; how I felt when I touched her skin, her hair, or just looked at the light catching her the right way.
But here’s the thing about OCPD – it doesn’t play well with relationships.
It played by different rules all the time, too. In the inexperience of my first relationship, I bent over backwards to do everything I could to support the relationship. That sounds good, but it’s dishonest.
“Can you do ______ for me?” The answer was always yes. Always. To the point that I had no personal identity. I was a sycophantic yes man. Well-intentioned or not, that is relationship poison.
When that relationship inevitably failed, all I wanted was to get back into one. I had wanted one for so long, gotten it, and then watched it drift away. Trying again immediately was the only solution, even if approaching women I liked intimidated me (and I was terrible about it).
So when a cute co-worker got flirty I fell hard. She found me cute and seemed to enjoy my awkwardness. It was clear to her that her charms were working on me and she thrived on the bashfulness it caused. Her flirting gradually became more sexually assertive as she would cross a threshold (playfully suggestive talk, touching my arm, leaning into me) because it wouldn’t return the same high. Eventually she kissed me and things progressed to a sexual relationship.
What should have been a satisfying climax to a period of sexual escalation fell flat. I realised in that moment that with all her teasing that my mind had mistaken “I think I’m starting to like this person” with “she wants to have sex and all you need to do is not screw up”. After that happened it was like, “Now what?”
Everything else started to come into view and I felt myself recoil at the thought of being in a relationship with her. She was not a terrible person; it wasn’t a repulsiveness. It was just the awareness that I could not spend my life with someone like her. And if I could not spend my life with someone like her, we would eventually have to separate. And if we were eventually going to separate, then why waste time by being in the relationship now? If I met someone else I might miss my chance because I would need to end the current relationship first – but not if I was already single.
Many of my early relationships followed the same pattern. A flash of excitement about getting to know someone knew followed by the realisation that it wasn’t going to work.
Quick side bar: I developed this into my informal “exceptionalism” theory of dating. A lot of early focus gets clouded by the honeymoon phase. People have romanticised visions of the relationship like “I could see myself sitting on a beach in Hawaii with this person.” A lot of people meet that standard. What a relationship needs is the person who can sit across the breakfast table on a raining Wednesday and noisily eat a bagel after fighting with the kids all morning year after year.
It’s commitment through the mundane and the challenging that makes the relationship.
But my largely unspoken truth through everything was that the other person was not “good enough”.
Now, before we even get into this, I am a kind person to a fault. It’s almost unheard of for me to say anything judgemental or even particularly critical about someone else, and quite common for me to appear visibly uneasy when those around me are doing it. I’ll get to this more in a bit.
So my truth remains largely unspoken because I know others will receive it as elitist or holier-than-thou. Here is what the uninitiated need to know about OCPD: I think all of these things about myself. I am more brutal with myself than anyone else. The key difference between myself and another person is that I am stuck with myself whereas I can choose with whom I associate.
The idea is that I am tragically flawed – not perfect. People are not “not good enough” because they do not meet a list of personal criteria; they are “not good enough” because they don’t meet what my mind establishes as universal criteria.
Tolerating someone who would do a particular thing was bad. Maybe not as bad, maybe just as bad, maybe even worse – but bad. “If good men do nothing…” and all of that.
Again, I do the stupid, selfish, and otherwise bad things myself. I berate myself over them. I carry them like bricks in my life. At times it paralyses me with indecision because the options all seem like versions of some evil, and to the OCPD mind any evil is the wrong choice. The OCPD mind does not deal in the lesser of two evils.
In an interpersonal sense, it does not mean that I do not have opinions. It does mean that I reserve them.
That woman in the hat across the street? Yeah, I probably agree with you that it looks stupid. I don’t see why we need to express that though. She decided to wear the hat. Why do either of us have to subject the universe to our opinion that we don’t like how it looks? If that opinion gets to her, it could well hurt her feelings. That does not sit well with me.
What makes this a disorder rather than a moral philosophy is the severity of it. A utilitarian, for example, might also refrain from saying something negative in the hat situation. The potential for hurting her feelings (a harm) outweighs any potential benefit and the moral calculus says do not do it.
The OCPD calculus says there’s a hint of bad here: don’t do it.
When people around me get critical or judgemental, it’s therefore common for me to get uncomfortable even when I agree and most would agree the judgement is objectively true.
This is where my social anxiety begins to manifest. Every social interaction involves a risk of upsetting my OCPD mind. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the risk – it only takes one person to cause a problem.
My mind obsesses about where risks are greatest and how I can go about mitigating the risk.
It also obsesses about other things.
My wife often tells my that I have a feminine energy. That doesn’t surprise or offend me. For as long as I can remember I have been attracted to women more than men. I don’t just mean sexually. In terms of friends, co-workers, classmates – I have always found myself more at east with women. Even in terms of health I have begun to shake my head at how various things are more common in women. OCPD is one of the few notable exceptions (men are more likely to receive this diagnosis than women).
Then there’s that. I have found a lot of support in the feminist community online and I do take with their perspective on most issues. The OCPD part of my mind obsesses (that’s the whole point, after all) about this “feminine energy”. Do I believe these things because of reasoned persuasion, or do I believe them because I am not in tune with the masculine side of things enough? Am I simply aligned with feminists because their cause of gender equality parallels my personal frustrations dealing with other men?
Then I start to worry about the presence or extent of any misandrist attitudes. See, in my mind the general preference for women over men stems from personal experience with a typical male boorishness. No, it’s not all men and I have friends who are guys. I dislike the rude or otherwise bad behaviour. But that has developed into a personality where if I were presented with one man and one woman, both unknown to me, and asked to choose one as a partner for a project, my inclination would be to choose the woman.
Why? Because my past experience suggests that it’s more likely (not a given, but statistically more likely) that she will be cooperative and amenable. He may try to assert expertise where he has none or domineer the project as the unelected manager.
I have no data on this. It could be a 50-50 split. It’s a subconscious bias that plagues my interactions. With the OCPD, I have little desire to overcome it though.
In fact, experience has shown me more that I’m inclined to become exhausted or frustrated with both of them. People aren’t perfect and the longer I interact with someone the more likely they will reveal a tragic flaw; an opinion or behaviour with which I cannot in good conscience choose to associate.
My circle of friends is exclusive and has the benefit of sustaining long absences. We often go months without a word between us but pick up where we left off when the time occurs. Most people find me personable, even charming, but that is for the duration of our interaction. Most interactions will not end with an exchange of information or agreement to meet again – it’s just a pleasant interaction for what it was and now we move on with our lives.
This in and of itself is cause for me to berate myself. I think several times each day about whether I am a horrible person because of my introversion and desire, nay, need to spend time alone. Even with the people I love deeply there must be time for introspection and silence, both as a means of recharging and decompressing from the little things that upset my delicate OCPD sensibilities.
Some readers are familiar with me either through direct personal connection or from becoming friends online, and they know that I’m married. What I’m describing seems like a harsh sentence to put down for a spouse, but that is precisely why my wife and I have the partnership we do.
She did a wonderful job from the start, even before we were dating, of establishing boundaries and expectations. As an ambivert, she does have a strong desire to go out and do things, which she satisfies by communicating with me and scheduling most of our activity so we can spread it out and allow for downtime. That, paired with her own need for downtime, keeps my energy level where it ought to be. It takes work and we both commit to it.
It’s also been a blessing because we enjoy the freedom to discuss subjects that seem taboo in so many relationships; namely, past relationships and the realities of monogamy. For example, we have both talked about not only people we used to date but about what was great, what went wrong, and even about sex with them. It’s part of our history and part of the picture. Past relationships often met with awkwardness, resentment, jealousy, or even anger about those sorts of discussions.
With these obsessive thoughts racing through my mind – replaying old relationships, considering ones that never were, or even trying to sort through the Irish Catholic guilt and morality of being sexually attracted to women who are not my wife (marriage does not flip off that switch; one has to make the decision not to act on the attraction) – it would be impossible to sustain a relationship with anyone who could not discuss them. They would build up in my mind until the emotional weight caused a break.
The other big piece of this is not the sense that other people are “not good enough”. As mentioned earlier, a more severe feeling is that I’m not good enough for other people.
I am aware of many of my faults, including some things I consider faults that others may not. Other people must see them, so even when people are being nice I am constantly fighting with the idea that it’s just diplomacy. When I am away they will allow themselves to entertain their judgements about those traits more.
It creates a socialisation valley where if I find someone who seems to meet my sense of “good enough” then they are definitely too good a person to waste time and energy on me. Even if the other person thinks the sun rises and sets with me at the beginning, eventually things will become routine and those realities will break through. They will tire or resent me and want to leave, or resign themselves to a relationship less than what it could be.
Consider a celebrity crush. Imagine if that celebrity appeared in your life right now and wanted to begin a whirlwind romance. That sounds great (“exceptionalism theory”), but eventually they will become to you just another person. The celebrity façade will fall away.
That’s how I view people who seem impervious to my many flaws. They are flaws which, by definition, are imperfect and therefore have room for improvement. In the OCPD mind, if something has room for improvement and one does not pursue it, then one is failing as a person. Someone will notice the flaw and then one has to answer for the lack of responsibility: “Yes, I knew that it was flawed and did nothing. I figured it was good enough.”
My thoughts about OCPD itself brought me to another realisation lately – that I’m not a writer. I mean, I write. I’m a writer in the most technical sense of the word. But writers have a need to compose.
I don’t. I have a need to escape. My fictional works in progress are, ultimately, escapist fantasies regardless of the genre. I take the thoughts, concepts, and themes of my mind, spin them into a narrative, and attempt to produce an entertaining and cohesive story.
I don’t need it to be successful though. Mostly I don’t want it to be successful because I wouldn’t want the attention associated with that. That’s why I write using a pseudonym; I hope that if any of my writing takes off the pseudonym will absorb much of the attention.
The writing is for my mind to escape the imperfect world to one of control. Even the imperfections of the fictional world are within control. If a situation gets too out of hand to resolve, delete and back the story up a bit. Don’t like a character – get rid of them.
And when I write I do it for a specific audience. That audience is the “good enough”. If I am going to subject my thoughts to the scrutiny of others, then I want it to be theirs. Of course, I have already determined that I am not good enough for them and so the writing would be a confirmation of inadequacy in their eyes.
“Not good enough”: I don’t want you to read it because you seem like an entitled, opinionated jerk. The point of the story was to escape that, not invite it.
Good enough: I don’t want you to read it because I need to keep the fantasy that you might see me as a decent person alive. I can’t kill it with my mediocrity.
Some people might look at what I write and say and conclude that I am a very open person. As much as I lack concision at times (closing in on 3,000 words here), its the tip of an iceberg. I leave so much unsaid and a good deal of that is hypocritical.
Judgemental people annoy me and I take care not to judge….but that’s not true, is it? I have opinions, many of them formed before I’m even consciously aware of the stimulus, but I choose not to share them. That still makes me judgemental. In fact, it means I’m dishonest about being judgemental.
See, this is OCPD? The option here for some people is to own being judgemental and work on forming better judgements. I view them both as terrible options and obsess about finding a secret third option where I sincerely have no rude opinion about anyone or anything. Everything short of that is a failure on my part.
It’s not good enough.