Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Too Perfect Tuesdays - Chapter Two - Self Control & Thinking in Extremes

Cows cows cows
from aWorldTourer at Flickr
Do you ruminate like a cow?
 This post continues with Self-Control & Thinking in Extremes, from Chapter Two.

This series will look at a small snippet of The book on the Perfectionist Personality, aka The Obsessive Compulsive disordered Personality, aka OCPD, each week. Please follow along, leave your comments, engage more on the FaceBook website... whatever your heart calls you to do.

Too Perfect, When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Allan E. Mallinger, M.D. and Jeanette DeWyze was published by Random House in 1992.
Self discipline is the mark of maturity, is it not?  We all admire the person who eats and drinks in moderation; who works at maintaining a fit, well-conditioned body; who is even-tempered; who manages to persevere even at difficult, unsupervised tasks.  But in their unconscious quest for absolute self-control, many obsessives carry such solid virtues to self-destructive extremes.

As I think back to my own days in medical school, I remember students who would not only study long hours but would deny themselves even the most legitimate breaks for eating, exercising, talking with other students, or entertainment.  Would reasonable breaks really have caused a dip in their grade-point averages?  Wouldn't an occasional Saturday off have improved the quality of their lives and their personal growth?  The answers are obvious, but there was no way you could have convinced these people.  They were deft at rationalizing their behavior (e.g., "I'm no genius - I need more study time."). 
I call these reason rationalizations because, while they may have been true, there was another, deeper and more powerful force driving these students to such extremes.  Though they probably weren't conscious of it, many feared that if they let their self-control slip just once, they might have less of it the next time, and still less thereafter.  They feared they would ultimately lose their hard-won diligence completely and become paralyzed or helpless, unable to accomplish anything.  Of course this "thinking" goes on somewhere below the surface, where it doesn't have the benefit of scrutiny, analysis, and revision. 
When obsessives lapse while dieting or trying to quit smoking or drinking, they may have trouble moving beyond their lapse and refocusing on the goal.  Instead they're apt to feel distraught over the transgression, and to dwell on it.  And why?  Not because they seriously think that one slip will make them fat, sick or drunk, but rather because they lost control.  They failed to make themselves do what they decided to do, and if such a slip occurred once, who knows where it could lead?


These examples point up an important characteristic of many obsessives: they tendency to think in extremes.  To yield to another person, for example, may be felt as a humiliating total capitulation.  Similarly, to tell one lie, break one appointment, tolerate a spouse's criticism just once, or shed a single tear is to set a frightening precedent.  One patient told me she couldn't miss a single workout because it make her feel she couldn't trust herself, and that frightened her.

This all-or-nothing thinking occurs partly because obsessives rarely lie in the present.  They think in terms of trends stretching into the future.  No action is an isolated event; each is merely a part of something bigger, so every false step has major ramifications.

Such distorted thinking can cause a host of problems.  I've know obsessives, for instance, who had trouble relaxing and enjoying first dates because they were so preoccupied with the possible remote consequences of such occasions.  ("Would I want to marry this person?")  In all-or-nothing thinking, one's perspective is badly distorted; there's a failure to step back and remind oneself that going out with someone doesn't commit one to any long-term romance.

Another consequence of such thinking is that it aggravates the pain of worry and rumination.  Obsessives tend to envision the worst possible outcome of a scenario and then worry as if such a scenario had in fact come to pass.  Or they will mentally magnify small personal gaffes into something far more serious,  Some of my patients have had trouble sleeping after briefly losing their composure in a therapy group, assuming that others had judged this "emotional lapse" as harshly as they themselves did.

Actually despite the song title being "All Er Nuthin'" it's a pretty good look at a couple setting boundaries with each other.  Will Parker won't marry Ado Annie if she continues her, eh, triflin' ways, and she won't have him out cattin' on the town, either.

All-or-nothing thinking - boy, am I familiar with that one!  Ex-boyfriend drove himself harder than anyone else ever would.  When he was dieting (which was most of the time, since he was convinced he was getting fat,) he would skip meals and of course, since I had my own weight and diet issues, he'd accuse me of "lack of control" because in fact I did want to eat more than once daily.  The nausea and headaches I suffered when I went too long between meals were not physical, in his opinion, but because of my lack of discipline.  He thought very highly of his own "self-control" and I'm sure this was anorective thinking, the idea that "I'm in control, I can conquer my hunger," along with disdain for weak-willed sisters like myself who wanted... moderate amounts of food at reasonable intervals.

If I had a dollar for every time he said "pigging out," "heifer," "slim" (with a sneer in his voice), "wide load," or "are you eating again?" kinds of comments, even when I was slim... I could probably pay my rent for a year.  I'm having to work very hard now to silence that voice inside my head, as I work on learning mindful eating.

Another all-or-nothing thing - we couldn't "do" more than one thing in a day.  For example, if we had a family party to attend in the late afternoon, the whole day had to be set aside for showering and grooming for the party.  He could not get his arms around the idea that we could, perhaps, clean the garage or wash windows until 11:00, then still have plenty of time to shower and get ready for a 5:00 party a 30 minutes drive away.  Nope, all or nothing.  Either a day was totally committed to household chores, or it was committed to social activities.  (And then usually the next day had to be spent in emotional recovery from the strain of said social event.)

I've heard a lot of stories about those with OCPD terrified to date, because there are expectations.  What if you're on a date with someone and don't like them?  From what I've heard, it's totally carried out in their minds to being trapped for 12 years in an unhappy marriage.  Or someone who is desperately in need of a job, but is afraid to send out a resume to X company because they're not absolutely sure they want to work for the company, because what if it's a really crappy place to work?  Hello, they haven't even asked you to come for an interview, let alone made a job offer!  All or nothing, distorted thinking, folks.

Katie from Health for the Whole Self posted about Ten Cognitive Distortions adapted from The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns (which will be reviewed on this blog, in the not-so-near future.  Gotta get through Too Perfect, first!)  While her adaptations apply specifically to those grappling with eating disorders, a great exercise would be to apply and adapt them to whatever one's "thing" or biggest weakness is, whether it's body-image, dating, job anxieties...

And ruminating...  ex b-f would chew over some negative thing, over and over and over again.  Not in a positive way, as in, "Let's unpack this, see why it happened, and take steps to try and prevent it in the future," but in a way that usually got him as angry and upset, sometimes even more so, than when whatever unpleasant event first occurred.  I believe that in some cases, as he retold himself the story over and over again, that he embellished details in his mind that made it worse or more painful every time.

In his case, he usually latched onto some awful thing that he believed someone had done to him.

Others chew over wrongs they believe they have done to others, and work themselves into feeling terribly guilty.  Katie had a recent blog post where she believed she'd said something offensive and was having trouble letting it go, until her husband told her to stop being a cow (he meant this with love.)

This is one I tended to do, myself, though as I get older, I'm realizing that... sorry, Ego!  What I say is usually not the most important thing on somebody's else's mind.  So, even if I'm more than usually tactless, I haven't ruined their day or life (unless they're OCPD, in which case, no matter how much care and tact I exercised, I might have said the "wrong" thing anyway.)

Got a self-control or thinking in extremes story?
Your thoughts?