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This series looks 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.
When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Allan E. Mallinger, M.D. and Jeanette DeWyze was published by Random House in 1992. If you believe you are dealing with OCPD or someone who is "Too Perfect," whether that's you or a loved one, please buy a copy of the book and read it for additional insights that will not all be covered in these excerpts.
5 - Don't Pressure the Obsessive
What about when you want the obsessive to do something - anything from making a simple decision to changing some deeply entrenched pattern?
Be forewarned: any direct confrontation in which you try to force the other person to change is almost certainly doomed to failure. Your request or demand will only increase his inclination to assert his dominance or "rightness," escalating the power struggle.
<snip>He and a fellow lawyer were choosing between two available offices in a building they planned to share. Hal, my patient, was perfectly content to give his associate first choice, but the other man was vacillating, holding up Hall's move into the new quarters. Hal related one of their conversations:
"Once again, I asked him which one he wanted, and he told me he still couldn't decide. Since he'd been leaning toward number two, I told him that he could have it and I would take the other one. But he hit the roof, telling me that he hadn't said he wanted number two, and that the rent was higher. So I said, 'Okay. You take number one, and I'll take number two.'
"'Number one is too small.'
"'Would you rather I choose?'
"'No! I was here first, so I think I deserve first choice.'
"'Do you have any idea when you'll know which office you want?'
"'I don't know'."
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At first, maybe the other man's goal really was, as he consciously believed, to pick the office that best suited his needs; secondarily, he may have enjoyed the sense of control he felt in making Hal wait. But when Hal pressured him, that changed. The associate became more invested in keeping the control, which he did by obstructing Hal. The more impatient Hal got, the more determined the other was to delay his decision, because by now he as angry. He couldn't show it directly because he had no logical reason for it. So instead he unconsciously retaliated by blocking Hal.
I suggested that Hal try backing off completely - that he tell the associate to take his time and call whenever he had decided. When I saw Hal a week later, he said that given that leeway, his associate had decided instantly.
<snip>Instead of saying, "You must change," for example, make sure you're conveying, "I would like you to do this, for reasons x, y, and z." If you have to know your boss's plans by a certain date, tell him so, but be sure to explain why, so that he doesn't interpret your need to know as an ultimatum, a control play, or manipulation. Your reasons should always reflect your own needs, or your difficulty with the status quo, rather than a judgment about the obsessive's behavior. For instance, say, "If I don't find out your plans by such-and-such a time, I won't be able to obtain a reduced-rate ticket," not, "I hate it when you do this to me. You always make me wait, and it's so inconsiderate!"
<snip> While change in the obsessive must come from within, sometimes healthy, truly unilateral changes in one partner will inspire changes in the other. We aren't truly sure why this happens, but some would say that one person's chronic tardiness and its outcome - the partner's nagging and pushing him - is a recreation of some aspect of a childhood relationship, and that it suits some need in each party. This view says that one one refuses to continue in the role of nagging, disappointed, disapproving parent, the other loses his unwitting collaborator and drops the corresponding role.
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Tiptoeing around The Right Way to approach the Perfectionist Personality can be a minefield.
While yes, much tact is needed, and Mallinger's excellent suggestions to back off if possible, or to give the reason in a non-judgmental way do work much of the time, sometimes they don't.
My advice is, if you do your best to be tactful and non-pressuring, and your partner or parent blows up anyway, don't take it personally. I've heard of teens (or younger children) getting blasted because they had to get a parent's signature on a field trip permission slip or a report card by a certain date, and they didn't ask in the right way or at the right moment. Now, perhaps they didn't use ultimate tact or timing, but they're kids - they shouldn't have to.
There are several families I know whose best working solution to time conflicts is to take two separate vehicles to most social events. Maybe the Perfectionist insists on being places twenty minutes early, no matter what, and frets over being asked to wait when he is ready to leave. Maybe the Perfectionist waits until the last minute to do her hair and is always running late. Maybe one member of the household likes to hang around and socialize after church, and the other wants to head straight home the moment the service ends. By taking two vehicles, the power squabble about when to leave is averted, even if it creates a slightly bigger gasoline bill and a few raised eyebrows from family or friends. (If anyone even notices. Outsiders generally notice less about our internal family dynamics than we think they do, and they care even less, being busy with their own affairs.)
Some things, you have to jump on at the right moment - if you have a plane reservation at XX time, and there's a shuttle picking your family up at XX time to catch that reservation, you'll either make it or miss it, Sweetcheeks. Other events, like a family car road trip - if your goal is leaving at five a.m., and instead you leave at five-fifteen, or even six, this is not a national disaster.
What is very true about this section of Too Perfect, is the observation when you change your habitual behavior, the dynamic in the relationship will change. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes it's not possible to determine in which direction it is, but it will be different.
When most people discover OCPD, and make an amateur diagnosis of their partner, parent, friend or co-worker, the first question is usually, "How do I change or fix this person?'
The answer, that you can't change other people, only yourself, feels weird, wrong, and counter-intuitive. Hey, they are the people with the problem! Whaddya mean, I have to change myself?
But it's true. First off, just because they (might) have a diagnosable mental disorder, does not mean those of us who chose to partner them, or work with them, or who are unchosen (siblings, children, parents, and so on) are totally disorder-free. We may very well have our own Issues ("Can you say co-dependence, boys and girls?"), and would do well to heed the Bible's advice about removing the beam from our own eye, as a first step.
Second, what we are looking to change is not really the other person, but the dynamics of our relationship with the other person. Our relationship with this person, about whom we care deeply (or perhaps hate, in the case of the Boss from Hell), is currently very painful, and we want it to be Not Painful. Joyous, even.
There is no fairy wand we can wave and !Poof! The other person is no longer obsessive and perfectionistic.
But when we change the "ballet" we've worked out - and there always is one, when Person A says/does X, Person B replies Y - we are already shaking things up. Doesn't matter if we are Person A or Person B, if we change the way we approach or reply to another person, they are forced to rethink and change the way they interact with us.
Does it work?
Yes and no. It depends on what we are looking for.
If we hope there is some magic formula, that, when applied, will make a relationship with a disordered person (not counting the we ourselves may have disorders of our own) into a quote normal unquote relationship, then no, it doesn't work. What is possible (sometimes) is a relationship that is more tolerable and less painful for us. Sometimes it may feel like what we consider normal, but we can never let our guard down, never assume that yippee, the problems are all better now. A disordered brain is like a roller skate that always wants to go left - it takes active awareness and effort to make it go right or straight, and the minute you let it go on autopilot, you end up going left again. If we are skating arm in arm with the person with the gimpy skate, we cannot blithely follow their lead.
And sometimes, the other person may become so frustrated and upset that we have chosen to make major changes in the relationship dynamic, that they choose to end it, altogether. There are no guarantees (and sometimes, the partner of a disordered person might do anything and everything his/her partner requests, and the disordered person STILL ends the relationship).
If you are hurting, and the way your current relationship is "working" is not working, for you, isn't it worth trying a different approach?