The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Friday, December 2, 2011

RIGID PERSONALITY or Obessive Compulsive Personality Disorder

In response to my previous article regarding Dissociative Identity or multi personality disorder, a reader commented that conversely there are those who lack sufficient fragmentation in their personalities and that this condition represents the polar opposite of DID.  This inspired me to research behavioral patterns that I have observed and dealt with for many years but have never thought of in terms of "mental illness".

Looking up the first phrase that came to mind, "rigid personality", I immediately found several articles pertaining to the subject.  Ah yes, the inflexible one, I know thee all too well, and I’ll bet you do too. But what I wanted to know was if this is just a case of someone with a “difficult or stubborn nature” or symptomatic of an underlying psychiatric condition?  It depends.

All traits (objective and behavioral), including those associated with mental disorders, fall somewhere along a wide continuum between two equal and opposite poles, just like everything else in nature. Abnormal is measured by the deviation from a statistical center point representing equilibrium or “normal”.  It is easy to understand how too much “disorder” would be considered abnormal; however, too much “order” renders one inflexible.  For instance, the disordered structure of an unstretched rubber band renders it unstable and weak while the highly ordered structure of glass makes it brittle and prone to breakage.  Equilibrium is found in the middle – equally pliable and strong (think fiberglass reinforced rubber tires).

An overly rigid personality can result in difficulties in a range of areas including, but not limited to:

• Communication and interpersonal skills - both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken) such as the ability to open up and share one’s emotions; understanding or caring what others think and feel (empathy); and maintaining and holding a meaningful conversation

• Perception - processing visual and audiological stimuli such as understanding the subtle nuances of humor and sarcasm; reading body language and facial expressions; deciphering intonation and context; spatial manipulation; and artistic ability

• Obsessive behaviors - such as repetition of words or actions, fidgeting, uncontrolled movements (tics) such as blinking or muscular twitches, obsessively following routines or schedules, perfectionism, ritualistic behaviors, or as often found in the workplace - the "Micromanager"

• Lack of flexibility in attitude, opinion, and perception

• Low stress tolerance levels, poor anger control, increased reactiveness

Several of these issues can be found in those suffering from pathological conditions such as Asperger Syndrome or other Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Senile Dementia, and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder/ OCD), among others.

While Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder or Rigid Personality may be associated with a pathological condition, ergo “Nature”, it may have roots in one’s upbringing, environment or cultural background, thus “Nurture”.   It can be learned as a child through the example of those around us.  It may result from excessive discipline, parental pressure, or when a child is made to feel they that nothing they do is right or good enough.  For some it may be a coping/survival mechanism when faced with extreme trauma, abuse and/or brainwashing.  While rigidness may signal a personality disorder it can also viewed as a desirable trait when associated with genius, self discipline, success and leadership.

Those with OCPD rarely change throughout their life nor do they have a desire to so.  They can be highly opinionated, close minded and unyielding.  Don't try to confuse them with the facts - their minds are already made up.  Their commitment to and confidence in their ideals is only matched by the verbosity in which they defend them.  This often leads to conflict with others resulting in stress and frustration, which needless to say, they blame on others.  OCPDs rarely recognize or seek help for their condition.

They have a fixed way of doing things. Usually left brain dominant, they tend to be obsessively neat and organized, striving to keep things under control, always searching for new ways to increase efficiency and productivity while keeping a close and steady eye on the bottom line.  Highly focused and determined they tend to measure their self worth through their finances, careers/interests and their accomplishments rather than their interactions with or relationships with others. These are the types that are married to their jobs. They tend to be perfectionists and become easily irritated and annoyed when their expectations are not met.

Social and communication skills are problematic.  Friendships often fail under the weight of their demands for others to conform to their ways and views.  A highly volatile, argumentive and confrontational nature pushes others away.  Their rigid attitudes of what is “right and wrong” can be extremely overwhelming.  They may be prone to taking prejudiced, biased, discriminatory and condescending stances while lacking the implications of their words and actions.   Unable to openly express feelings and or emotion, they may appear to be stoic and unempathetic to others.  Even those closest to them may find it impossible to break down the barriers that separate them from the rest of the world.

You don't have to look far to find this personality in action. Just look among the Who’s Who in politics and business, famed divas and dudes of mass media, religious zealots and pontiffs, and the movers and shakers of math and science. The top 1% is teeming with them. They make great lawyers, actuaries, and accountants. The last thing you need is a lawyer who changes his mind during an argument or an accountant that estimates rather than calculates.

On the other hand, they may be closer at hand among your friends, family, neighbors, clients and colleagues.  Many a men will swear their mother-in-laws are OCPD.  The younger generation will see it in the “old” (that is anyone over 35), and they in turn may recognize it in anyone who qualifies for AARP membership. Employees assert that their bosses suffer from it.  Doctors complain about dealing with “difficult” patients all the time.  And I’m sure countless husbands will recognize these traits in their wives and claim they have it for at least a week out of every month.  The holidays seem to bring them out in droves in the form of irritating houseguests.

OCPD may make a person unreachable, an unstoppable and unmovable force, a fierce competitor or simply a pain in the ass.  When dealing with those with extremes of this disorder, remember that each one has a unique story behind how they ended up that way and may suffer from deeper issues that are not apparent on the surface.  Don’t argue with them because it’s a battle you will never win and it only serves to fuel the fire.  A smile and nod works wonders to disarm them even if inside you are stomping mad and screaming “NOOOO!”  Winning their approval, a word of praise or getting them to agree with your ideas is an exercise in futility.  It’s best to gently suggest and let them think they thought of it first.  Most of all remember two things: 1) These traits are on a continuum of varying degrees and we all are OCPD to one extent or another which is probably why it’s so easy to see it in others, and 2) Whether someone is overly flexible or rigid, we can learn something valuable from their example.


  1. Hi there, this is great site, I stumbled today on one more that I'd like to share with you. It is similar and well explained all about obsessive compulsive personality disorder

  2. Hi, this site makes my day. I came to this site because my supervisor said that I am sensitive which has a rigidity sense in it. I feared may be I am rigid and tried to browse about it.

  3. Because of this website, I am now able to recognize my Aunt's problematic behavior, and how she has been sabotaging me for decades because she lacks the ability to decode figurative layers in words, phrases, and sentences. She is strictly literal all across the board. I am a nurse with Lyme Disease. This woman has had a condescending hold on me for decades. I will certainly have to put a stop to this once and for all. Thanks, Susan! Jan Scurlock