“Just Right” (Perfectionism) OCD: Everything Feels Wrong
If you were to ask random people on the street what they imagined when they thought of OCD, half of them would probably tell you that they pictured someone excessively washing their hands. That’s a description of contamination OCD.
The other half would tell you that they think of someone who’s an extreme perfectionist, and needs everything around them to be organized in the exact way that they want them to be.
To be clear, these commonly-held beliefs about OCD are misguided; OCD is a mental illness characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, not by perfectionism or cleanliness.
However, there is a subtype of OCD that fits this depiction of a perfectly organized person. It’s called just-right OCD, and although you’ll often find people with just-right OCD fixing and rearranging things, it’s still a lot more complicated than just liking things to be tidy.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about just-right OCD and how to get help if you think you might be suffering from it.
What Is Just Right OCD?
Just-right OCD, also sometimes called “perfectionism OCD” or “not just right OCD”, is a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. To be clear, none of the OCD subtypes are medically recognized, and they are all part of the same disorder. However, OCD experts have defined subtypes of the disorder which help categorize specific themes of obsessions.
OCD is a mental illness that is characterized by the presence of intrusive, obsessive thoughts or sensations and compulsive behaviors. Obsessions are unwanted and cause the person with OCD a lot of distress. They then try to decrease the anxiety that the obsession brings by engaging in a compulsive, repetitive, or ritualistic behavior. People with OCD usually know that neither their obsessions nor their compulsions make any logical sense, but the anxiety is so intolerable that they can’t seem to stop.
People with the “just right” subtype of OCD have obsessions and compulsions centered around things being perfect, organized, symmetrical, or ordered in a specific way — things around them need to be “just right”. They are plagued by a constant sense that things are incomplete or wrong.
This could be a need for their physical surroundings to be “just right”, but many people obsess about their bodies, sensations, and communication is “just right,” too. This leads them to compulsively fix, rearrange, touch, and count things until they feel comfortable. The problem, of course, is that no one with untreated OCD feels comfortable for very long.
Imagine that your partner changed something subtle about their appearance. Maybe they parted their hair differently than usual, or changed the frame of their glasses. This is someone you live with and see every day, so you notice that something’s slightly different, even if you can’t first put your finger on what it is. The longer you take to figure out what’s changed, the more it nags at you. It’s not as if they dyed their hair blue, but something is just not quite right.
This is a small taste of what living with just right OCD feels like. The major difference is, of course, that people with just right OCD symptoms feel that things are “off” or “wrong” even when nothing has changed. It’s a constant uncomfortable sensation that follows them around in their everyday lives.
Common Obsessions of Just Right OCD
People with this subtype of OCD have obsessions that something isn’t (and needs to be) perfect, symmetrical, or in a specific order. Sometimes, they obsess about a specific imperfect pattern – touching the right hand and not the left, for example – but sometimes, it is just a general feeling that something isn’t quite right.
Some examples of obsessions that characterize this type of OCD are:
- The picture on the wall of the doctor’s office is slightly crooked, and it’s making me severely anxious. I need to straighten it.
- I need to check every email exactly 22 times, or I won’t know for sure that I haven’t made a mistake. I need to make sure my words are perfect.
- Someone bumped into my right shoulder, so I have to bump my left shoulder against something – otherwise it won’t be even.
- This wine glass isn’t exactly half full, it’s a little bit off. It’s driving me crazy.
- The part on my hair isn’t straight. I can’t leave the house until I get it to be perfectly straight.
- I stepped with my right foot 5 times to get to the fridge, but I only stepped with my left foot 4 times. I need to step with my left foot one more time so it’s even. Otherwise, I won’t be able to concentrate on anything else.
- The fingernail on my left pinky looks like it’s just a tiny bit longer than the fingernail on my right pinky. Where’s my nail clipper? I need to fix this.
- That can of soda isn’t quite in the right place in the fridge. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it’s just not exactly right.
- When I knocked on the door just now, it didn’t sound quite right. Something is off about it.
- I can’t speak out loud until I’ve perfectly arranged the words I’m going to say in my head.
It’s interesting to note that unlike almost all other subtypes of OCD, obsessions for just right OCD don’t always revolve around anxiety that some specific harm is going to come to them or others.
Rather than intense anxiety or fear, just-right obsessions often feel more like a general sense of discomfort or unease. Something is just not right, even if they can’t put their finger on it. This causes people with just-right OCD to feel distracted and uncomfortable, like they just can’t stop thinking about what feels wrong or “off”.
Sometimes, just-right obsessions can and do bleed into other types of anxiety and obsessive thinking. For example, some people with just-right OCD do feel like if they don’t perform a compulsion a certain number of times, for example, that harm may come to their family. They may feel like if they don’t check their words carefully before communicating them, that they will not live up to their potential at work and get fired.
Common Compulsions of Just Right OCD
Of course, OCD wouldn’t be OCD without the presence of compulsions. Just-right OCD is one of the subtypes that often has visible compulsions. The irritation and discomfort people with just-right OCD feel everyday leads them to constantly be striving to try to arrange things so that they feel right.
The problem with OCD, of course, is engaging in the compulsive behavior one time is rarely enough. Someone with just-right OCD may rearrange something so that it’s “just right,” only to feel a few minutes later that something is still off.
The need to perform these compulsions severely disrupts the OCD sufferer’s life. Some people lose hours and hours of their day to their compulsions, and can even get “stuck”. For example, perhaps someone is trying to leave their house, but they’re stopped by the sensation that their shoes are tied in a way that isn’t quite symmetrical: one foot is laced slightly tighter than the other.
The person may get stuck in the doorway, tying and retying their shoes until they feel exactly symmetrical in pressure. Of course, this “just-right” feeling is never achieved, and the person ends up losing hours of their time trying to get things exactly the way they want them to be.
This is the vicious cycle of OCD: the more we engage in compulsions, the more we get trapped in the disease’s grasp.
Here are some of the most common compulsions that people with just-right OCD experience.
One of the most common compulsions that people with this subtype exhibit is fixing behaviors. They can often get obsessed with symmetry and order, and re-arrange things in their environment so that they feel symmetrical or “perfect”.
Examples may be ordering items on their desk, alphabetizing items, and rearranging things in their environment so that they feel symmetrical. They may also “fix” things about their own appearance, like making sure that both sides of their hair are perfectly symmetrical, for example.
People with just-right OCD often engage in checking compulsions to make sure that things are just right, often after they’ve fixed them. For example, they may give into the compulsion of rearranging the things in their cupboards so that it feels perfect and symmetrical to them. However, 5 minutes later, OCD may fill them with doubt about the cupboard still being organized in the “right” way.
This may lead the person to engage in another compulsive behavior: to go back and check the cupboards to make sure that things are as perfectly arranged as they left them.
People with just-right OCD may also check their words and communication. They often feel like the words they choose to express themselves with also need to be just right. This leads them to check their words over and over and over again before communicating them – reading over a text message more times than necessary, for example.
People with just-right OCD often engage in compulsive reassurance-seeking to try to “compare notes” with others around them. They want to know if they are the only ones who feel that something is “just off”, or may be seeking reassurance that something is perfect even though their OCD is leading them to feel like it isn’t.
For example, perhaps a person with just-right OCD is plucking and plucking a guitar string that doesn’t quite sound in tune to them, even though it is in tune. This person may ask someone else to listen to the guitar string’s sound, to seek reassurance that the guitar is, in fact, in tune.
Reassurance is OCD’s greatest weapon, and only makes our symptoms worse. Although the person with just-right OCD may feel satisfied for a short time that their guitar, in fact, is in tune, soon enough the obsessive “not just right” feeling will start again. This is the nature of OCD; reassurance is never enough.
Often, people with just-right OCD have a compulsion to touch things, especially symmetrical things. For example, if something bumps their left knee, they may have the intense urge to bump their right knee against something just so that things feel symmetrical.
The touching compulsion may be more abstract than this. For example, sometimes someone with this subtype of OCD doesn’t feel like things are complete or “just right” until they touch a certain object a certain number of times. This discomfort and sense of incompleteness intensely bothers them until they give in and engage in the compulsion.
Some people with just-right OCD have a compulsive need to count things. Usually, the compulsion isn’t simply to count, but to count to ensure that things are symmetrical or “perfect”. For example, rather than simply counting their steps, they may count their steps so that they can ensure that they’ve stepped exactly the same amount of times with their right foot as with their left foot.
Often, people with just-right OCD feel like certain colors, numbers, things, people, places, smells, or sounds are wrong. Of course, they know that this doesn’t make any logical sense, but they can’t help the physical discomfort and disgust they feel when they are around this thing.
This often causes people with this subtype of OCD to avoid certain things as a compulsion. For example, someone may feel like the color red is “just wrong”. This may lead them to compulsively avoid the color red – maybe they start off simply refusing to wear red clothing, but in severe cases, people may refuse to even look at the color red.
Perfectionism vs. OCD: What’s the Difference?
If you don’t suffer from just-right OCD, you might be reading and thinking to yourself that these symptoms sound similar to ordinary perfectionism or even traits of a type-A personality. And plenty of people in the world are perfectionists. What makes just-right OCD so much more distressing?
When analyzing the differences between perfectionism and just-right OCD, it’s important to keep in mind that just-right OCD is a mental illness, not a personality trait. This is where the “D” of “OCD” comes into play: D for disorder. One defining factor of all diagnosable mental illnesses, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), is that mental illnesses cause a significant disruption in someone’s work (or school), home, or social life.
Someone might be a perfectionist, for example, but not think that there’s anything wrong with that. They may even be praised for their perfectionism in certain work settings, and the level of perfection that they strive for might be viewed as the goal for all employees. Maybe their friends and family sometimes get annoyed of them for being such perfectionists, but in general, it’s widely accepted that “that’s just the way they are”.
People with perfectionism can and do suffer, but in general, they usually view perfectionism as something that’s part of them – like a personality trait or an innate characteristic of who they are.
People with OCD, including just-right OCD, suffer tremendously from their symptoms. Both their obsessions and their compulsions feel like they’re coming from outside of themselves, and that they’re not in-sync with who they truly are. People with just-right OCD often even know that their need for perfection is illogical and senseless, but they can’t help themselves from rearranging things. They want to stop, but they can’t.
People with just right OCD are rarely, if ever, proud of their perfectionist obsessions and compulsions. They usually long to be free of the OCD cycle, but find it almost impossible not to engage in organizing compulsions when an obsessive sensation comes along.
We thought it was important to clarify these differences because characterizing OCD, even just-right OCD, as simple perfectionism harms the public’s understanding of what OCD is. The widespread misinformation and jokes about OCD add to the stigma of having this disorder. It’s important to understand that OCD is a lot more distressing than simply being a perfectionist is.
OCD or Tourette’s?
Just-right OCD has also been referred to as Tourettic OCD. That’s because of the different way that it presents in comparison to other subtypes of OCD. As we said before, people with just-right OCD often don’t experience obsessive thoughts about something specific happening to them or others because of their failure to perform the compulsion. Instead, the obsession is more of a physical sensation or need to fix, count, tap, or whatever the compulsive behavior is.
This is quite similar to the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome or tic disorder. With Tourette’s and other types of tic disorders, people have an intense need to move their body in a specific way or make a specific sound. Not engaging in the compulsion to do so can be physically painful for people, and intensely anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable.
Tic disorders and OCD have long been linked in medical literature. Up to 60 percent of people with Tourette’s also experience symptoms of OCD, and around half of children with OCD also present some tic-like behaviors. It’s so interwoven, in fact, that just-right OCD is often referred to as Tourettic OCD.
So what’s the difference between Tourette’s syndrome and just-right OCD? Is there a difference?
In the DSM, these two disorders are categorized separately. However, just-right OCD isn’t listed as a separate disorder – no OCD subtype is. The general consensus is that OCD is OCD.
Just-right OCD, though, presents differently than all other subtypes of OCD. Some experts believe that just-right OCD have more in common with Tourette’s syndrome or tic disorder than classic OCD. These experts argue that without considering the tourettic nature of just-right OCD, we can’t properly treat this subtype of the disorder.
One way to distinguish between just-right OCD and Tourette’s is if someone is presenting only with what are called “simple motor tics”. These types of tics are simple and involuntary movements, like jerking a muscle or clearing one’s throat. People with just-right OCD (without an accompanying tic disorder) don’t usually experience these types of involuntary simple motor tics.
Complex motor tics, though, are much harder to distinguish from just-right OCD. The compulsive behavior of just-right OCD can be viewed, in a sense, as a tic with a purpose or intent — which is what complex motor tics are. Complex motor tics include things like touching, tapping, and head banging.
More research needs to be conducted on the overlap of just-right OCD and Tourette’s. What’s clear, though, is that these two disorders have a lot in common, and that needs to be considered when looking at treatment.
Treatment for Just Right OCD
Just right OCD can be a debilitating condition, but the good news is that recovery is possible. OCD is a treatable condition. It may be hard to “cure” someone of their OCD, but symptoms can be managed to a point where they are no longer interfering with your day-to-day life.
The most common treatment for OCD in general is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called ERP, or exposure and response prevention. This helps people, in a nutshell, to intentionally expose themselves to something that causes an obsession for them, and sit through the anxiety without reacting with a compulsion.
For just-right OCD, that might look like this: the person with just-right OCD is asked to look at or do something that feels wrong or off to them. Perhaps they are guided to only touch their right shoulder, for example, if they have symmetry obsessions.
Then, the person needs to sit with the anxiety that this wrongness brings, without giving into the compulsion to correct it. The person above would need to sit through the urge of touching their left shoulders to balance things out. This sounds simple to people without OCD, but for people who suffer from OCD, these exercises are incredibly difficult and can even feel physically painful.
However, the only way to recover from OCD is to stop indulging its demands. OCD wants you to get stuck in its grip by giving it what it wants: to engage in the compulsion. Only by resisting this urge are people set free from this debilitating disorder.
Antidepressant medication may also be helpful for people with just-right OCD, to repair chemical imbalances in the brain. Depending on how tic-like the person’s compulsive behavior is, different treatments for Tourette’s syndrome may also be combined.
Recovery Is Possible with Impulse Therapy
At Impulse Therapy, we’ve designed a self-guided course to help people recover from OCD. We use science-backed methods to guide people through beating their specific subtype of OCD. Recovery is within your reach, and Impulse Therapy has your back.