Conference Coverage

Teasing OCD, OCPD apart, and coping with challenges



Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is often confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because of overlapping traits, but there are key differences that psychiatrists should be familiar with. OCPD also presents some key challenges to interpersonal therapy, especially because psychiatrists themselves sometimes share these traits.

“There’s an overlap, and some people have both OCD and OCPD, but some people have just one or the other, and that’s important to tease out because it shifts treatment,” Holly D. Crisp-Han, MD, said in an interview. Dr. Crisp-Han is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. She and her colleague, Glen O. Gabbard, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor, chaired a session on dynamic psychotherapy for the treatment of OCPD at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.

OCPD is the most common personality disorder, with some estimates putting its prevalence as high as nearly 8%. Whereas OCD is characterized by an ego-dystonic need for rituals and specific thoughts, OCPD is defined by ego-syntonic traits. In a study comparing patients with both disorders, researchers found that both groups had reduced psychosocial function and quality of life, but intrusive thoughts and feelings were absent in OCPD. Instead, these patients reported ritualized, methodical behaviors, such as list making, reorganizing personal effects, and repeatedly editing what they had written. OCD patients were also better at delaying rewards.

Dynamic psychotherapy has been shown to achieve better outcomes in OCPD than cognitive-behavioral therapy, though both have a place in the treatment of OCPD, according to Dr. Gabbard. However, it comes with significant challenges. The patient will often challenge the therapist’s interventions and feel threatened by any hint of losing control. Sessions can become ritualized.

OCPD patients are driven by an effort to avoid a tormenting superego rather than seeking pleasure, and they may project this superego onto the therapist. It’s important to identify and interpret patient distortion of the therapist’s attitude toward the patient. Ultimately, the goal of therapy is to modify the patient’s self-expectations.

Couples therapy can be a good idea in cases of extreme ego-syntonicity. The patient’s partner can provide a second perspective to complement the patient’s subjective view of the relationship.

A unique challenge with OCPD is that therapists may see reflections of themselves in the patient. “Many physicians, psychiatrists, and therapists themselves struggle with obsessive-compulsive types of problems. Those types of traits – perfectionism, hard work, overwork, diligence – are rewarded in a career in medicine, and in fact [are] necessary for a career in medicine. We all have to be alert to our own personality traits in order to be able to treat those traits in others,” Dr. Crisp-Han said.” If we don’t recognize those traits in ourselves, then we run the risk of falling into competitive patterns, or idealizations, or other kinds of problems with our patients.”

Therapists who are narcissistically vulnerable may get sucked into power struggles with patients, and can feel undervalued, Dr. Gabbard said. Because rituals can develop, the therapist may also become bored, and even come to feel controlled by the patient’s obsession with the therapeutic process.

But there are other challenges in sessions. The tendency toward ritualization can produce boredom in the therapist. “That’s one of the biggest problems you have, hanging in with somebody who’s repeating the same things over and over again in a dry tone. You start to feel controlled by everything the patient is doing with their agenda,” Dr. Gabbard said during the session. He suggested confronting the patient from time to time. “You can say, ‘Today you don’t sound like you’re that interested in what you’re saying to me; you sound very detached. What’s going on?’ You can feed back to the person how they’re coming across, which can be very valuable.”

Humor is another way to tackle therapy with OCPD patients, because an important therapeutic lesson is to take things a little less seriously, especially in the face of the perfectionism that often haunts OCPD patients. In fact, this can be one of the condition’s most devastating traits, always leading an OCPD patient to feel that he or she is failing, that no accomplishment is ever enough.

“You can work on perfectionism and interpersonal relationships, and the absence of fun and pleasure. This is one of the most fun things to work on in the transference, countertransference relationship. Have a little bit of fun with the patient, because that might be quite foreign,” Dr. Gabbard said. “It can be tricky, because you don’t want to act like you’re laughing at the patient, but you want to introduce some levity and lightness sometimes.”

He gave an example of a patient who was a Catholic priest, who felt intensely guilty over sex. The patient said, “In the Catholic Church, thinking about sex is exactly the same as having sex.” Dr. Gabbard thought for a moment and then replied, “Well, you know, in my experience, that’s not true.”

The patient chuckled along with him. “I tried to point out to him that not all Catholic theologians see it that way,” Dr. Gabbard said.

Dr. Crisp-Han and Dr. Gabbard have collaborated on a book focused on diagnosis and treatment challenges associated with narcissistic patients called “Narcissism and Its Discontents” (American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2018). They reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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