The Obsessive Personality

by Peter Milhado PHD on March 15, 2010

ocd11111The obsessives were traumatized in childhood by the abuse of irrational power in their family of origin.  As Carl Jung tells us power is the opposite of love, not hatred.  What to do when the early family situation is emotionally chaotic ?  One defense against chaos is control; another one is not to feel – the obsessive does both.

The need to control is easily recognized by others.  A refusal to delegate; suspiciousness, evasiveness, hoarding, moral superiority, emotional isolation, and mistrusting warmth and love, can all be personality characteristics.  No matter how bright, the obsessive is slow to recognize feelings – they think rather than feel.  “I should” is probably the single most characteristic thought content.  Hiding feelings of anger and aggression shows up in being “too nice”, being oppositional, being passive-aggressive or usually a combination of all three depending on circumstances and different people encountered.  Anger repressed also turns into ulcers, constipation, anxiety and eventually depression.

The first time in life anything is asked of us occurs around the age of two when we’re petitioned, cajoled, bribed or threatened to go to the bathroom on the pot.  How we handle this request is greatly influenced by our family’s mode of dealing with issues of control and power in general.  Once we understand this request, we can either comply with different levels of submission, or we can resist, with different intensities of defiance.

In modern day parlance the obsessive personality is often referred to as “anal”.  Nighttime dreams centering around bodily functions in the bathroom often address issues of power and control.  For example, overflowing toilet dreams can give us a message that we’re not as conscious of our own power shadow as we need to be.

The obsessive is involved in a life long conflict between obedience and defiance.  This leads to a continuous alternation between fear and rage.  Fear that he will be punished for being defiant and rage for submitting to someone else’s authority.  Fears stemming from being defiant lead to obedience, while rage stemming from being too obedient leads back to defiance…. and on and on.  Defiant anger causes stubbornness, frugality, obstinancy and coldness, while fear of authority contributes to obsessive orderliness, compulsive punctuality and tidiness.

Obsessive personalities build elaborate defenses for keeping out of touch with their repressed impulses and instincts.  For example, every time a dangerous sexual or rageful thought is about to enter consciousness they go and wash their hands.  This “cleansing” ritual keeps the dangerous thought from entering.  Fears of losing control make decisions very difficult.  Even going to a movie is usually based on routine – either the closest one, the cheapest one, the most educational one, etc.  They let it be known they are “independent” and “don’t need anybody”, which is a compensation for frightening needs for closeness and dependency.

Often they would rather continually fight in a relationship than let those terrifying needs for closeness and dependency surface.  Therefore, money and status, rather than love, become foundations for emotional security.

By concentrating on irrelevant details the obsessive loses the big picture.  Pleasure is dangerous and relaxation is judged improper, unsafe or worse, but pleasure is not a luxury; it is a profound psychological need.  The world the obsessive needs to be freed from has been inside all the time, which is positive, because internally, if committed, he or she can make changes.  Reasons for being lonely have to be understood; so do issues surrounding “dirt, time and money” as well as the obedience-defiance conflict.  They need to learn how to play, allow compassion and passion to flow and learn how to forgive themselves.  Fears of losing control have to be taken on so the obsessive can slowly trust and love again.

Most certainly, love and compassion are the foundation of helping anyone.  Without love there is no trust, without trust there is no therapeutic alliance, and without an alliance, there is no healing.  This being said, the therapeutic enterprise is also about truth, because truth sets us free, especially and most importantly the truth about ourselves.  Therapy is not primarily about holding hands and coddling someone.

Acknowledging one’s weakness is the beginning of healing.  Becoming the best person we can be requires that we accept the weakest and worst in us as well.  Accepting our weaknesses liberates our strength and then, finally, we are free of the tension of pretense.

Peter Milhado © 2010

These articles are also published in our local paper the

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

BEN SAVAGE March 22, 2010 at 1:26 pm


Lilsy April 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm

“Most certainly, love and compassion are the foundation of helping anyone. Without love there is no trust, without trust there is no therapeutic alliance, and without an alliance, there is no healing. ”
Awesome Peter!
That’s exactly what I am trying to do with my daughter in law.
She scares me but I know that her wounds are deep and I am so happy that loves my son enuf to move here and be away from her awful family.
These islands are filled with love and I see the beginning of healing for her as her self confidence emerges in a more balanced way.
Thanks for the reminder.


Howard April 5, 2010 at 12:26 am

Peter, this article contains a lot of stuff and much is very familiar to me. I suspect, you are speaking of a high level of obsession, but if its just a matter of scale, on 1 to 10, I might be a 5. I am struct by how much fits me, beginning with “the abuse of irrational power” to the ending “tension of pretense”. Unrelated, I heard recently that therapy is to the brain, as a toilet is to the bowels.

Best regards, Howard

Essie November 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Where could I find more information on this topic? I have been looking for information about Obsessive Personality and can’t find much.

holly December 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm

O.M.G, OH MY GOODNESS :-O were have you been all my life!!

I’m so impressed with your work, I’ve never read anything like it before…..

…. Only the truth will set you free and then only can the healing process begin …..

I’m not affraid anymore because I’ve been as low as I can go….

….I berlive that it’s a gift of life to find out ones own flaws, weaknesses or anything that needs working on an emotional level …..

….to live life as a lie is to not live a real life….

… mom always says that the people who give you the hardiest lessons in life are the people needed most for learning life’s lessons

….but all in all, I would say that everything happens for a reason and the logic is obvious, it wouldn’t happen anyway …

….for each and every new morning we get, is a God given opportunity to make a fresh new start again….it’s never to late to turn life around, it’s just a case of being passionate about life and using good common sense …

…no matter how bad life may appear, their will always be some worse off than ourselves….

…I’m thankful to God for everything beautiful within my life, the list endless!!

Me February 18, 2013 at 12:05 pm

What kind of psychiatrist would one see to get help with obsessive personality? Oh my gosh. I am 57 years old, and the light just came on. This article is me. I thought obsessive personality was a character defect.

Thank you!

j June 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I so agree with Me. Never one for labels, I was grateful when I read what I am and it had a name. Knowledge is power!

Benicio July 1, 2013 at 6:34 am

I was intrigued by your post. Definitely interesting although each point deserves its own elaboration. Stories of people (especially real, well know people) to illustrate examples can probably make the point even clearer.

Fred Savage March 29, 2015 at 5:39 am

One of the comments is from my brother Ben, whom did the wonder years. I am Cory Mathews!

Ashley Wyatt April 1, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Excellent. I know several people who should read this article immediately. Sadly for them, they won’t. Most of these types of people are in total denial. They can be cruel, manipulative, controlling and quick to anger if they don’t get their way and I am speaking about grown adults. What a shame, what a waste of a life living it this way. I wonder if they ever grow up since it seems so infantile to act out, especially to the people that used to care about them.

Peter Milhado PHD August 21, 2015 at 2:22 pm


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