Personality and Character Disorders Pt 4: O-C and P-A Types

The last three posts in the current series have set a backdrop for understanding personality in general  (see:  Personality and Character Disorders: A PrimerPersonality and Character Disorders – Part 2, and Personality and Character Disorders – Part 3) as a prelude for a discussion on the most common personality disorders.  This article begins a discussion on two personality types: the obsessive-compulsive personality and the passive-aggressive personality as well as what happens when these two interaction “styles” become so dysfunctional they can rightfully be considered a “disorder.” In the second post in this series (see: Personality and Character Disorders – Part 2), I mentioned that for a long time, professionals viewed all personality styles as manifestations of  neurosis.  And while that view is steadily changing with the growing realization that not everyone is neurotic to any meaningful degree, the two personality types we’ll be discussing today are among the styles that actually do often tend to reflect a fair degree of neurosis.  That’s not to say that someone with either of these personality styles can’t have a fair amount of character disturbance, too.  But on balance, folks with obsessive-compulsive or passive-aggressive personalities tend to be more neurotic than character-impaired, especially if they don’t have other troubling characteristics in their personality structure clouding the picture. The very fact that the two personality styles we’ll be discussing contain a hyphen in their names is a tip off to the dynamics at work in them.  The great researcher Theodore Millon refers to both of these styles as “ambivalent” styles.  That is, on some very crucial dimensions of interpersonal functioning (most especially, the dimensions of interpersonal autonomy and emotional independence) these individuals simply can’t decide which way they’d really like to go.  Part of them wants to go in one direction, but fears or other concerns  hold them back and hang them up.  This deep-seated and largely unconscious conflict lies at the root of their “neurosis.” For the obsessive-compulsive person, the dilemma is this:  part of them wants to simply let loose and do whatever the heck they please.  But they have a very strong guilt button and don’t want to do anything that would incur disfavor or be regarded as wrong.  That puts them in a real bind.  They have to keep themselves on a very short leash lest they go completely off the deep end.  As so may would say, they’re wound really tightly.  And they channel most of their self-assertive energies into doing things “right” (unconsciously overly utilizing the “defense mechanism” of sublimation).   Their “style” becomes a disorder when their nit-picky tendencies and inflexibility creates too much friction with others, impairs their ability to give and take and work cooperatively with colleagues, and possibly even interferes with their ability to see the “larger picture” in their jobs and social relationships because they so frequently and narrowly focus on dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.”  Sometimes, their persnickety and perfectionistic style is quite functional, like when they’re performing delicate brain surgery or computing a tax bill.  But their fastidiousness and rigidity can also present real problems in relationships.  And they can bring undue stress upon themselves as well, giving themselves headaches and ulcers. For passive-aggressive personalities, the driving force behind their ambivalence is not so much an excessive sensitivity to feelings of guilt (as is the case with the obsessive-compulsive personality) but an inordinate sense of dread when it comes to issues of shame.  They’re hung-up at the emotional developmental stage Erik Erikson termed “autonomy vs. shame and doubt.”  They want to stand on their own but dread making the wrong call or embarrassing themselves, so they end up chronically craving approval and validation from others.  They’d also like to strike out on their own and chart their own course, but because they doubt their abilities they become emotionally over-reliant on the guidance and support of others.  In their heart of hearts, however, they bitterly resent this emotional dependence (can you see all the “ambivalence” at work here?!) and fight against it in the most primitive way – a way that allows them to assert some sense of control yet not really separate themselves from their emotional safety nets: passive-resistance.  They also live with a fair degree of envy toward those who are not as shame-sensitive as they are, expressing their envy and resentment through a fair degree of “negativism.”  Living with these personalities can be extremely frustrating.  They might ask you how they look in a particular suit (they doubt their judgment, want approval, and, of course, you’re supposed to say only that they look absolutely great) but if you tell them what you really think they might not talk to you for a week.  You might ask them for a favor and on the surface they’ll express a ready willingness to oblige you but because they inwardly hate gaining favor through compliance (craving unconditional acceptance), they might not-so-accidentally forget to do what you asked of them on a number of occasions.  For years, a great many folks, including mental health professionals (who have always been among the worst offenders), have misused the term passive-aggression and also mischaracterized passive-aggressive personalities.  In fact the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of this personality type were so severe and rampant for so long that the official diagnostic manual finally gave up trying to adequately define it and eventually deleted it from the traditional list of recognized personalty disorders, even though clinicians have both encountered and dealt with this personality disturbance for many decades.  What’s really important to remember is that passive-aggression is NOT – I repeat – NOT the same thing as covert-aggression.  Passive-aggression is defined by what you don’t do.  Active-aggression is the opposite of passive-aggression.  It’s defined by the deliberate action you take.  And covert-aggression, though it’s expressed indirectly like passive-aggression, is active aggression that’s so carefully concealed or cloaked or so subtly expressed that it’s hard to detect until the victim has already been done in. For years, there’s been a lot of confusion about passive-aggressive vs. covertly aggressive personalities.  Passive-aggressive personalities are deeply ambivalent and often quite neurotic personalities.  They’re hard to live with at times, to be sure.  But they’re not callous connivers nor heartless manipulators.  Covert-aggressives, on the other hand are nothing like passive-aggressives.  First of all, they’re anything but ambivalent personalities.  They’re dyed-in-the-wool “independent” types who not only take charge without compunction but do their best to get one-up on you, albeit by clever and subtle means at times.  And for years, long before I first published In Sheep’s Clothing, many clinicians had come to an awareness that there was a conniving personality type out there prone to the tactics I outlined in the book.  But they erroneously applied the label “passive-aggressive” (when there’s simply nothing at all “passive” about them) to these folks and inadvertently fostered many significant misconceptions about their makeup.  That’s perhaps just one of the major reasons why so many folks found the framework for understanding personality types found in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance so illuminating and helpful. Next week’s post will take a more in-depth look at the ambivalent personality types, including how they get to be the way they are, the problems that can occur in relationships when their styles become “disordered” and the kinds of interventions that can help them modify their dysfunctional styles of coping.  Following that, the series will move into a discussion of the personalities best conceived as character-impaired or disordered.  As always, questions and comments are welcome.

9 thoughts on “Personality and Character Disorders Pt 4: O-C and P-A Types

  1. “Passive-aggression” has also sneaked into everyday language, used whenever describing someone, who’s causing trouble in a less dramatic way or showing deliberate disrespect toward another person in an indirect way.

    If you haven’t already, Dr Simon, would you please make an article about overcoming our guilt buttons shame sometime, because I think many people would find it greatly helpful?

    If you have, would you link me to it?

    In any case, I thank you in advance.

    1. You’re absolutely right about the term creeping in common lexicon to describe just about any “indirect” but nasty moves. And I’ll be partly addressing your question in next week’s post. But if my partial answer doesn’t really provide enough helpful info in your opinion for the readers, just let me know and I’ll either elaborate in the discussion or fashion an article down the road.

  2. I have not known many folks with these issues (O-C and P-A) but those I have known certainly seem to fall on the neurotic end of the spectrum. The people with O-C behaviors seem to suffer a lot. One of them is a loved one (a tween). I must say that the adults in his life have done an amazing job learning how to implement CBT with him and it has been very, very helpful for everyone, especially for him. Interestingly, a couple of people (adults) with OC behaviors I’ve known in the past have also had serious eating disorders. May just be coincidence, but now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder about the relationship between these things?

    1. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is different than obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Just to clear that up and I understood you meant the latter when you refered to adults with O-C behaviors.

      Personality disorders can sometimes also cause suffering to those, who have them. Considering they don’t handle themselves the best way, they can also develop other nasty disorders.

      Looking forward, myself, to ordering Personality Disorders in Modern Life by Theodore Millon.

      1. Very impressed with the sophistication and awareness of my readers! OCD is indeed not the same as O-C PD. And although it might be a bit dry reading, the Millon book you cite is fantastic. I only wish more clinicians had read and fully understood it.

      2. Did not know this (distinction between OCD and OCPD)! Thank you for the clarification. I just read up a little on it. So much more to read. I’ll have to order Millon’s book as well:)

  3. Now that I read your earlier post, Dr Simon, a question flashed in my head. What are the usual levels of awareness of obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive personalities, respectively?

    1. As relatively more “neurotic” than character disturbed types, generally speaking, these two are pretty much in the dark about their underlying motivations and emotional dynamics. That is, of course, if there are no other significant personality traits present that better fit into the character-disturbed category. And of course, where any particular individual lies along the neurotic vs. character disturbed continuum varies to some extent. Just another reason to make the clear distinction between the C-A personality, who’s generally VERY aware, and the P-A personality who’s not only not as aware but also is more self-defeating as opposed to other-exploiting with their interaction style.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *