Suggestions for Counseling Overly-Conscientious People

by James Rudy Gray

There is a mental illness that affects about 1 percent of the general population.  It is called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)—not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which affects about 2 percent of the population. In most cases, a person with OCD will require medication, but people with the personality disorder can be helped significantly by counseling.

People are complex. They are a blend of certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  Christian counselors or pastors may not be deeply involved with helping in the treatment of OCD patients. However, we are likely to be called upon to deal with people who have a dominant personality style of conscientiousness and who may also have carried that style too far and developed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Conscientiousness is a decidedly good thing. However when a person who has a personality dominated by conscientiousness carries that conscientious drive too far, it becomes counterproductive and disruptive.

A person who has a strong conscientious style will be someone who works hard, does things the right way, has strong moral principles and opinions, and shows devotion to doing the right thing, perfectionism, perseverance, order and detail, prudence, and a tendency to be a pack rat.  While there is nothing particularly sinful or wrong with any of those things, if those traits are carried too far the person develops obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

The same persons with OCPD will be preoccupied with details, lists, rules, order, and schedules so much that the main point of the activity is secondary. Their perfectionism is so strong that it interferes with getting a task completed. They become so devoted to work that leisure activities are nearly nonexistent. They do not discard old or worn out things. They become miserly, rigid, stubborn, and seldom relax. They become so scrupulous about morals, etc., that their ideas go beyond Scripture and even contradict  biblical truth.

If a Christian counselor or pastor is caught up in a situation where this type of person has come for help, what can be done? First, recognize that a conscientious style is not abnormal. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is the abnormality. Second, realize that the disorder develops because the conscientious style has gone too far in the person’s life. Someone has said that heresy is truth that has gone too far and become distorted. That is what happens when this personality disorder is evident in a person’s life: the conscientious style has gone too far.

A Christian with this personality disorder can become very legalistic.  He may think he has committed the unpardonable sin and do different kinds of compulsive things to compensate or feel better. Persons with obsessive-compulsive tendencies are most often persons under stress. Helping them learn techniques for managing stress better will usually be a good starting point.

A person helping someone like this can focus on some key points that will typically provide improvement.  Some of those points are:

• Learning how to relax (and not feel guilty about it).

• Taking the initiative to make a decision, even if it’s not perfect.

• Aiming for results at work, etc., that are good enough instead of perfect.

• Keeping a journal of how many times you begin a sentence with “I should” or “I must” type statements.

• Sharing your feelings with people you care about.

The good news is that an obsessive-compulsive personality can change! A counselor will likely need to develop thick skin as he works with counselees like this. The goal is not to change them into something they are not, but to help them become the best and most Christ-honoring conscientious personality style they can be.

This kind of person needs hope and encouragement. They need usable but non-threatening ideas and suggestions as they seek to change. They need to be assured that their style is good but their problem is in taking it too far. They need to see change not as something to fight but to embrace. They need to believe they can change and that it will be better for them. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), could easily become the theme verse for a person who is dealing with a personality tendency to be too conscientious.

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.

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