Diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality from the Gestalt Therapy Perspective

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder explained and treated with Gestalt Therapy method.

The DSM V describes obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) as a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with

  • orderliness,
  • perfectionism, and
  • mental and interpersonal control.
obsessive-compulsive treatment

Individuals who present phenomenon of OCPD give up their flexibility of behavior and thought. They become “closed up”, showing lack of openness to the environment around them.

The consequence is that of being in-efficient in doing daily tasks, since the preoccupation is on distracting details, rules and schedules, that leaves the main task undone. The quest for having tasks done perfect also leaves task unfinished. While everything takes longer to complete, there is obsession with work and productivity, leaving little energy left for leisure activities and relationships. Relationships suffer because there is a tendency to be overconscientious, and inflexible about matters of ethics. Many individuals with OCPD tend to have religious or ideological stance, that they hold on to. They may also have a fixed idea of how things should be done, and would not delegate their work to others, unless the others follow his/her way of executing the tasks.  Some persons show tendency to hold on to unnecessary objects.  Similarly there is a tendency to being miserly. A certain feature of this personality style is the display of rigidity and stubbornness. 

OCPD is differentiated from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) by the by the presence of true obsessions and compulsions in OCD.

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder Explained with Gestalt Therapy 

Looking at this condition through gestalt therapy lens, we can appreciate the complexity of the treatment process. In seeing the process at each stage and the resistances of the individual towards change, we can follow the clients’s path with more understanding and patience.

At the sensory stimulation phase (the initial phase): one’s own needs are ignored. Habitual behavior and thoughts take the place of present needs.  Feelings that arise in the foreground become interrupted by background noise of routine activity. The patient may find difficulty articulating needs or accessing emotions. Difficult emotions are avoided.  In place of this is the need to continue habitual behavior.

At this phase of treatment, focus on arising emotions is the work. Often the patient is able to recount difficult life situations, but the narration lacks emotional content. The therapist’s job at this point is to support the patient in embodying the denied emotions, instead of blocking them out with compulsive thought. 

At the Orientation phase: There is seeking of external rules. The self has to be perfect, and be right. “I must do it right”. “I must check this…”

There is a sense that being not perfect may lead to loss of love, rejection and helplessness. Control against these feelings are directed towards the external environment.

Experiment with words, making statements and dealing with projections (e.g. other people will judge me if ….) plus dealing with emotions is the work at this stage.

At the Action phase: This is the phase that occurs when the individual is guided to act on behalf of his/her needs rather than acting on his/her impulses. This can bring about anxiety. OCPD actions are acts out of fear of helplessness, and behaves so as to avoid the possibility of situations that leads to helplessness. This means controlling and perfecting the environment, and external self. Ultimately nothing suffices.

Therapy at this phase brings to light the anxiety that arises. There is also projections (attributing thoughts of the self on other people) and retroflections (holding the self back, or blaming the self) that need to be worked through. 

At the Assimilation phase: At this phase, the individual would have tried to change his/her behavior.  This is possible through practicing will-power, or having behavioral-style therapy. However, attempts to change behavior get quickly sabotaged by introjected messages (like “this is wrong”, “it will not work”)  that lead to the individual rationalizing the attempt, denying the point of attempting change, feeling contempt for the effort or try playing down the problem.  This is the reason why in gestalt therapy, we are aware that behavior modification attempts alone does not resolve the issues of OCPD.

At this stage, it would be better to check with the patient about his/her introjects, and feelings of guilt or shame that may arise from taking appropriate action.

At the release phase: Let’s say that the patient has managed to overcome the first four phases, the next tendency would be to hold on to the identification of the self with OCPD. There need would be to not let go of the habitual thoughts and action, to see them as the “right thing to do”. This is a protection mechanism against the grief that can arise from feelings of loss and feelings of loneliness.

At this phase, the patient may seem very sad or look depressed, angry. He/she shows strong emotions. The therapist supports the patient by being present and acknowledging the client’s difficult emotions, and helping him/her work through the mourning process. 

Treatment Focus

The treatment process in Gestalt therapy for OCPD, when done in it thoroughness, with the above phases worked through requires a good amount of patience within the psychotherapeutic alliance. At each phase, difficult emotions need to be acknowledged and processed.

Treatment of symptoms arising from personality disorders take time. Patience is essential for both therapist and patient. Where dealing with loss is concerned, the mourning process is an important, positive step to healing.  

Phenomenology

Physical appearance is usually thin, haggard, not enjoying, gray, tensed.

The emotions include fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, defiance, vulnerability. Initial emotionality may look flat, and restrained.

Psychosomatic reactions may include stomach and gastro pain and symptoms, constipation, circulatory system problems (e.g. myocardial infarction).

Polarities to work through are :

  • Powerfulness – Helplessness
  • Fear – Aggression, Anger, Bitterness
  • Control – Chaos
  • Obedience – Defiance, unruliness

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Anger, H. (2018) Gestalt Diagnostics. Private Lecture at the Sigmund Freud University, Vienna. 

What is Dissociation?

Meanings for the term “dissociation” continue to evolve. Dissociation was originally seen as a type of hysteria, related to conversion, and distinct from depersonalization. It included amnesia, fugue, certain altered states (e.g., somnambulism), and multiple personality.

Dissociation is a criteria in DSM III for diagnosis of PTSD and ASD, as “flashback or dissociative episodes”. While flashbacks denotes sensing of something there that is not (positive symptoms), dissociative episodes denotes absence of sensing what is there –detachment, reduced awareness, derealization, depersonalization and amnesia (negative symptoms).

In Borderline Personality Disorder, dissociation in DSM-5 is described as “transient, stress-related…severe dissociative symptoms” with depersonalization as example.

3 distinct meanings of dissociative experiences (p.180):

  1. Dissociation of some of one’s mental functions or faculties. The DSM-5 definition: “a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior” (p. 291). “Negative” dissociative symptoms involve the withdrawal of something, such as dissociation of memory (amnesia), sensation (conversion anesthesia), or affect (emotional blunting). “Positive” dissociative symptoms involve the intrusion of something, such as the sensory reexperiencing of a trauma (flashback), or any other intrusion of affect, knowledge, sensation (in any modality), or behavior (action, unintended vocalization, etc.). Most of these symptoms may occur within a single consciousness.
  2. Depersonalization/derealization. These may be experienced as the withdrawal of the sense of reality. These are also considered as intrusions in the DSM.
  3. Dissociative multiplicity. This is a plurality of consciousness, in which the first two types of dissociation commonly co-occur; thus, there is always the possibility that cases featuring the first two types of dissociation may have covert multiplicity as well. The DSM-5 definition does not really work for multiplicity because once there is more than one self occupying the center of consciousness, there is more than one center of subjective experience and consequently more than one set of symptoms.

Dissociation in Childhood Experience of Abuse

Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer (1895) identified the root of hysteria in women as child sexual abuse, specifically incest. Freud eventually reversed that emphasis to focus on a child’s fantasies of sex instead of the reality of sexual abuse. Other contemporaries—notably Pierre Janet (1889) outside the psychoanalytic movement, and Sandor Ferenczi (1949) within it—retained a focus on the trauma of childhood abuse, positing dissociation rather than repression as the main method a child (and later an adult) uses to cope. They observed that if the trauma were not worked through and resolved at some point, its residual effects would often have a lifelong (and negative) influence across various domains.

Lingiardi, Vittorio. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Second Edition (Page 182). The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition.

Dissociative effects of PTSD

Dissociation is PTSD is not psychosis. The person has a flashback — a momentary out of sync with reality, and reliving an experience in a traumatic past experience.
Dissociation is an altered state of consciousness. Unlike psychosis, the individual is functioning but loose track of time/space, etc. The persons may also have a sense of watching him/herself and not being there.

Dissociative effects from Childhood Neglect

The video above addresses dissociation from own feelings. This happens to children of child abuse from narcissistic parent. Most likely the condition of suffering is not unlike complex PTSD.

Bibliography

Lingiardi, Vittorio. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Second Edition (Page 179). The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition.