How Compulsive Are You?

From my new favourite book, The Art of Clean Up by Ursus Wehrli

From my new favourite book, The Art of Clean Up by Ursus Wehrli

Given the title of this blog, you would think I have dozens of compulsions, if not an outright diagnosis of OCD. Amazingly, I am a fairly functional person, and I think my compulsions fall into the normal range. Well, OK, the high-normal range! Wouldn’t you expect that from a librarian?

Without any reference materials, not even wikipedia, I’ve decided to do a little analysis of how compulsive I am. (I’ve just resolved that issue, haven’t I?)

Some examples of common compulsions:

  • Hand washing
  • Double checking that the door is locked or the stove is turned off
  • Separating all the foods on a plate or eating them one at a time
  • Checking on a sleeping baby
  • Responding to all texts immediately

Then I started thinking: what is compulsive and what is just a routine? For instance, if I wash the dishes every night and never leave them until the next day, it just feels like a routine. Likewise, if I always separate the garbage, the compost and the recycling, is that compulsive? So there must be a “community norm” that we are comparing ourselves to. Somewhere in our heads, we have a sense of what is “normal” and what is not.

Habits are compulsions that can go right or wrong! If we go out for a smoke every two hours, we don’t call it a routine – we call it a bad habit. If we always walk up three flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, it’s a good habit. Of course, habits can become addictions – like gambling. It must be the biological pull that classes it as an addiction.

Next I thought about superstitions. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Breaking a mirror was bad luck. You would always bless someone who sneezed. Nowadays I find all of these things somewhat ridiculous. But at work, there are always colleagues who “knock on wood” or who don’t talk about how sunny it’s been lately in case they “jinx” the weather. It can cause people deep discomfort if their rituals are challenged – it just doesn’t “feel right!”

Charley Says…Don’t Play With Matches! Tell mummy because they can hurt you! (BBC, 1973)

Then there are rules. My dad was a safety officer and I grew up with hundreds of safety rules. I thought this was unusual, but Rom grew up in the UK where they had an extreme safety culture, typified by the creepy “Charlie Says” series of TV adverts. Some of it makes perfect sense to me, such as looking Left-Right-Left before crossing the street (in North America), or always keeping cupboards and drawers closed. Too many warnings can cause fears and phobias, though.

Unfortunately, some “rules” become counterproductive when they’re too ingrained. I am thinking of values and life lessons in particular. If I had disregarded axioms like “forgive and forget” and “let the little things go,” I probably would have untangled myself from a previous bad marriage much sooner.

Finally, some things we do can be described as practices. They can be religious or spiritual practices, a training regimen, or any serious lifestyle commitment. In my circle, that can be training for a marathon, eating a gluten free diet, practicing yoga, being a Big Sister, observing Lent, or visiting someone in a care home daily. It’s perplexing to think about where the line is drawn between normal and obsessive here, isn’t it? One person’s discipline is another’s tyranny!

About myself. I can think of three things I do that are little compulsions. They all have to do with an over-developed sense of symmetry.

First, I am always straightening things. I have piles of clutter around my house and office, but I can’t abide a picture hanging crooked on a wall, or a shirt slipping halfway off its hanger, or books scattered on a table instead of stacked.

Photo credit:

I have a strong preference for even numbers. When Rom and I get tickets to a show and we buy Row J, seats 9 and 10, I always take 10. I don’t care if I sit on the right or on the left of someone, though. Just don’t mess with my numbers!

Related to that, I try to start or end activities at some juncture that is significant to me, or makes me feel like it’s balanced or resolved. For instance, when I work out on my elliptical machine and do 30 minutes, if I have “travelled” 2.73 miles in that time, I will keep going until it says 3 miles…and then maybe I’m at 33.5 minutes and that isn’t even either…

Interestingly, I work in a management job in which “tolerance for ambiguity” is one of the highest values, and I’m fine with that. I don’t feel that my little quirks interfere with my work, and in fact, they don’t even carry over into the workplace.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

You know how some reports suggest that children may have developed peanut allergies because their environment is so sanitized that they perceive something innocuous like peanuts as the enemy? Whether you hold with that theory or not, it says something about modern life. Rom and I just developed a theory that maybe people sleep with their phones and check them every 2 minutes, or wash their hands 12 times a day, because we no longer have work or play that fully occupies our mind and body. Our brains get caught in a loop, as Rom would say, because we either don’t have enough real-life things to do, or we want to avoid the ones we do have.

I don’t need research to tell me that quirks turn into obsessions when they are repeated needlessly, when they require effort they don’t deserve, when they feel absolutely necessary, and especially when they interfere with relationships and with life in general. If you genuinely feel compelled to do (or not do) something, it can be debilitating. The worst feeling must be if you believe something awful will happen if you don’t complete a routine, or if you experience anxiety and panic when it doesn’t go right. My heart goes out to those who are truly stuck in that loop.

Meanwhile, do not ask me to take Seat 9!


  1. todadwithlove

    I have the same compulsion for straightening things.:-)

  2. My school counselor thought I might have OCD cause I always used the same toliet or shower in communal situations! On further discussions, i found it’s quite common – it helps breed a ‘normal’ for non normal situations – like living in a boarding house. She also thought it was weird I was wary of the dish cloth – but you’ve seen those fear mongering ads about germs! In my own house I use it without concern, but I do get weird when I can smell it’s funky smell – a quick zap in the microwave usually solves that.

    Similar to your even thing – my mother reports she intentionally had us all on even days. I’m not entirely convinced childbirth is that simple!

    The bf used to have the closet door closed to sleep. He recons my OCD behavour are head scratching and finger picking… He also says cleaning (like washing up each night) – but like you, I refute that.

    • Good point – I think the same is true when kids go to summer camp or stay at their grandparents. etc. Plus I think it is human nature to be a little territorial! I have a couple of bad habits which I haven’t mentioned, but nothing serious like smoking. You know that my candy intake is one of them! I believe that OCD behaviours are more ritualistic and regimented than little habits.

  3. My parents, especially my dad, are creatures of habit and routines- so I think my idea of what ‘normal’ levels of habit/compulsion are quite far towards the compulsive side! I like to have the washing up done and put away each night (why would you leave dirty dishes?! I don’t understand!) as it is so nice to come downstairs to a clean kitchen.

    I too like to have things in straight lines- we were staying at a holiday cottage last year and I had to straighten the wonky pictures, as they just nagged at me. I think things being neat and straight give places a more cared for look, so I don’t think that it is a bad thing! This, too, is probably inherited- my dad had to mark out field plots in his job, which involves getting sticks lined up perfectly straight by eye…so I have probably learned that straightening things up is normal..

    I prefer even numbers too- the car radio etc has to be on an even number. I think this is a fairly common habit though- my bf won’t have any prime numbers on the stereo.

    Sarah- I used to always use the same loo/shower too

    • Prime numbers – that’s a good one! I like your point about heredity. My dad, besides being a safety officer, had military service as well, so my home (when growing up) was run with precision! That has certainly influenced me because I feel strongly there is a right way to do things, with respect to order. So I know where you’re coming from!

      • My boyfriend is in the military…but he has sort of rebelled against the order and seems to like deliberately leaving things messy! Although I think it is mostly that he genuinely doesn’t care and would much rather be messing about with a car…

      • Hmm, comply or rebel – that is the question!

  4. I have a lot of routines and habits (possibly a straightening compulsion too), but I also feel that they are pretty normal. I clean up at night and straighten as I go along as a self preservation tactic, to keep life simpler. I can’t control my health but I can control my environment, that kind of thing. That, and I just feel comfortable knowing that things are in the right place. With kids, of course, you let some of that go, but mine have been brought up to put their stuff away at the end of the day, too.

    I have noticed at work – in a large parking lot of 300-400 cars, those that are there every day tend to always park in the same spot. I always thought that was amusing until one day when I had to find a different part of the lot to park in – and it took me a long time to find my car that night. 🙂

    • I agree; it just saves time to tidy as you go and put things away. I hate it when I have to buy something again because I can’t find the first one! Quite right about parking – I usually park in the same area every time I go to the grocery store or the mall!

      • rachellivesinsuburbia

        Most of the time I would park in the same parking lot and park stall at my work. On those rare days when I get to work early I would park in another parking lot closer to my building. I found that at the end of the those days I would almost get to my usual parking spot when I realized that I parked closer and would have to walk back the few minutes! So now I just always park in my usual parking spot. I figured this habit is best left unchanged!

      • Ha ha! That makes sense!

  5. This is hard to judge because the things I do seem normal to me 😉 I do love a good routine! – but I don’t think any of my habits or routines cross the line into compulsion. Some of my weird quirks include always parking in the same spot at work (but in the summer I’ll park anywhere to be in the shade), given a bag of mixed flavor candies, I eat strategically so I’ll have one of each left at the end of the bag, and I get undressed in the same order every day – socks, pants, then top.

    What an interesting topic 🙂

    • I can definitely relate to those! When I was a kid I used to save all the red candies for last because they were my favourite (there was also a TV ad which implied everyone did that). I am sure I get dressed in the same order every day too, but I don’t think about it!

  6. Juhli

    Being raised by two perfectionist including a Mom who thought there was only one (the right) way to do most things turned me into a bit of a rebel. I had to work hard thought to become more flexible on a lot of things I was taught as a child especially about housework and personal behavior. I can now quite happily leave dishes overnight, not clean until it looks dirty, etc. Even my Mom has loosened up a bit LOL. I’m sure I do have habits that others think are borderline OCD though as I like to organize things and people.

    • There was some of that at my place too, but I think I absorbed it more than rebelled against it! Obviously I still like to sort and tidy things – and, well, I am a manager at work, so that probably means I organize people too!

  7. In my mind, slight OCD tendencies equate to successful, functional and happy people! I grew up in a house that wasn’t very focussed on routine and habit, so I’ve had to work hard to acquire more functional routines as an adult. I’m getting there, but even so, it was only after reading this that I noticed all the picture frames askew on the hallway wall! Functional OCD is great but I do really feel for anyone stuck in the loop of genuine compulsions like constant checking or handwashing.

    • I am probably more on the other side of having to “unlearn” routines that are ingrained. I agree about OCD though – from what I can see from others, it really interferes with life.

  8. I’m too scattered to be compulsive but hubby definitely has OCD!

  9. compulsions, I have a few. My laundry has to be folded just so, my food cannot touch unless it was meant to such as chili or soup, When I do dishes, I have a certain order in which they must be washed. And much to the chagrin of my daughter-in-law who found I can’t abide a bed of weeds in a flower garden. 🙂 For the most part I see my compulsions as normal habits that make life easier but food has always been a problem for me having suffered from anorexia.

    • As for dishes, I was always taught there is an order in which things should be washed – you do things like glasses first (that need to be squeaky clean) and pots last because they are the grubbiest! Now if you need to wash forks ahead of knives; that might be a bit compulsive 🙂 Lois, I bet a lot of people have habits or compulsions based on previous medical conditions. I never thought about that.

  10. I have lots of routines and compulsions and slight OCD. (I think it’s slight anyway!)…my straightening of things can get out of hand sometimes, and I often have to make myself walk away from something. Other things that cause me issues: salad drawers in the fridge… takes me ages to organise the stuff in there, especially after a grocery haul.

    • I like to think my compulsions are slight, too – it’s definitely in the eye of the beholder! I like how you mentioned making yourself walk away from things – I know that feeling very well!

  11. Oh gosh… I think I could use a little more compulsion… can I borrow the straightening thing? 🙂

    As I was reading this I was thinking that I wash my hands quite frequently. But it’s because I’m always getting them dirty cleaning litter boxes or digging in the garden or something like that. And I do check the oven/stove several times to be sure it’s turned off… but that’s because I’ve forgotten it on more than one occasion and nearly burned the house down!

    Your numbers thing cracked me up though. The other day CatMan and I went on a long bike ride. We rode a big loop and when we got to the end he turned the corner like he was gonna ride the whole thing again. I pedaled like mad to catch up with him to figure out what the heck he was doing. “Oh, didn’t I tell you we were gonna ride it twice?” he joked. But then he confessed that he needed to add another 0.6 miles so it would come out at an even 40. Oy Vay!

  12. I cannot stand a crooked picture but don’t mind other crooked things! I used to have a terrible fear that I had left the iron on or the doors unlocked if we went away and would triple check everything. This would drive my husband crazy as he grew up with a family that often didn’t lock doors. For some reason, this anxiety isn’t as present as it used to be. I don’t know why. Writing this has just reminded me of when we went away for the weekend years ago. We came back to find the front door wide open, nothing touched inside. No we hadn’t been robbed, just left the door open!

    • That happened to me twice – our front door doesn’t latch properly despite multiple repairs, so we have to close and lock it very deliberately. Once we came home to find it open and nothing was touched; another time I arrived home to find the police there – the neighbours had called them thinking we’d had a break-in! (and again, everything was fine)

  13. Pingback: Very Superstitious | An Exacting Life

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