Quirk Or OCD? How To Tell The Difference


No, not all quirks are a sign of the mental condition. (Photo: Stocksy/Jess Lewis)

There are plenty of things that bother us for really no logical reason at all. For instance: The end of a toilet paper roll has to be flipped over the top, instead of hanging from the back. Or the (1) next to your Inbox must be eliminated at all costs — even if it means marking unread emails as “read.”

Whether you call these neuroses, quirks, or little annoyances, there is a reason why we develop them, experts say.

“We inadvertently condition ourselves to certain patterns that can include habits, routines, behaviors, and yes, quirks,” Annabella Hagen, LCSW, RPT-S, the clinical director of the Utah Therapy for Anxiety Disorders, tells Yahoo Health. But Hagen stresses that these are not the same thing as mental disorders — “they are likely developed by our own experiences and environment, and can be controlled.”

Take people who must keep a color-coded closet, for instance. If you’re guilty of this, try to remember how this habit started. Most likely, you had a messy closet — this was your trigger. To fix the problem, you organized and decided to color-code. After your closet was clean, you felt proud of yourself, and you liked that feeling. Now, every time you fix your closet in this way, you reinforce this brain pattern — and there you have yourself a quirk.

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But what’s the difference between a simple “quirk” like this, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a diagnosable mental condition marked by repetitive and distressing thoughts that manifest in compulsive rituals? After all, your impulse to color-code occurs over and over again — which may seem obsessive — and your behavior is completed with the intention of making the obsession go away — which may seem compulsive. But according to the International OCD Foundation, unless this behavior is triggered by a fear or anxiety and completed with a series of compulsions that relieve you of these feelings, it’s not a sign of the disorder.

Here’s a major difference between our personal obsessions and OCD: With the former, we complete these habits voluntarily — even if we don’t really remember why we started doing them in the first place, experts say.

Meanwhile, “having obsessive-compulsive disorder is not like having a quirk,” Hagan says. “It torments people’s mind constantly. It can be paralyzing, too.”

In the mind of someone with diagnosed OCD, if the compulsion is not completed, the stakes are incredibly high. They may get a fatal disease, for instance, or their not completing the ritual may result in harm to a family member, Hagen explains. “OCD sufferers realize these thoughts are irrational, but their fear and anxiety is the driving force when doing compulsions,” she says. “ They do their rituals because they don’t want to take a chance of the possibility that their thoughts and fears may come true.”

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In addition to obsessive-compulsive disorder, ritualistic behaviors are also common in people with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. People with this condition are affected by unhealthy perfectionism, but without the anxieties that come with OCD. Someone with OCPD is obsessed with getting things done right, clean, and exact, but they can’t remember why they started the task in the first place, Hagen says. This perfectionism is based on rigidity, not fear. But just like OCD, it can impair day-to-day activities.

So you might be full of quirks — but there’s no reason to use a flippant phrase like “I’m so OCD” if you don’t have the actual, diagnosable condition. “If you are able to move on from a behavior without obsessing about it, and don’t experience anxiety over it, it’s most likely a quirk,” Hagen says. “If your friends and spouse become annoyed by your quirks, you may decide to change.”

If you fall into this category, you may choose to seek a therapist’s help to change. “Most people may want to change their quirky habits when they feel ashamed about them or feel pressure to change them because of friends, loved ones, or other pressures in the social or work environment,” Hagen says. Behavior-modification techniques — such as awareness, delaying, changing, shaping, and reinforcement — can help a person find alternative behaviors or end the habits entirely. Mindfulness training is also something that can be used to change undesired habits.

When the habits are indicative of OCD, though, treatments often involve medication and/or cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically a method called exposure and response prevention, according to the International OCD Foundation. Hospitalization may also be necessary in some cases.

“Unfortunately, the stigma about mental illness is still there and fear of being judged or looked at as if one is ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’ does not allow for individuals to be more open about their mental and emotional challenges,” Hagen says. “Society needs to understand that there is no ‘normal.’”

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