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Rigid Personality to OCD: Break the Cycle

Uploaded 7/1/2021, approx. 18 minute read

Today, we are going to discuss one of my strongest suits, self-discipline. Yes, self-discipline is my middle name, and my first name is Sam. My last name, thank God, is Vaknin. My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and I am a professor of psychology.

And for a change, we are not going to discuss promiscuity, at least not at the beginning. We are going to discuss self-discipline, and what it does to you, and why you need it.


Let's start with some basic facts.

When we lack self-discipline, there is a problem. There is a problem with something called self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the ability to secure positive, beneficial outcomes from the environment, from the physical environment and from the human environment, from people around you. Self-efficacy is closely aligned with personal autonomy and personal agency.

Now, these are all high-faluting words, my favorite, of course. Let us try to translate it into human-speak, so that even you could understand.

Self-efficacy is simply being efficient, getting things done, obtaining results, securing outcomes, setting goals, and realizing them. Not all of them, of course. None of us is 100% self-efficacious, but most of them.

Self-efficacy makes you feel good, upholds and buttresses your self-esteem and self-confidence, helps you to regulate your sense of self-worth.

If you are self-efficacious in the world, you feel that you belong, you feel at home.

Now, of course, home is a great metaphor, because at home, you are maximally self-efficacious. You know where everything is. You know how to operate most of the devices. You know how to fight with your wife. You know how to survive the fight, hopefully, some of you.

So, self-efficacy is crucial, and when you don't have self-discipline, your self-efficacy is impaired. It's impacted negatively and adversely.

To put simply, if you are not self-disciplined, you cannot be efficient. You cannot be self-efficacious. You cannot act on the world and in the world in a way which will allow you to extract from the world what you need and what you want.

You feel like a failure, like a loser, or like a professor of psychology.

Okay, bad joke. Not all my jokes are great.

Self-efficacy is the ability to secure good outcomes from the human and natural environment. When it is adversely impacted, the result is generalized anxiety.

If you feel that you can't get things done, if you feel that the world is withholding and frustrating, if you feel that you don't know any strategies to cope, to manipulate, to maneuver, to survive, that's anxiety-provoking. You become anxious, and it's not an anxiety specific to one thing, to one problem, to one issue, to one perceived outcome. It's not even anxiety connected to catastrophizing, to predicting the worst-case scenario and then living in fear. No, it's generalized anxiety.

When you are not self-disciplined, you are not self-efficacious. When you are not self-efficacious, the world is not your oyster, not your egg. You can't function in the world properly.

And when you can't function in the world properly, things go awry, and they go awry very often. And so you develop generalized anxiety, an anticipation of the worst, a prediction that things are going to go badly for you.

And so anxiety is a response to change. It is the dread of any change.

When we have generalized anxiety, our initial response is to freeze. We want the world to remain immutable, unchangeable, as it is, because at least when the world is frozen and we are frozen, we are safe.

But if we are frozen and the world changes, we are in danger.

So the response to this dread of change, the response to this generalized anxiety, is to institute rigid control. Rigid control over oneself, rigid control over others, rigid control over circumstances, rigid control over environments, rigid control over choices and decisions, rigid control.

The emphasis is on rigidity. The control is not flexible. It's not reactive and responsive to changes in the environment or in you. It's rigid. It's static. And it's brittle because it's rigid.

And so we develop rituals, ritualized coping strategies, ritualized processes. We develop a kind of private religion, private religion with dogma, with doctrine and with rituals to support this dogma and doctrine.

And when this is taken to extreme, it ossifies, it becomes obsession, compulsion. People with obsessive compulsive disorder have these rituals and they maintain rigid control. And they do this because they are anxious. They anticipate and predict bad things that are going to happen. And they believe somehow that the rigidity and the rituals are going to keep them safe. They're going to fend off these inevitable, horrible scenarios and outcomes.

And of course, you already, those of you who are more discerning, already notice that this is a good description not only of obsession, compulsion, but it's a very good description of personality disorders.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual uses the word rigid to describe personality disorders. It says that personality disorders are rigid patterns.

And for a change, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is right. Personality disorders are rigid patterns, rigid reactive patterns intended mostly to ameliorate the anxiety which is associated with malfunction.

So the sequence is lack of self-discipline, lack of self-efficacy, anticipation of bad outcomes because you are not efficient or efficacious, anxiety because you anticipate these bad outcomes, obsession, compulsion, rituals, control, rigid control.

And when these ossify, when these become amalgamated, you have personality disorder which is simply a lifelong pattern of reaction.

Personality disorders, of course, come replete with primitive psychological defenses. And primitive psychological defenses such as splitting and projection and so on, they are also examples of such rigidity, primitive defense mechanisms and personality disorders start off as positive adaptations.

When the child develops a personality disorder because of childhood abuse, for example, when defense mechanisms protect us from reality because reality is hurtful and painful, they are doing us a service. It's a good thing. It's an adaptation. It's adaptive, positively adaptive.

But what happens is these patterns of reaction persist long after they are no longer needed in adulthood. So they become straight jackets. Any new information, any new behavior is made to fit into the mold.

So there is this container, there is this mold, there is this space and anything new is contorted, distorted, broken, molded to fit into the space. It's a procrastian bed. Look it up. It's a procrastian bed. To fit the guest into the bed, you have to break the guest bones, which is not recommended practice in the hospitality industry, at least not lately.


So when the rigid person, the person with rigid control, rigid personality disorders, rigid obsession compulsions, rigid psychological defenses, when this kind of person comes across new things, new situations, new people, new circumstances, new environments, new challenges, new workplaces, new relationships, when this kind of person comes across new things, what he does, he doesn't adopt flexibly to the new things. He doesn't adopt himself to the change. He tries to adopt the change to himself. He tries to adopt the new, to the old. He tries to fit in the innovative and the novel to the old and the tried and the true.

And of course, this is a very destructive process. Imagine that you date someone and you fall in love and you want to have a relationship, but you have this rigid control, this rigid personality.

What you would try to do is not to adopt yourself to fit into the relationship and to function in it. What you would try to do is to adopt the new person you had just met to your old prejudices, cognitive biases, defense mechanisms and personality works.

And of course, it's not going to work.

This is a good description also of addictions. Addictions do exactly this. They provide a rigid exoskeletal, a rigid structure, a rigid scaffolding and everything in the addict's life is made to fit into the needs, the rituals and the exigencies of his or her addiction.

Okay, enough said about the problem.


What about the solutions? What can you do about all this?

Well, there are five steps, five steps to break this vicious cycle.

Those of you with delicate hearing can probably figure out that there is construction work right outside my window on the road. Utterly unnecessary construction work. Someone is making a lot of money off of it, which is how politics work, talking about rigidity.

So what can you do about rigidity?

There are five steps and they're equally good in individual life and in collective life.

Number one, identify the constricting rigidity. Find out where you're limited. Find out where your boundaries had become ossified, fossilized, intransigent. Find out where your boundaries, your limits mesh in with magical thinking, where these boundaries are irrational, not founded on reality, where your boundaries depart from reality testing, where your boundaries are forms of magical thinking, fantastic counterfactual, contradict the facts, where your boundaries are not evidence based.

When you see such boundaries, when you see such rules of conduct and misconduct, when you identify in yourself self-imposed limitations, self-imposed rigidity, this is the first step you had identified.

Of course, the next steps are intended to get rid of this rigidity.

Because you see, personal boundaries are very good, but they're very good only if they correspond 100% to reality. If they're not founded on magical thinking, if they are not rigid, they're flexible, the boundaries can change according to circumstances, people, environments, and boundaries are very good. If they don't constrict you, if they don't limit your life, if they don't prevent you from experiencing new things, new people, new relationships, boundaries are good if they are not defensive, but offensive if they keep out problematic people, problematic behaviors, all kinds of toxicity.

But if they limit you, if they constrict you, if they stifle you, if they suffocate you, your boundaries, something is wrong with them.

These are not boundaries, these are forms of rigidity which masquerade as boundaries.

The next step is to exit the comfort zone.

What is the comfort zone?

The comfort zone is everything you do habitually and regularly and routinely in your life.

You grow accustomed to these behaviors and by growing accustomed to them, you feel comfortable.

This is your comfort zone by definition. Exit this comfort zone. Do something that you had never done before. Place yourself in a situation that you could be criticized or mocked.

Experience new things which hitherto you found to be abhorrent or not interesting and boring. Go and meet new people if you are introverted. Go and drink if you are afraid of intoxication and losing control. Lose control from time to time. Experience promiscuity if you are a virgin. Experience temporary virginity if you are promiscuous. Exit your comfort zone.

Try new strategies. Go to new environments. Attend new places. Face new challenges. Impose on yourself behaviors that make you profoundly uncomfortable. Exit your comfort zone.

As you exit your comfort zone on a regular basis as an exercise, structured exercise, you will discover that your rigid boundaries crumble. They fall apart. And then you will experience a sense of liberation. Liberation followed by deliberation. This liberation will make you think, will make you contemplate and ponder. It will create a new internal processes and these internalfavorable, good, beneficial, healthy internal processes will lead you to establish a new, much more expanded and much more flexible comfort zone.

We all have comfort zones. Question is, question of size and a question of novelty. The ability to introduce new things into the comfort zone.

So to do this, you must get rid of the rigidity. And to get rid of the rigidity, you must place yourself temporarily in extremely uncomfortable, challenging, discomforting, sometimes even risky, reckless and frightening situations so that you can experience new experiences, which can provoke a new, therefore mentioned processes.


The third thing to do is to shift the locus of control. Select areas which you feel you're not qualified to deal with, you're not qualified to cope with. For example, I for a very long time held the belief that I cannot fix things at home. I'm discovering that I can. I also believe that I'm extremely disoriented and cannot find my way back home even. That's nonsense. I'm very oriented actually.

But I discovered this because I push myself to the limit outside the box, way into the envelope. Push the envelope, exit the box, shift the locus of control, develop self-efficacy where you think it is lacking.

You have negative automatic thoughts. I'm not good with my hands. I'm disoriented. I'm stupid with mathematics. I cannot do, I don't know, physics. Whatever you believe about yourself, challenge it. Do exactly the opposite. Break these negative automatic thoughts. Prove to yourself that they're not only negative and automatic, but that they are fallacious and nothing more than cognitive distortions and biases.

Thought, not reality. They are merely thoughts. Don't empower your thoughts. Don't render your thoughts your masters. Don't enslave yourself. Don't become a slave to your thoughts. You are the master of your thoughts. So discard them, cast them aside, modify them, replace them with new thoughts.

Challenge yourself to do things you've never done before. Force yourself to engage in activities which you hitherto found repulsive, off-putting, boring, repetitive and so on. Put yourself in new situations with new people, in new environments, see what happens. Exit the comfort zone and then shift the locus of control.

Become a master of your internal environment, not its slave.

And you can do this only via action. Action changes consciousness. Words and action change consciousness. Thoughts, negative automatic thoughts, are merely words. Replace words with action.


Next thing, borrowed from AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, one day at a time. No grandiose schemes. Don't attack simultaneously multiple tasks and multiple assignments and multiple goals. Break it down to tiny, tiny, tiny subtasks. Cope with one thing at any given time. Prioritize things and then ignore anything but priority number one. Having completed priority number one to your full satisfaction? Move on to priority number two and ignore all other priorities, including the priority that used to be priority number one. Consider it like a searchlight. It's like a searchlight. Focus the searchlight on one priority at a time and utterly ignore all the other priorities. Nothing will happen.

Do not catastrophize. Nothing and no one is going away. Everything will be there when you will have returned.

So be secure. The world is safe and it moves much more slowly than you think. Allow yourself to prioritize your life and to decide what you're doing, what is it that you're focusing on at any given moment and focus only on this.


One of the major problems of people with rigid control is that they catastrophize. They foresee the worst possible scenarios.

So what they try to do, they try to attack all the challenges and all the goals and all the issues and all the topics simultaneously. And they do this in a grandiose way. They want their perfectionist.

So they want to obtain a perfect outcome in no time and honestly without commensurate investment of effort. And they are very resentful and angry and exhausted and depleted if they fail.

So we teach alcoholics, junkies, one day at a time, one mission at a time, one sub task at a time. Smaller the more detailed you go, the more coarse-grained you go, the better it is.


And the fifth advice is alternate between addictions. Do not reject your addictions. It's hopeless.

Don't say, I'm going to stop drinking from tomorrow. I'm going to stop doing drugs from tomorrow. I'm going to stop sleeping with strangers from tomorrow.

Embrace your addictions. Your addictions, remember, are adaptive defenses.

In the absence of your addictions, you may fall apart.

But alternate, switch between addictions. Every addict in the world has multiple addictions. There's no such thing as a single addiction.

Addicts are addicted to being addicted. So they're addicted to everything.

An alcoholic is also addicted to sex, also addicted to love. A drug addict is also addicted to alcohol usually and also addicted to sex and also addicted to money and also addicted to what and what.

There's always multiple addictions. Alternate between them.

Do not allow any one addiction to dominate or to become entrenched and cycle rapidly between them.

So in the same day, try to cycle between all your addictions.

If you have a series of rituals, implement all of them, even those ones who you deem unnecessary.

If you have rigid control, apply it to a variety of situations and settings.

Even when you think the rigid control is not needed, it will expose the absurd and inane and stupid nature of your control.

So the more you alternate between your pathologies, your addictions, between your rituals, between your anxieties, between your catastrophic scenarios, between your obsessions, between your compulsions, ruminations, the more you circulate, the more you flow among all these, the less any one of them will have a hold on you.

These pathologies and rigidities will lose their power and they will lose their power because you will never be there physically for them. You will already have moved to another addiction or another rigidity or another control mechanism or another obsession or another compulsion.

The problem is when you stay stuck, when you stay fixated on any given pathology, then it acquires power over you. You're empowering the pathology.

Circularly, cycle among pathologies and none of them will have power over you and gradually they will degenerate and wane and disappear.

These are the five pieces of advice that I have to give you.


One of the major problems in people with rigid controls and to remind you, rigid controls involve personality disorders, they involve obsession compulsions, they involve addictions and they involve catastrophizing and they involve generalized anxiety.

The root cause of all these is a generalized anxiety, usually harking back to early childhood.

So one of the major problem, one of the major problematic behaviors, problem behaviors of these kind of people is self-trashing.

Physical self-trashing, I have a confession to make, physical self-trashing horrifies me. Promiscuous, self-objectifying, drunk sex, for example, which is a form of objectifying self-trashing.

Alcoholism, drug abuse, heavy smoking, medical neglect, self-mutilation and self-harm, they are all forms of physical self-trashing and they all horrify me because they signify self-rejection and self-loathing.

All these behaviors are a denial of life itself, a denial and rejection of the potentials of life, the beautiful potentials of life.

They all tantamount to slow motion unfolding suicide.

I personally do my best to keep away from such people, to keep away from the dark toxic ambit of such people. They suck you in, they're like black holes. You will never ever emerge, at least not unscathed.

As far as I'm concerned, these people are in some ways evil reified because what is evil? What is the maximum, what is the purified quintessence and epitome of evil?

A rejection of life.

Evil is about choosing death over life and I recoil in revulsion as I experience a vague sense of ambient menace, some kind of threat in the air, atmospheric threat.

There are other forms no less pernicious and no less life-vitiate, forms of self-annihilation and they include many behaviors which are dysfunctional but we don't take them too seriously but they are self-trashing behaviors.

For example, making all the wrong choices knowingly, self-sabotage, teaming up with wrong partners, wrong institutions, wrong mates, buffoonish or obnoxious public misconduct, a lack of impulse control, inability to delay gratification, affectionism, procrastination, rumination, avoidance. These are just, these are random sample of examples of psychological self-trashing because we discuss the physical form of self-trashing but there's also psychological self-trashing and there are numerous other forms of self-defeating, reactant, defiant and passive-aggressive misbehaviors that constrict life, that render life unlived and as you can see from the list they are all forms of rigid control, they all involve anxiety, possibly depression and primitive defenses.

Use the five steps, the five step program to get rid of your rigidity because even healthy people have rigid defenses and rigidity in life which accumulates over time, it's like you know like kidney stones, it's something you accumulate over time.

Remember the five steps, identify the constricting rigidity, identify your magical thinking, get rid of them.

Number two, exit your comfort zone, do things you're not comfortable with.

Number three, shift the locus of control, develop self-efficacy where it is now lacking.

Number four, one day at a time, no grandiose schemes, focus on one priority, ignore the rest and number five, alternate between your pathologies and your addictions until you're addicted to nothing and to no one.

Good luck, it's doable, I've seen it done and I've seen success stories.

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