The Barney Fife Syndrome: Recognizing and Working With Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

If you have the traits of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), you could be causing the people who love or work with you to feel miserable a good deal of the time. There are ways to identify these traits within yourself and work with them to gain more respect at home and at work.

Looking in the Mirror: Could This Be an Accurate Reflection?

The actor Don Knotts became famous portraying a person who had OCPD — you probably remember the character Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show. Barney was all about making and enforcing rules, and he was rigid and inflexible.

Poor Sheriff Andy Taylor rarely got a rest from his cousin and deputy Barney, since he never called in for a sick day, so Andy sometimes made a game of seeing how he could pester him. You might find that people like to mess with you as well, and this can feel condescending at times. It makes for entertaining TV, but it’s not much fun in real life.

Barney liked to be left in charge, but when the sheriff was gone, he got into all sorts of trouble due to his foibles. He felt his way was the best, so when he had dealings with the townsfolk, they would balk at following his instructions. Things would escalate until Andy arrived to release the whole town from jail — or untie everybody, including Barney — and restore order.

Barney wanted to be brave, but due to his personality, he wasn’t much of a risk taker. He wanted a normal social life, but sometimes he could be awkward around new people. He could be stilted even around his beloved Thelma Lou, because of his fear of intimacy.

You may not identify too much with Barney, but as you reflect on these characteristics, some of them may strike a chord. Some other traits of OCPD include being:

  • Consumed with list-making,
  • Excessively frugal,
  • Micro-managing,
  • Nearsighted in your approach to projects,
  • Unable to make big decisions without support,
  • Hyper-critical,
  • Resistant to having fun,
  • Unable to relax,
  • Somewhat humorless.

You may like to work in a highly structured environment, such government job, and you prefer your religion to have strict doctrinal stances on all matters. You may also be a hoarder of useless items, and obsessed with organizing them.

If someone goes on a vacation with you, they may feel like they need another vacation afterwards to decompress. Since you are comfortable with strict systems and rules in order to function, you may view others who like a freer environment as irresponsible or incompetent, and this attitude shows.

One common problem reported about OCPD sufferers is that they do not get much accomplished because of their disorder. This may not be a fair descriptor. Steve Jobs certainly would have scored high on an OCPD questionnaire, but no one would have considered him unproductive; in fact, he was known as brilliant and creative. On the other hand, there are some people who worked with him that might claim his management style and work methods interfered with their creativity and productivity.

Uncovering Origins of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

Although OCPD has a genetic component, certain environmental factors are believed to bring out these traits. You might come from a long line of people with this disorder, but many of your actions could be the result of learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. You weren’t taught to manage risks or experiment, and you were never trained to feel comfortable making decisions because your parents were strict and overbearing.

Conversely, if your home environment was chaotic due to a parent having a mental disorder or abusing alcohol or drugs, and the other parent was absent much of the time, you may have adopted a rigid mode of operating to cope. Even in this case, you would not have had much guidance on how to develop reasonableness, decision-making skills, and clarity.

Building a New Way of Living

A lot of people with OCPD traits fail to recognize they have a problem, and will seek psychiatric treatment only if faced with the possibility of the loss of a job or a relationship. In this case, they may be resistant to treatment, and they will nitpick the therapist the same way they do everyone else.

However, therapy may be useful to you because a counselor can give you the support you need to open up and learn to tolerate, and come to appreciate, the many shades of gray there are in life.

Many personality disorders are not strictly black and white, as either you have one or you don’t. It is more accurate to say these are based on a continuum that is determined by the number of related traits or symptoms, and the strength of each one. You may not fit the strict criteria of OCPD, but if some of your traits are causing you problems, you would benefit from learning how to overcome or modify them.

The root of your OCPD behavior may be an overwhelming fear of failure, but remember: most successful creators felt free to experiment and to fail. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in history were the result of “failures.”

To get along with others, you will need to learn to step back and let people do things their own way. If you can start doing this more, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

You would do well to surround yourself with empathetic people who can help you loosen up and maybe give you a gentle ribbing when you get carried away, like Andy Taylor did for Barney. In one episode (S02E29: “Andy on Trial“), Barney admitted that working with Andy was helping him learn to be a more humane person by his easygoing nature and continuing example of kindness.

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