It’s all about anxiety.
By Susan Kolod, Ph.D.
Patients often ask, “Why am I so anal”? Or, “Why is my partner, friend, parent, boss so anal?” Where does this term come from and what exactly does it mean?
The psychological usage of this term was coined by Sigmund Freud, born 163 years ago on May 6th 1856. Turns out many of Freud’s ideas remain firmly ingrained in our “collective unconscious” without awareness of their psychoanalytic origins. His theory of the “anal-retentive personality” is one of them.
Freud’s Theory of Anality
In Freud’s “Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality,” he outlines three psycho-sexual stages of early childhood development: oral (birth to 1 year), anal (1 to 3 years), and phallic (3 to 6 years). The anal stage coincides with the era of toilet training, a time when, children realize for the first time they can control their bowel movements, as well as themselves and their environment. For the first time, a child can decide whether or not they want to comply with their parents’ wishes. “No” is a popular word among 2 and 3-year-olds. So far, few would argue with Freud’s observations.
The controversial part of this theory is that difficulties and struggles over toilet training can lead to an “anal-retentive personality” with characteristics such as excessive orderliness, extreme meticulousness, reserve and suspiciousness.
While anal-retentive personality is not included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, it has some commonalities with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder: excess cleanliness expressed through repetitive hand-washing, extreme orderliness and need for control. Whatever one calls them, the aim of these behaviors is to reduce anxiety.
What is Anality?
Typically, someone asking, “Why am I so anal?” is usually referring to an extreme need to control their surroundings by attention to detail. This can be irritating to those around them because such behavior extends beyond what is felt to be reasonable, helpful or productive.
For example, Jason, a young associate in a law firm complained the senior partner supervising him on a brief demanded he investigate every possible theory involved with an aspect of the case, even those theories deemed far-fetched or unlikely. This required spending his entire weekend researching decisions that, in his opinion, had no bearing on the case and were a complete waste of time. He described the partner as “being so anal.” By this, he means that he experiences her as extremely anxious and controlling.
Similarly, people can become frustrated by their own need to control and focus intensely on non-essential details but feel unable to control this need or impulse.
Bob wanted to buy a new refrigerator. He checked on-line for the best models, finding one in his price range that was highly rated but with a couple of negative reviews. He spent several days researching the features that had been reviewed negatively as well as researching other models. Each highly rated model had a few negative reviews. After a while, Bob realized he was afraid he would make the wrong decision but his research just made him more anxious and was not helping him decide.
In each of these examples, the “anal” behavior is an attempt to ward off anxiety by creating the illusion of order. The anxiety comes from a sense of impending chaos and the anal behavior is an attempt to control or ward off chaos.
What to Do About Anality
Anality is in the eye of the beholder. Jason, for example, may feel his boss is being anal but she views her behavior as meticulous—a positive quality—and regards Jason’s resistance as an indication of sloppiness and laziness.
In Bob’s case, he himself is annoyed at his anal tendencies and would like to simply make a decision and get on with life. He would be happy if someone else could decide for him.
If you feel you are being anal, here are some things to think about:
- Is something going on in your life that is making you anxious? Your “anality” might be a way of controlling that anxiety.
- Ask someone close to you if your behavior seems out of control or excessive.
- Try to delegate tasks to other people and then let them determine the extent of attention to detail.
- Consider, what are the consequences of a result that is good enough but not perfect?
Everyone can become anal at one time or another. When you or someone else is being anal, keep in mind it is an indication that one’s anxiety is out of control. Anal behavior is an attempt to control that anxiety. It may not be connected to toilet training but it is an attempt to control a “mess.”