Am I nuts?
June 6, 2005 3:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm obsessed with quantifying things and ranking things. While it doesn't seem to have any negative effects on my life, I do think about it constantly. Am I obsessive-compulsive? Should I talk to a psychatrist? I was afraid to talk about it for most of my life (referring to it as my "research project"), but now I'm starting to open up about it, and it's making me consider how it could be affecting my personality.

It hasn't prevented me from having a great career, having a 4.0 GPA in school, a girlfriend, hobbies, and a social life, but it's like a constant thought in my mind. Whenever I encounter any new activity, subculture, game, or whatever, I immediately want to find ways to score and rank things that have to do with it. I feel like I'm looking for some kind of system that would reward this kind of ranking, and that it will be some sort of zen enlightenment.

Here's an example: my girlfriend will mention some new type of yarn she's using, and I will immediately ask, "What's the most expensive kind of yarn?" or "What's the rarest?" or "What are the top 5 most difficult stitches?" Why do I worry about this so much?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (17 answers total)
If it doesn't have any negative effect on your life, why do you want to change it? I mean, if others don't find it annoying and it allows you to "have a great career, have a 4.0 GPA in school, a girlfriend, hobbies, and a social life" what's the problem?

If there is no problem, why are you posting this anonymously?
posted by sic at 3:41 PM on June 6, 2005

First off, why is this bothering you? Does it bother you because it makes you feel like you're weird?

It seems to me, from reading your question, that it merely bothers you because something external (observing people, perhaps, and seeing that others don't appear to act this way) is telling you it should bother you and not because it has any measurable effect on your life.

Does it bother your girlfriend that you ask these questions? Or does she not seem to care at all?

Obviously you're very sensitive about this or else you'd post it under your username, and that to me strongly displays that you're afraid other people will think you're really strange for wanting to rank or categorize things.

IANAP or anything else related, but it does sound like a very mildly autistic trait (note that it's a trait, not that you're necessarily autistic to any extent.) I suppose it could be a sort of obsessive-compulsive thing too like you might think, but I have little experience with that and can't even offer armchair commentary. I would assume, however, that something is only worth categorizing seriously as obsessive-compulsive if the behavior interferes negatively with your life in some measurable way.

I don't know, though; someone with more experience with OCD is welcome to correct me downthread.

I am mildly autistic (professionally diagnosed) and I have quirks similar to the one you describe, though not exactly the same, and I've come to accept that's just how I am.

Perhaps you might want to talk to a therapist or someone you feel comfortable talking to about it, but I honestly don't think it's something to be worried about if it's not affecting your life in a negative way. I don't know exactly how worried about it you are, so, please forgive me if that sounds patronizing. :) I know it's not possible to just "shut off" worrying about something, but even a little reassurance can help.

In summation, you'd probably benefit from talking about this to someone you trust not to judge you for it. It sounds to me like you need a lot of reassurance that you're not inappropriately "weird."
posted by Kosh at 3:42 PM on June 6, 2005

(Note that I have no idea what "inappropriately weird" would even mean. Perhaps that was a poor choice of phrase. It sounds to me, though, like there's nothing at all "wrong" with you except your worrying so much about whether or not something's wrong with you.)
posted by Kosh at 4:10 PM on June 6, 2005

It's a bit peculiar, but you seem to have learned to adapt quite well, and it doesn't seem to be hurting you or anybody else. Do you think you could be putting these "clock cycles" to better use? It might be interesting to see a good psychologist to discuss it.

If you retain all this information, maybe you should go on Jeopardy and really make it an asset.
posted by theora55 at 4:24 PM on June 6, 2005

If you think this way all the time, it seems to be clear that you've figured out how to use this tendency to your advantage. Kudos to you.

I'm going to guess that your problem is that you're worried about the compulsive aspect of this, that what bugs you is that you're not able to turn it off. I suggest you look into mindfulness meditation, and cultivate the ability to observe your own thought processes. It takes "gumption", as Bhante G puts it, but it sounds like you enjoy a challenge. I'm a beginner myself, so you'll need to ask someone else what the hardest kind of meditation is...
posted by teleskiving at 4:32 PM on June 6, 2005

i suspect it's quite common both for smart people to have certain obsessive aspects to their personality and to start wondering about them as they get older.

certainly, in my case, i have. i doubt that i am as smart / successful as you, or as obsessive (from what you write), but what you say rings true to me. it seems that as we get older we get a little more self aware, perhaps a little more reflective, or less driven, and these things start to become obvious (to us).

if you're like me, you might worry how much this affects other things in your life, which are perhaps more important, these days, than your academic performance. you probably do annoy your partner sometimes. i annoy mine at times. i also make her happy at other times, i sincerely hope. no doubt you do too.

so i think both the obsession and, more importantly, the reflection and worrying, are normal.

what should you do? what you do with any problem - sort it out in your own way. if you think a psychiatrist would help, go see one - they're a tool, a possible solution, like any other. for me, "sorting it out" meant sitting down and analyzing things. worrying away at what it all meant for a while. and coming to the conclusion that this was an important aspect of me, something i should cherish, since it was useful, but also something i could control. i don't need to be quite so freaky. i'll use this aspect of me when i want. and when i don't want, i won't.

that was my solution, and my problems (which i'm kind of not describing on purpose) weren't exactly the same as yours. but i think you're right to think about this, and i'm sure you'll find a suitable balance. welcome to getting older. ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:35 PM on June 6, 2005

I agree with andrew that this is probably something you're going to worry a lot about, but that it's not really cause for worry. My mom, for example, spends a lot of "clock cycles" imagining all the different ways that a situation could end in my siblings or me or my father dying (morbid, I know). Most psychologists would agree that as long as it doesn't negatively affect your life (and it sounds like it isn't) or the lives of others, then you're ok.

If you'd like to explore this kind of mental stuff with someone who's a little more informed than the general population, you could talk to someone trained in cognitive psychology. It really helped people I know deal with weird random thought cycles that they had been having. Or you could explore meditation or introspection, like andrew cooke suggested.

Personally? It seems like a rather helpful little quirk - better than obsessing over sports stats or porn.
posted by muddgirl at 4:48 PM on June 6, 2005

I think the advice in this thread is very good. In general, psychiatry is more concerned with diagnosis than with distress. I'm sure that you could see a psychiatrist and get diagnosed as OCD or even (perhaps) with a mild case of Asperger's Syndrome. But why bother? Seriously, if you are not distressed about it then treatment is actually likely to make you worse, in other words, more distressed, then you already are.

If, at a later time, it starts to become a problem (you start to become distressed), get it treated. Right now it doesn't sound as if there is anything to treat. [I write this from the perspective of someone who is much more interested in distress than in diagnosis, so take it as you will.]

My email is in my profile if you are interested in discussing any aspect of this further, including, but not limited to, the rationale of my response.
posted by OmieWise at 5:18 PM on June 6, 2005

I don't have advice, just an anecdote: for several years when I was a pre-teen and teenager I was obsessed with counting the number of letters in words, and in finding the various rhythms I could set the letters to. Hard to explain, really, but what it meant was that every new, uncounted word of more than six letters that I heard or thought of had to be counted and assigned a rhythm.

It was definitely obsessive in that I couldn't make myself stop doing it. I thought I was going crazy. It seemed near-constant. After a year or so I talked to my dad about it, and he said he'd experienced a similar thing when he was in his late teens. I don't even remember exactly what his was, but he pretty much agreed with andrew cooke -- it's not surprising that a very intelligent, analytical person would experience that sort of hyperconscious parsing of the world.

My dad said his eventually went away. Mine did, too. I don't know if it was recreational drugs or age or cigarettes or what, but after three or four years I was able to control it and make it go away. I can still tell you all about the rhythmic properties of "watermelon" (10 letters, and no I didn't have to count) but I can generally control my thoughts much better now.

I don't have any solutions, but if I'm understanding your post correctly, my dad and I had similar experiences. God luck with whatever you decide to do.
posted by climalene at 6:13 PM on June 6, 2005

Interesting. I visually divide things around me, and just like climalene, it's something that has a history in my family. It's always been pretty subtle for me, but it still probably influences my personality.

I can't seem to focus on reading an article online unless the mouse cursor is exactly halfway between the edge of the text and the edge of the browser window. Also, I keep icons and windows at square distances from corners of the screen. When I'm a passenger in a car, I sometimes have a hard time keeping conversations because I get distracted forming triangles with telephone poles. I do none of it intentionally, but somehow it just makes me feel more comfortable to do it.

My own nonsense aside, I actually generally enjoy talking with people who think like you do. "What's the rarest kind of yarn?" seems to me to be exactly the kind of question that stimulates the most interesting conversations from banal topics. Like yarn.

Sorry I don't have any advice to present (this being AskMe and all, oops), but I do hope it worry less knowing that there are others out there with these quirks.
posted by sellout at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2005

Well, I'll fess up. This is my post. I'm a pretty private person usually, so I guess it was just a reflex to post anon. There are too many good responses to respond to individually (it's late and I'm full of Chinese food), but thanks to everyone for their opinion.

I don't feel negative about it in any way (just shy, and that's passing), so I don't think I'll pursue therapy. I've actually already been looking for a cognitive psychologist to have a chat with, but that's not a real priority.

I won't blather on about some of the offbeat ideas and theories I've been kicking around, but if the idea of quantifying normally subjective experiences (art, music) interests anyone, they're welcome to email me. Thanks again guys.
posted by patgas at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2005

I have similar issues; I rank things, or have to apply some sort of percentage to things, and I have a weird need to chart and graph that information . It comes and goes, its presence is correlated to how out-of-control my personal life is.

I ended up finding a job as a media analyst where I spend most of the day with data and statistics and guess what? I'm awesome at my job.
posted by superkim at 7:55 PM on June 6, 2005

I have a friend who has similar tendencies, and an intense attention to quantification. He has found a great way to cope with it-- he became an epidemiologist, where quantifying things is his job.
posted by picklebird at 8:42 PM on June 6, 2005

Huh, I guess I do the same thing, but I had never really thought about it like that before. Basically the edges of topics interest me, and rarely the centers. I'm also a ranker, which has the up side of making prioritizing tasks really easy, it has the down side of seeing all your friends along a continuum. I also count the number of stairs that I'm climbing pretty much always. I'm a librarian, it works fine for me.

I think the fact that you talk about it and it's not some oogy-boogy secret really sounds like a good approach to start with. Of course, chat with your partner about it and see what she thinks or if it gets on her nerves in a "this has to stop" way. I had a pal once who was minorly OCD about things like turning off the oven and it just became sort of an easygoing joke with us. We'd get ready to leave, get halfway down the hall, walk back, check the oven, write a note that said "the oven is off", carry it with us etc. The fact that he was pretty relaxed about having this one spazzy mental tic meant that everyone else was pretty relaxed about it too. You'd just build in an extra minute or two when you picked him up to go someplace.

It really sounds like things are pretty much going your way right now. I'd say keep an eye on it to see if it starts to get worse, takes up too much mental energy, or perpectually annoy people you'd like to not be annoying. It beats having some lousy pop music song in your head repeating over and over and over.
posted by jessamyn at 9:18 PM on June 6, 2005

I think you're lucky to have this trait. It's a way of fixing in your mind fundamental information about every new subject you bump into. Not just isolated facts, but relationships among them. That way, you'll remember things much longer.

We may have another Jeopardy candidate here.
posted by mono blanco at 11:00 PM on June 6, 2005

You sound like my boyfriend - he is a quantifier and a worrier, and it doesn't drive me particularly crazy. It's a trait in most intelligent people, I think, to a greater or lesser extent. I have it a little bit too. And what andrew cooke said.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:29 AM on June 7, 2005

Bear in mind that what we call obsessive-compulsive or autistic behaviors are extremes on a spectrum of behaviors. The spectrum exists because in their milder forms these behaviors are adaptive, not maladaptive.

Classification and ranking are good ways of structuring information, facilitating comprehension and recall. Goodness knows there's a lot of information around these days - some cog. sci. types are even positing that we're in the midst of an epidemic of information overload.

Now, if you find yourself compelled to spend time classifying and ranking things while important life matters go by the wayside, only then would I say you might be having a problem.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:03 AM on June 7, 2005

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