What Does It Mean to Be Anal Retentive?

Characteristics of an Anal Personality

What Is Anal Personality?

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

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Also known as being anal retentive, an anal personality is thought of as someone with an extreme need to control their environment. A person with an anal personality will also have an obsessive attention to detail (even non-essential details) to the point that it might annoy others.

What does it mean to be anal? An anal retentive person is generally perceived as anxious and unable to manage the impulse to control situations. Their behavior goes beyond being helpful. For example, a person with an anal personality might research a product endlessly before buying it.

This article discusses the origins of the concept of anal retentive personality and the factors that are believed to play a role in causing it. It also explains some of the signs that you might be anal retentive and what you can do to cope.

Origins of the Anal Retentive Personality

The concept of the anal retentive personality dates back to the time of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who was the first to propose the existence of this personality type as part of psychoanalytic theory.

Freud wrote about the anal-retentive personality in his early works on psychosexual development. Freud argued that there were three psychosexual stages during early child development:

  • Oral: From birth to one year
  • Anal: From Age 1 to Age 3
  • Phallic: From Age 3 to Age 6

It was during the anal stage and toilet training that Freud argued the anal-retentive personality would develop.

Freud believed that when a child grew to realize that they could manage and restrict their bowel movements that the stage would be set for them to potentially develop either an anal-retentive personality or anal expulsive personality.

Freud felt that a child would decide whether to comply with their parent or not. If a parent was too strict or tried to toilet train a child too early, this would then lead to the child developing an anal-retentive personality. In addition, a child who was punished for toilet training accidents would also develop this personality.

Certain historians believe that some of Freud's theories were influenced by the state of indoor plumbing in addition to the Victorian social mores at the time that he lived. Since there was no indoor plumbing, no diapers, and no washing machine, restricting one's bowel movements would have been a much larger concern for children who lived when Freud was a young boy.

The Anal Retentive Personality According to Freud

Freud depicted anal retentive people as being:

  • Overly orderly
  • Meticulous
  • Suspicious
  • Reserved

Further traits that were later described included being stubborn, rigid, stingy with money and/or time, and having an obsession with being neat or clean. Other adjectives used to describe this personality were perfectionistic, detail-oriented, overly self-reliant, and having a passion for organizing, classifying, or collecting objects.

What is an anal expulsive personality?

A student of Freud's, Karl Abraham, took the concept a step further and described the opposite of anal-retentive as being anal-expulsive (a person with a tendency to make a mess).

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

While Freud described the anal personality, the closest mental disorder that is currently described today in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).

What Is OCPD?

This psychiatric diagnosis refers to a person with a compulsive and inflexible need for mental and interpersonal control.

Similar to the anal personality, a person with OCPD will also show strong attention to detail, a need for orderliness in their environment, problems with perfectionism, and a tendency to make lists and rules to follow.

This person may also have trouble delegating tasks and will be obstinate and rigid in their interpersonal dealings. They may have trouble getting rid of old things or spending money.

Differences Between Anal Retentiveness and OCPD

What are the differences between being anal retentive and having OCPD?

In common usage, a person who is said to have an anal personality would generally be considered to have a personality quirk. On the other hand, a person with OCPD would be considered to have a mental disorder that interferes with their daily life.

Research on the Anal Retentive Personality

In a classic 1966 study, researchers showed that those with an anal personality performed worse on a task that required them to place their hand into water that had an odor suggestive of fecal matter than people without an anal personality. The researchers speculated that this reflected ineffective defenses against "anal impulses."

In general, research has revealed that anal retentive characteristics appear as a cluster of traits rather than a defined type that would be defined as a disorder.

In general, the term is rarely used in current psychological research and has much more been adopted colloquially to describe a certain personality "style."

Signs You are Anal Retentive

What are some signs you might be anal retentive yourself? Here are the signs to look for.

  • Do you buy 10 of everything at the grocery store so that you won't run out?
  • Do you organize the bills in your wallet by color or by how worn they are so that you can spend the dirty ones first?
  • Do you look up words before you type them on social media to see whether you need to add a hyphen for proper grammar?
  • Do you categorize your grocery list so that it is in the exact order of the items that you will be buying at the store?
  • When you set clocks in your house, do you need to make sure that they are all set to the same minute and second?
  • Does it bother you greatly if you see small errors or details?
  • Have other people referred to you as overly neurotic about having things perfect around you?
  • Do you find it hard to relax on the weekend or on vacation when you know that it should be a time to unwind and recharge?
  • Are you stingy in how you consume things such as using only one square of toilet paper or not spending any of your money?

While these are just some examples of what it might be like if you are anal retentive, they show a common theme of needing to control your environment or behave in a way that involves withholding or being very careful about what you do.

Coping With Being Anal Retentive

What should you do if you think you have an anal personality? That all depends on whether it bothers you or the people around you.

If you have trouble making decisions or feel anxious if you don't control your environment, it might be worthwhile speaking to a mental health professional to determine whether you might be living with something more than just a personality quirk.

Do you feel as though your anal retentive behavior is excessive or out of your control? Those are other signs that you might need to seek help. If you have trouble delegating tasks or can't handle it when things don't work out perfectly, this could interfere with your daily life or your ability to function at work.

All of these are signs that it may be helpful to speak to a professional.

On the other hand, if you are functioning well, aren't bothered by your quirks, and the people around you are accepting of your personality, then it may simply be something that you learn to live with.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to remember that there is a strong distinction between being anal retentive and having a diagnosable mental health disorder. If you are living with someone who is showing signs of needing to control their environment to an extreme, it may be hard to know if this is just a personality quirk or something deeper.

If that person's behavior appears to interfere with their daily life, causes them distress or causes distress to you or other people in their life, or they are unable to control their impulses or feel great anxiety when unable to carry out compulsions, these are all signs of something deeper than an anal personality.

On the other hand, if someone you know appears to happily clean and organize and manage their money in a way that seems odd to you but that they enjoy or brings them joy, it could be that they simply are showing signs of what Freud identified so long ago. The translation of some unmet need or conflict during childhood into an adult manifestation that is less likely to cause trouble and appears more socially acceptable.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."