“Anal retentive” is an outdated psychoanalytic term used to describe one of the stages of development in Sigmund Freud’s theories.
Prior to the research-based therapies that most mental health professionals use now, early, and unfortunately, some current, theories of psychology were based on people’s own personal theories about why certain things happen to us instead of on science, facts, and quantifiable information. Freud is one of those psychiatrists who worked according to instinct instead of fact.
Freud devised a theory of personality development that was based on the effect of sexual pleasure on a child as he or she grows. This development came in five stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Freud believed that people could get “stuck” at a certain stage of development and that this had a profound effect on their adult personalities.
He felt that individuals who fixated on the anal stage were very focused on their bowel movements and the retaining or releasing of their feces. He asserted that at this stage, the focus of the child (around ages two to four) is on the bowels: as toilet training occurs, the child has to decide whether he or she is going to hold his or her feces or release them.
Because releasing feces is a source of pleasure for the child, he or she has to learn how to release it in the proper place at the proper time. Freud felt that children who had a very harsh toilet training learned that they had to suppress joy and pleasure in order to be accepted (going to the bathroom only when appropriate), and that they had to be perfect and exact in order to please people.
Most people age and master bowel control through training, but Freud felt it was possible to become developmentally stuck in this phase, transferring this perfectionism to other areas such as homework, organization, punctuality, and household chores. This was how Freud felt OCD developed. Unfortunately, this theory took hold and set back the treatment of OCD half a century.
Today we call people who are particular about certain things “anal retentive” as a result of Freud’s early theories. It may also describe people with OCD, but most individuals in the mental health field no longer associate this outdated terminology with OCD.