I sat in my office chair giggling with a client about how he was fired from Dairy Queen for not weighing every “Dilly” bar. Dilly bars are a yummy chocolate coated ice cream bars on a stick.
He smiled as he told me, “After a while, I just knew the right feel. I could operate the machine to dispense the right amount of ice cream, feel the weight in my hand, and just KNEW it was right. I had gotten bored with weighing the Dilly bars, so I decided since I had it down pat, I could skip that step. One day my boss came over, complaining about me not following the procedures. She weighed a few, found they were spot on, and still fired me for insubordination.”
I laughed and responded with, “Hello, high detail-focused processing. Looks like it got you into trouble again.”
What is It?
High detail-focused processing (HDFP) is an ability to see and assess specific minutiae quickly and go on to the next detailed observation with great precision. HDFP is a trait that is widely seen in people that lean overcontrolled. Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) posits that HDFP is a biologically based trait for threat sensitive individuals. Meaning that while HDFP is a non-emotional action, it can have high emotional consequences.
Positives of High Detail-Focused Processing
On the plus side, HDFP allows a person to assess a situation with ease, accurately making a suitable decision or find information quickly, such as scanning a file list on a computer screen and quickly locating the correct file faster than peers. HDFP can make someone an elite proofreader, editor, or information processor.
For example HDF processers can remember where they parked, how to navigate to a restaurant, or spot a friend or foe from across the room, faster and more accurately than most. These abilities can facilitate a sense of pride (albeit secret sometimes) about one’s ability to accurately assess situations as helpful, which is very prosocial and tribal behavior.
Negatives of High Detail-Focused Processing
High detail focus processing can also have some negative consequences. For example, if you notice that a friend misspoke a word and then you fail to listen to anything he says after the error, it can signal that you don’t care about him or what he is saying isn’t important. Or if you correct someone’s grammar, like “finished” versus “done,” the receiver can feel extremely agitated at the interruption and may not want to talk with you much anymore. Yes, you might be right, but at what cost to the relationship?
I had one client describe problematic HDFP like a record player being stuck. It was like she couldn’t get off the note and it made her so agitated, exhausted, and tense that she forgot she could just change the record. HDFP is a huge reason that overcontrolled people ruminate.
How to Handle HDFP
High detail-focused processing is both a blessing and a curse. For many overcontrolled leaning folks, it’s hard to know when to pay attention to it and when to urge surf it. A good way to assess if it’s no longer working for you, is whether you feel tension when the detailed observations are happening. This can let you know the threat system in the brain is turned on and it’s time to take a step back to relax and activate your safety system through skills like Big 3 + 1 (raise eyebrows, close mouth smile, take a deep breath, and lean back).
Who ever said, the most important thing in life is being correct?