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The term anal-retentive (or anally retentive) is one of a variety of examples of Freudian terminology that have found their way into common usage with a slight shift in the original meaning.
In common usage, the phrases "anally retentive," "anal-retentive" or "anal" are used to describe a certain style of behavior, and it is implied that this is due to a person clenching their anal sphincter, causing retention of feces. This is not necessarily literally the case, nor usually even intended literally.
A person characterized as anal-retentive is perceived as worrying excessively about "passing feces": little details of fecal consistency, color and aroma or as otherwise being overly uptight or distressed over ordinarily normal evacuation.
Today, however, the term is often used of anybody seen as overly worried about small details and unable to adopt a philosophical attitude toward mistakes. This metaphorical usage has become so commonplace that the somewhat graphic literal meaning of the phrase is often overlooked by those using it.
Another term used in a similar context is "hair-splitting." The intended implication is that an "anally retentive" person needs to "loosen up" a little instead of "holding on to it."
The term anal-retentive (or anally retentive, anal retentive) derives from Freudian Psychology, although in common usage the original meaning has been altered. This term is often referred to simply as anal.
The term is often used in a derogatory sense to describe a person with such attention to detail that the obsession becomes an annoyance to others, and can be carried out to the detriment of the anal-retentive person.
Relationship to Freudian theory
These traits were thought by Freud to be related to an anal phase of psychosexual development at a time when an infant's attention moves from oral stimulation to anal stimulation (including the bowels and bladder), usually synchronous with learning to control their excretory functions, a time of toilet training. Freud theorized that children who experience conflicts during this period of time may develop "anal" personality traits, namely those associated with a child's efforts at excretory control: orderliness, stubbornness, a compulsion for control. Those whose anal characteristics continue into later life are said to be "anal retentive", or conversely, those who reject anal characteristics are said to have "anal expulsive" personality types. Some believe this to be a mild expression of obsessive-compulsive disorder or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
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- Anal-retentive. WordNet 3.0. Princeton University. URL accessed on 2007-07-14.