Obsession

“He was just…” My patient groped for the right words.  “…pretty great.”

She was talking about her boyfriend—or rather, her ex-boyfriend.  He’d recently ended their relationship, and she’d come to me now, several months later, unable to shake herself out of the funk in which she’d been left by his leaving.

Surprisingly, she harbored no ill feelings toward him for breaking up with her. “I understand why he left,” she told me.  “He said I just wasn’t the right one for him.  I get it.  I wish I was, but I’ve felt the same way about plenty of men myself.  He’s not in control of how he feels about me anymore than I’m in control about how I still feel about him.”

And how she still felt about him, I realized after our conversation in which she described thinking about him all the time, deliberately visiting places she knew he frequented, and constantly struggling not to pick up the phone to call him, could most easily be summed up in one word:  obsessed.

THE DOWNSIDE OF OBSESSION

At its worst, obsession is an iron mask that permits us to gaze in only one direction at one thing—or, to use another metaphor, a giant tidal wave that crashes through our minds and washes away all other concerns.  We may become obsessed with a person, a place, a goal, a subject—but obsession amounts to the same thing in all cases:  addiction.

At first, like all addictions, obsession is intoxicating.  It fills us up, and what a relief that feeling is (especially if we felt empty before).  But even if we didn’t feel empty, obsession makes us feel potent, capable, and purposeful.

But also like all addictions, with time obsession unbalances us.  We often begin to neglect parts of our lives we shouldn’t.  If allowed to become too consuming, obsession causes us to devalue important dimensions of our lives and tolerate their atrophy and even their collapse.  But even if our lives remain in balance, if the object of our obsession is taken from us, as my patient’s was from her, we find ourselves devastated, often convinced we’ve lost our last chance at happiness.

THE UPSIDE OF OBSESSION

But this belief is a delusion.  Our happiness never depends on any one thing, no matter how important that one thing may seem.

Further, we have to acknowledge that it’s hard, if not often impossible, to achieve something great without being just a little bit obsessed with it.  In fact, when properly harnessed, the increased energy, drive, determination, and resiliency obsession brings can be highly adaptive.  Obsession, when made to serve us, can bring out our most capable selves, motivating us to find the creativity and ingenuity to solve incredibly difficult problems.  Obsession, in short, can lead us to greatness.

HOW TO CONTROL AN OBSESSION

The challenge then is to make our obsessions function positively, controlling them so they don’t control us, extracting the benefit of obsession without succumbing to its detriments.  To do this, the following strategies may be helpful:

  1. Distract yourself at varying intervals.  Using force of will to tame an obsession is like fighting to overcome anxiety by denying it exists:  rarely does it do anything but make it worse.  Instead, find something attractive and pleasurable to distract you from your obsession, to provide you a break from thinking about it.  This will help remind you on an emotional level that other things in life are still important.  Read a gripping novel, watch an entertaining movie, help a friend in distress.  Do something that takes you out of your own head.
  2. Accomplish a task that helps put your obsession behind you.  Sometimes an obsession holds us in its power and refuses to let us go because we simply haven’t finished with it.  Perhaps we haven’t revised a book chapter, haven’t planned the last details of a trip, haven’t asked out someone on whom we have a crush.  Tell yourself that once you’ve reached the next milestone, you’re going to take a break.  Often taking a solid step forward in some way frees you to walk away from an obsession temporarily to recharge your batteries.  And when you do, turn back to something else in your life you’ve been neglecting.
  3. Focus on your greater mission.  As I wrote in an earlier post, The Importance Of Having A Mission, finding and embracing a mission in life will defend you against the sense your life is meaningless.  And if you’re able to care about a mission that in some way brings joy to or removes suffering from others, you’ll find yourself more firmly anchored, upright, and balanced when a wave of obsessive thoughts threatens to carry you away.
  4. Adopt a practice that grounds you.  Chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  Meditate.  Take up karate.  Or dancing.  Do something physical in different surroundings to engage a different part of your mind that’s interested in other things besides your obsession.
  5. Allow time to pass.  With time, many obsessions gradually lose their flavor.
  6. Listen to what others tell you.  If your close friends and family express concern over your being obsessed, they’re possibly right.  Be open to these messages.

I’m not arguing here that we should seek to extinguish obsession; I’m arguing we should seek to control it.  Our ability to bend our emotions to our will is poor, but not our ability to manage them.  We can make our obsessions work for us rather than work us over.  And we can learn to let them go when the time comes.

As my patient did with her obsession with her boyfriend.  Early on, she failed in her attempts to tear her thoughts away from him.  So she allowed herself to indulge in fantasies in which they reconciled, but always reminded herself they were exactly that:  fantasies.  She practiced distracting herself with other things she found genuinely interesting.  Gradually she was able to distract herself for longer and longer periods without thinking about him, reminding herself that though he still felt like the most important thing in her life, he clearly wasn’t.  She knew intellectually that at some point in the future she’d look back over her time with him fondly, without pain.  She only needed her emotions to catch up with her intellect.  And as she reported almost twelve months later, eventually they did.

Next weekThe Six Reasons People Attempt Suicide

18 comments to Obsession

  • Deborah

    This was an incredibly helpful article. I have an MA in transpersonal psychology, so I have done a lot of reading in the area of psychological healing, addiction, and meditation. I have to say, in my opinion, this is the best advice I have seen on managing obsession and addiction. Thank you so much for posting this.

    Deborah: High praise indeed! I’m glad you found it useful.

    Alex

  • Judy Chaffe

    Hi Alex. Thanks again for another insightful piece. I am a counselor in Ontario Canada and an avid fan of yours. If I were to make a suggestion in your How to Control your Obsession list, it would be journaling. I recommend and have seen the benefits of journaling time and time again from clients in my office. Journaling is indicated in the healing process in a wide variety of emotionally distressing situations.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write your articles. I for one very much appreciate your attitudes and insight!

    Judy

    PS—still waiting to see a book from you. 🙂

    Judy: Journaling is an excellent suggestion. Nothing helps clarify your own thought process—or expose it for what it is—like putting it down in writing. Thanks for such an excellent suggestion. And as for a book, I’ve got a proposal about to go out to publishers. If it finds a home, you’ll be hearing a lot more about it, I promise!

    Alex

  • Hi Alex,

    Good piece, as always. Irvin Yalom wrote an excellent dissection of obsession in his excellent titular essay in his book of psychoanalytical tales, Love’s Executioner. Highly recommended reading.

    Also, I would add to the journaling suggestion the thought that many people who become obsessed came from troubled backgrounds.

    Early traumatologist Aphrodite Matsakis wrote the helpful, I Just Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors. This book helps PTSD survivors reconcile their injuries, which often lead to obsessive or otherwise unhealthy relationships.

    You’re right: Recovery is a process of replacement of the obsessed object by other, hopefully healthier, replacements.

    Lisa: I second your recommendation of Yalom’s book. One of my all-time favorites.

    Alex

  • Joan Winnek

    Sometimes, the obsession works out. This brought back memories of the early years in my relationship with the man who became my husband. I was the other woman before he left his wife (2 years), then yearned for him after he had lived with me (4 years) and left me. He came back (after a year and a half), and we married.

    We had to live through many complications (e.g., children) that were resolved slowly. We have now celebrated our 30th anniversary and are dealing with the beginnings of old age together. He is my love and my soul mate. Our grown children (we had none together) love and support us. Our lives are rich.

  • Teodora

    Hi Alex,

    I have found the book How to Fall Out of Love by Debora Phillips to be very helpful in situations like the one you outlined above. It teaches thought-stopping techniques as well as de-glorification of the beloved by visualizing him/her in ridiculous situations; a real classic of a book.

    Teodora

  • Pretty

    Obsession is like an all encompassing fire: it destroys everything if not properly controlled.

    My husband—now ex—was obsessed with beauty, and further obsessed that I was not beautiful on the outside, though he found me beautiful on the inside. He was so completely and utterly consumed by this obsession of his that he could never see me or my love for him. I even got plastic surgery done at his behest, but still he could never see me because of his obsession. As you mentioned in your 5th point, we decided to take some time apart, but that too was not enough. And then when I realized that the problem is not my beauty but his obsession, I decided to break free.

    Your articles “The Good Guy Contract” and “The Three Realms of Confidence” are like mine of gems of wisdom and have helped me a lot.

    Thank you for this beautiful insight.

    Pretty: You’re so welcome.

    Alex

  • RG

    One of the things I’m struggling with is being the object of someone else’s obsession. And I struggle with attempting to clarify the situation for them versus simply removing myself. Communication feels irrational, like talking to someone drunk, who doesn’t realize that they’re drunk. They ricochet between hope and despair, where the reality is some pale medium. I want to be flattered, or at least indulgent, but my instinct is to flee. To that end, I’d like to hear you expound more on is the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession. I think I’ve experienced too much possessive, out-of-touch-with-reality obsession and now I’m very brittle when even small signs of that appear. How much is acceptable?

    RG: The problem with obsession is that it always has an object—and a person isn’t an object. To become obsessed with a person even a little bit is to abstract them into something other than a fully-fledged human being, whether your obsession puts them on a pedestal or dehumanizes them in the worst way. To become obsessed with another person creates for the person obsessed the illusion that the value of the object of their obsession only exists in relation to their obsession. So, to answer your question, no amount of obsession with a person is healthy in my view—by which I mean no degree of abstracting a person is healthy. If someone is unable to relate to you from any perspective other than how your life impacts theirs, that person is not likely ready to have a mature, balanced, and mutually satisfying relationship with you. Being the object of another person’s obsession can be quite an uncomfortable experience, especially, I think, because the person obsessed with you is often obsessed with their own vision of you more than anything else. This kind of obsession involves relation to an illusion of you rather than to the flesh-and-blood you, which in extreme cases can play a bit with your conception of yourself.

    Alex

  • Mick

    Thank you for this, doctor. I’ve been obsessing over a woman for some time now. It’s getting better, but you just added more ideas to help me in the long run.

    -Mick

  • Abraham Daft

    Addiction has always been an interesting subject to me. I think almost everyone is addicted to something. Not all addictions are easy to see and some are not so harmful. I think there is power in an addiction type situation if directed to a beneficial thing, like a passion or hobby.

  • molly

    Hi, Alex—great article. Thank you, as always. I am stemming from RG’s comment and the earlier comments about PTSD. I have found myself lately as a fixation of new friends and I feel that in order to re-center/re-claim myself, my boundaries, my identity, I must do something definite to end things, to make my break. I also wonder how much of this dynamic I create myself because I want to be friendly to all I meet. I have an outgoing vibrant personality and what I’ve found is that needy/injured people seem to latch on more than others and so the PTSD child in me agrees with that latching at first because it feels familiar to have a needy personality to take care of (my mother was a substance abuser when I was a child and still is an addict today). It has gotten so bad in some instances where I was the recipient of extreme hostility and paranoia regarding my lack of involvement—imagined “cold wars” between me and one person due to my entertaining house guests for several days. In most instances however, it’s just that I am like some little flame in a dark room that sad people see and are drawn to. It’s hard at times for me to keep my light for me… how do I deal with feeling threatened when I’m dealing with the sad people? (right now I can feel my pulse quicken and my veins open to prepare to flee—staying in the moment is key, but what can I do to protect myself?) Thank you.

    Molly: Perhaps recognizing that no one’s life will end because you chose not to be a part of it will help. Despite the desperation needy people may feel and demonstrate to you, you don’t have any power over anyone’s happiness (or misery) that they don’t give you themselves. I suspect your trouble revolves around appropriate boundary setting and recognizing that all relationships, to be healthy, must be mutually and equally gratifying (for the most part, at least), and that you have a right to enjoy healthy relationships. There’s no rule that says you have to be willing to befriend everyone, or that being nice to someone means you necessarily want to be their friend (nor should you allow others to whom you’re nice to convince you of this). Not wanting to be someone’s friend doesn’t mean you lack kindness or compassion toward them, either. We all have personal preferences. It’s completely unrealistic to expect you’ll like everyone equally and want to spend time with everyone who flings themselves in your path.

    Alex

  • RG

    If I may point out something for Molly: You say “I am like some little flame in a dark room that sad people see and are drawn to.” This is a very strong image. I can relate to that feeling, the sense of gratification in helping others, is in itself a form of mutuality.

    Some things that work for me:
    1. Help people in official positions—staff a hotline, do volunteer work, be an advocate—where there is outside support so that you are part of a rotating team and where you can get a chance to rehash your feelings as the supporter (Alex can probably think of the official term for this.)
    2. Help sad people in your life be aware of the larger light, the community resources.
    3. To the extent that you choose to remain a primary source of help: Establish set patterns and boundaries, e.g., visiting every Sunday for an hour. Give advance warning and provide an alternate time if you need to make an exception. Some dependents need less than this, they just need to know that they haven’t offended you and what timeframe to expect you.

  • molly

    Thank you, RG. I appreciate all your points. They are very good ideas and they will help.

  • molly

    Thank you, Alex. Your advice is right on—the personalizing and guilt I feel when I don’t like someone right away is minimal compared to when I know I am doing the right thing for everyone when I set boundaries. I will continue to work on feeling empowered and correct and proportionate to the situation and my place in the world.

    Molly: It sure ain’t easy. 😉

    Alex

  • jeann

    Dear Alex,

    Thanks for another great exploration.

    Molly, a friend recently offered this suggestion which has been so helpful to me. Maybe it can be useful to you or others. The question to ask is would I rather be liked or would I rather feel self-respect. That shifts for me the perception of a situation and the choices I can make, such as forgiving myself and setting boundaries that will enhance my self-respect. When I recognize the knee jerk response to want to be liked, I have more of a choice now to assess how to respond to that impulse.

  • There have been two times in my life when I’ve had to deal with obsession. I wish I’d had your list of suggestions to guide me. If it were to happen to me again, looking back on my previous experiences, the starting point for me would be #5: Allow time to pass. I say this because I now know that obsessions fade with time. Accepting that as a basic premise can give someone the motivation to follow your other suggestions, like distracting yourself and focusing on a greater mission.

  • Mary Carlisle

    Obsession can be dangerous. I think it’s paramount to learn these kind of coping skills when you find yourself falling into this. It’s such a strong force to pull yourself out of but like yourself chanting helps me. I have a very addictive personality and I notice over the past four years of chanting I handle these kind of situations much better and I’m able to drop it faster or even right away. This is actually one of the first changes I noticed in myself. I would think “Wow, two or three years ago I would have held onto this longer and obsessed about it.”

    I’m reading the Twilight series which is absolutely amazing. Women and young girls all over the world read these books. In the second book, the only disturbing thing about this is one of the main characters, Bella, goes into a deep depression after Edward, her boyfriend, leaves her; she becomes completely immobile and can’t get out of bed for months, even putting herself in danger and risking her life. Unfortunately she’s not fully functional until he comes back and she’s in his arms. I love the books but this did make me realize when young girls read this it leaves the impression you’re not going to be okay until he or she comes back.

    I think your suggestion of making an effort to see everyone as a human being first is really important—harder to put them on a pedestal or dehumanize them. Thanks again, Alex, for compelling post. I’m here every week reading them all even if I don’t always comment on everyone.

    Mary: I know you’re there. Thanks.

    Alex

  • Obsession « Nothing Specific

    […] Obsession […]

  • Max

    Your article is both informative and helpful. I myself suffer from a certain obsession which has began to severely effect other aspects of my life. Previous attempts to quit my obsession “cold turkey” have done nothing to help, if anything they exacerbate it the situation. I say this to reenforce your statement about how trying to mentally overpower an obsession is often so futile.

    Your advice makes great sense, and your article sums up obsession and how to deal with it concisely and effectively. This is a testimonial if anything about the readability and applicability of your article. You’ve gained a weekly subscriber, I’ll be sure to comment in the future about how well your advice works.

    Max: Good luck!

    Alex

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