These days, it’s hard to go a day without overhearing or reading or using the word: obsessed. Everyone is “obsessed” with one thing or another. Though originally meant to describe one with an actual mental disorder, and later an indicator of extreme love or desire, “obsessed” is now used to describe people’s affinity for everything from kale to autumn to Céline handbags. A Google search for the expression “I’m obsessed,” turns up more than 52 million hits, while an Instagram search of the hashtag #obsessed results in more than 4 million posts plus such variations as #obsessedwithhim, #obsessedwithshoes, #obsessedwithmycat, and with nearly 3,000 posts, #obsessedwithsundriedtomatoes. Miley Cyrus recently told Ellen DeGeneres, in the context of her breakup, that she was “obsessed with being alone.”
We are, it seems, a culture with no shortage of enthusiasm, the cultivation and escalation of which modern technology has helped facilitate: With the endless bounds of the internet, it’s easy to turn a passing interest into something closer to compulsive fascination. In Obsession: A History, author Lennard J. Davis writes that “To be obsessive is to be American; to be obsessive is to be modern.” And yet the rise in the word “obsessed” is about more than just increasing levels of passion or access. Instead, it’s a reflection of a time in which people feel a constant need to one up each other, or win, even in cases where it’s not, or at least needn’t be, a competition: You think you like yoga? Well, I’m obsessed! Within that declaration, too, there is often the implication that you not only love the thing more, but you loved it first: obsession as self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.
It’s easy to pin “I’m obsessed” on a generation of young women discussing their various fixations in the high school cafeteria or, later, over apple martinis at girls’ night, but the obsession with obsession, so to speak, runs far deeper and wider. The grown men at GQ quite regularly employ the word throughout their magazine, with such recurring features as Obsession of the Day and Obsession of the Week. Last year, the magazine also ran a story called “Rihanna, Obsession of the Year,” an honor ostensibly far superior to simply being an obsession of either the day or week. With their daily column called “We’re Obsessed!” editors at InStyle aim high, and likely irrelevant to most, with their objects of desire, as in a recent $20,000 Giambattista Valli crystal and silk bomber jacket obsession.
Obsession has also worked its way into more intellectual matters. Over at Esquire, the editors recently asked, “Why Are We So Obsessed with Israel?” while recent New York Times headlines include “My Kids Are Obsessed with Technology and it’s All My Fault;” “Are Americans Too Obsessed with Cleanliness?” and “An L.A. Band Obsessed with ‘Insanity, America, and Women.” Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus isn’t the only public figure calling on “obsessed” to describe strong feelings: In September, Pope Francis told an interviewer that the Roman Catholic church had grown obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
So what’s the harm with a little obsession? For one thing, inflating language in such a way serves to homogenize positive emotions and dull expressions of enthusiasm, in a boy who cried wolf sort of way. When everything is an object of obsession, there’s no means of comparison. There’s no range, no shades of gray or in-between; just obsessed-over on one end and lackluster on the other. Eventually, if not already, this will lead to a situation in which people begin to think that things, or people, are not worthy of any recognition whatsoever if they’re not worthy of obsession. If it’s not something to obsess over, it’s simply not worth mentioning.
Of course, that, too, will rob the word of its power and meaning, while also robbing those who use it of the myriad ways in which to articulate emotion. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which to describe an affinity towards something. Perhaps it’s time to become obsessed with some of those.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com