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How to Break an Obsession

Has a fan community, video game, or hobby become an obsession?

Carsten Carlsson/Unsplash
Source: Carsten Carlsson/Unsplash

In the internet era, it's easy to get obsessed with things. For example, fan communities connect people who are obsessed with particular TV shows. Reddit and Slack communities connect people obsessed with a topic or hobby. Twitter connects people all outraged by the same things. These communities can feel more accepting than other friendship circles. Also, it's possible to lurk if you don't have social energy.

You might've even found yourself "hate-watching" or "hate-following" particular content creators, like family vloggers or fitness influencers. There are even communities for people to do this! Fellow hate-watchers gather to discuss aspects of the content they find problematic.

If you've got a passionate personality, you might pick up serial obsessions. Back when the TV show Lost was on the air, I spent several hours a week listening to podcasts about it. Next, I did the same thing with the TV show Survivor. And recently, I started checking a Reddit sub several times a day.

These can be positive aspects of being involved in a fan community or a community centered on a common goal or common values (like the FIRE movement, where FIRE stands for Financially Independent, Retire Early). Even then, you may find yourself wanting to step back. For example:

  • If it starts to become harder to connect with anyone who isn't part of those communities
  • If you check particular platforms obsessively (e.g., checking a Reddit sub is the first thing you do each day)
  • If it's interfering with work or other goals
  • If your interests are shifting, or you want more time to devote to other pursuits
  • If you want to break a pattern of serial obsession

How to Step Back

1. Try a temporary hiatus.

Take a day or a week off from engaging with whatever you're obsessed with. Treat this as an experiment. Notice what you end up doing with the time and focus you're not devoting to your obsession. See what you like about the you that you experience when you're focused and engaged with other topics.

Perhaps you think you're overdoing your involvement in a particular community but don't want to break away from it completely. In this scenario, you might create a routine of stepping back. For example, disengaging for the first two weeks of each quarter, or one week per month. This will give you a reset.

Note that you don't need to announce this; just do it. Breaks allow you to reassess your involvement with a fresh perspective without acting based on autopilot and inertia.

Avoid taking on moderator roles that would make this difficult.

2. Change your setting or routine.

It's difficult to change one behavior if the rest of your environment and routines stay the same. If I want to change my routine, I try going to parks I don't often visit. Anything from local parks 20 minutes away to state and national parks that are an hour or two away.

Starting an exercise plan can also be a good way to change up your routine. Starting exercise can make you automatically change other things: e.g., your eating and sleeping routines, or perhaps you engage in recovery behaviors like hot baths. One deliberate change can cause other subtle shifts in your routine.

3. Eliminate triggers.

Consider unsubscribing from YouTube channels or podcasts. Take related apps off your phone. Change your news service settings to not show you stories about that topic. If you get ads about your obsession, use an ad blocker or other method to reduce how much you see those.

You can do this in more or less extreme ways, depending on what you're willing to do. For example, I have a few apps on my phone, but I access sites like Reddit only using my browser (rather than the app). If I have an app on my phone, I have notifications off, and I have my phone automatically set to do not disturb from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. each day.

4. Be kind to yourself.

Figuring out what provides meaning in your life is tricky. Sometimes I look back on topics I've been a bit obsessed with and wonder if I regret it. For example, do I regret all those hours I spent listening to podcasts about the TV show Lost? The answer, for me, is usually "sort of."

Sometimes it's difficult to find replacements. For example, there's an NPR show I usually love, but this past year it's been almost exclusively focused on politics and COVID, and I don't want more of either of those!

You might find there's only so much time you feel like engaging in your virtuous hobbies and interests (e.g., exercising, playing with your kids, self-improvement, cooking, gardening).

When you're thinking about what provides a sense of meaning in your life, it's OK if you don't find easy answers. Be kind to yourself when you're pondering those big questions.

5. Understand what psychological needs the obsession is fulfilling.

Obsessive interests can be fueled by various psychological payoffs. These include providing:

  • Distraction from the news
  • Distraction from aspects of life that stress you out (e.g., challenging work tasks or other types of "adulting")
  • Relief from loneliness without requiring you to be social (e.g., via lurking)
  • Distraction from relationship difficulties (e.g., aspects of others' behavior that frustrate you and a sense of powerlessness to change those)
  • A sense of unconditional acceptance
  • A singular focus that distracts you from messy self-questioning about how you derive a sense of meaning in your life
  • A way to hide an aspect of yourself. If all the talk is about one topic, then a problem aspect of your behavior may not come up or be seen (e.g., you can hide your alcohol use in a fan community, but not in your regular life)

Not all of those are negative—or not wholly negative. When you understand the payoffs you're getting, you can look at alternative ways to experience those payoffs or ways you could reduce those needs. For example, better anxiety management skills might relieve your need to distract yourself from challenging work.

While I mentioned some specific types of obsessions at the outset of this article, there are many more types these tips could apply to. Perhaps you've spent many dozens of hours playing a particular video game. Or you're obsessed with perfecting your Instagram, but it can ruin some experiences for you. Or maybe you've gotten very close with a particular friend, but messaging almost every day is crowding out other aspects of your life. Whatever the issue is, and whether you see it as a big problem or a small one, you can try these tips to experiment with different behavior.

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