Theo Tsaousides Ph.D.

Smashing the Brainblocks

The Thin Line Between Passion and Obsession—Part 2

How to do what you love without becoming addicted.

Posted Nov 14, 2016

Source: tomkawila/Shutterstock

Passion is a biggie. Often considered a prerequisite for a fulfilling and meaningful life, passion tops the list of attributes that you need to possess in order to be successful in life. The presence of passion is considered a solution to many problems, while its absence is expected to leave you with a deep emotional void. While not knowing what they are passionate about is something that many people worry about, it seems like too much passion can also be a problem.

Researchers on this topic warn us that passion has a bright and a dark side (see Part 1 of this post). Just like falling in love with a person can turn into an obsession, so can falling in love with what you do. Your passion can cross the line into obsession, and then instead of a source of joy, it turns into another source of stress.

Harmonious passion is the healthy kind of passion that keeps you refreshed, energized, and motivated. Whereas obsessive passion is the harmful kind that can make you feel overwhelmed, anguished, and guilty.

How do you make sure that your passion remains on the bright side and doesn’t cross over to the dark side?

1.  Check whether you have crossed the line between harmonious and obsessive

Passion for an activity is defined as doing something that you like, that you find important, and in which you invest a lot of time and energy. To evaluate whether your passion remains harmonious and has not become obsessive there are three quick signs to look for:

a. The balance between pleasure and pain remains positive: You still get more joy and satisfaction from engaging in your activity, instead of feeling anxious when you can’t indulge in it or guilty after you spend too much time doing what you love.

b. You are in charge of if and when: You are able to prioritize and make good judgment calls regarding how to spend your time and energy.  When you have a healthy relationship with your passions, you know when it is a good time to play and when it is time to work.

c. You can break up whenever you want: When you start noticing problems caused by your love for your passion, you can go cold turkey.  You can stop, and prevent negative consequences, like neglecting your family, social life, or work responsibilities, from happening because of your passions.

2.  Choose what to do based on what you think, not how you feel

Obsessive passion creates a hard to resist urge to engage in your favorite activities.  The urge won’t stop until you give in. Because of our brain circuitry, these strong urges are hard to resist and they tend to have faster, easier, and louder access to the part of our brain that generates action. This means that as soon as you feel the urge to run, blog, play the guitar, or whatever else your heart desires in the moment, you will start engaging in the activity as if you were hypnotized. Luckily, the urge is not uncontrollable. When you start thinking, analyzing, and deciding how to allocate your time, the urge loses its overpowering effect. You begin to have more control over what you choose to do next. And you can decide whether to spend your time indulging in your passion or taking care of your responsibilities.

3.  Assess the sacrifices you are making

Indulging in your passion requires time and energy that you have to steal away from other tasks and activities. In the short run, this may be something you can get away with, because you may be able to catch up with work left undone or responsibilities that are neglected. But in the long run, the work will pile up and the trade-off could be much worse. Spending time doing what you love obsessively, when you could spend it on reaching your long-term goals, like building your business, your career, or your relationships, means that you will have much more ground to cover in the future, at the risk of never getting there. So before you engage in your passions, consider what else you may be sacrificing, and ask yourself if this blow to your future is worth it.

4.  Plan ahead to make sure both work and play get done

Unlike harmonious passion, which is likely going to have a positive impact on your mood and your motivation, obsessive passion depletes you of mental energy and leaves you with a feeling of guilt.  One helpful strategy to contain the impact of obsessive passion is to arrange your schedule in such a way that it leaves you time to engage in your all-consuming passion toward the end of the day, and after other important tasks on your to-do list have been completed.  The advantage of planning ahead and penciling in your favorite activity toward the end of the day is two-fold.  First, you have something to look forward to for the end of the day, which will keep you focused and energized for the earlier part of the day.  And second, the feelings of guilt for indulging in your passion will be mitigated by the fact that you already had a productive day.  Not to mention, that you will be too tired to spend too much time on it.

5.  Reduce the number of strings attached

One of the biggest differences between harmonious and obsessive passion is that people with healthy passion enjoy the activity for itself.  Not for the secondary gains.  The trouble begins when there are important secondary gains that come with the activity.  The runner goes running because she wants to stay thin.  She worries that if she doesn’t run every day, terrible things could happen to her figure.  The blogger keeps blogging out of fear that if he doesn’t blog often, he will no longer be relevant.  The guitar player worries that if she doesn’t practice enough, she will prove right all those music teachers who thought she was untalented.  It is very easy for passion to become agony, if too much of your identity and self-esteem depend on it.  Your passion is something that you do, not something that you are.

6.  Take a break from time to time

To make sure that your passion is not turning into an addiction, take a break from it occasionally to determine how much control you have over it.  If you find yourself worried that you are not going to have enough time or energy to run, to blog, or to jam, and that makes you feel more stressed than necessary, then test yourself to see how “addicted” you have become.  One of the most effective ways to determine if you have become addicted to something is to find out whether you are able to live without it.  You can rule out whether stopping it will result in side effects or withdrawal symptoms.  If you can take a clean break from your passion for a pre-determined amount of time, and you have no heart palpitations, uncontrollable sweating, or intrusive thoughts during the abstinence period, then you are free!  Your passion is of the harmonious variety.

7.  Create a line-up of alternative passions

To protect yourself from getting too attached to one particular passion, consider other alternatives of a similar nature to break up the monotony and prevent the dependency.  If you like running, consider other activities that give you the same physical high, like playing volleyball with friends, going swimming, or hiking with a group.  If you are a social runner, and what you enjoy is the camaraderie and support, then find other activities that fulfill that need, like joining an organization, a charity, or an accountability group.  When you recognize that your life can be filled with options, the love for what you do remains harmonious and never becomes an obsession, because the loss of one thing does not imply the loss of everything.

The line between harmonious and obsessive passion can be blurry.  Many of us spend hours each day working on projects that we love, trying to turn our ideas into helpful tools, and learning as much as we can that will help us reach our personal and professional goals.  Are we just being passionate or are we slowly crossing the line into obsession?