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Overcoming Obsession

How to make an obsession function positively.

Key points

  • Obsession can cause a person to devalue important dimensions of their life, tolerating their atrophy and even collapse.
  • The increased energy, drive, determination, and resiliency obsession brings can also be highly adaptive.
  • Make one's obsessions function positively is key, by controlling them instead of being controlled by them.

"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 any more 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.
  5. Listen to what others tell you. If your close friends and family express concern over your being obsessed, they're probably 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.

Like 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 eventually, she reported almost twelve months later, they did.

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