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What Makes Your Obsession Healthy or Unhealthy

Why some obsessions can turn into success

"Be yourself — everybody else is already taken," the great Oscar Wilde once said. But when does "being yourself" become an obsession? Some people cheat, smoke, eat, and work too much — others too little. The Freudian view of "civilisation" was to fight against our instincts; the hedonistic approach to life involves unleashing our passions in the quest of pleasure; somewhere in between, Epicurean Philosophy tells us that we should simply strive to eliminate desire and live our lives in an ongoing state akin to someone who has just finished a pleasant meal (without eating too much or too little — without craving anything). But how much of this is really our choice? Can we really adjust our behaviours to change our personalities?

Let us first examine the meaning of obsessions: Clinical psychologists think of them as fixations with an object, person, or activity, and they are abnormal because they impair our capacity to love and work. Most people think of obsessive-compulsive disorder as an example of this, but technically "obsessions" apply only to the uncontrollable thoughts (ideas which go on inside the mind of the people with OCD) and can therefore not be observed. Characters as those portrayed by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets exhibit funny symptoms typically associated with OCD, but these are the "compulsive" elements of OCD, and they are under voluntary control... until they become self-reinforced and self-perpetuating. But the actual compulsive rituals are healthy in that they reduce the anxiety evoked by the unhealthy obsessions.

Freud's famous OCD case study, the Rat Man, was "obsessed" with unpleasant thoughts about military torture (rats eating living humans) being carried out on his loved ones, which, according to Freud, showed the ambivalence of any relationship and repressed feelings of sexual desire and aggression toward the same person. The way that the Rat Man controlled these thoughts was by executing a rather irrational but effective repertoire of behaviours: He would put on his dad's military uniform, walk to his room, and masturbate in front of the mirror. But given that he had to do this so often, and that he felt guilty about it, his OCD was clearly pathological (unlike the "OCD" we use in everyday life to refer to someone who is a bit meticulous or prudent and double-checks whether the oven is turned off or the door is locked).

The non-clinical connotation of "obsessions," on the other hand, refers to a disproportionate or unusual focus on something. For instance, someone can be obsessed with gardening or Facebook or going to the gym. It simply means they pay more attention than most people to something, even most people who are interested in something. This is when obsessions can be more than healthy: Nobody who has ever achieved anything impressive or made an outstanding contribution to anything has managed to do so without a certain level of obsessiveness.

You can be a gifted footballer, for instance, but unless you practice obsessively you will never make it to the premier league. You can be a gifted musician, a talented cook, or a natural speaker, but unless you work on both your strengths and weaknesses, you will end up being an underachiever at best, a wasted talent at worst. And this also applies to your ability to influence other people, not just yourself.

Thus intra- and inter-personal skills could be fostered and developed by being healthily obsessed with self-improvement. Here is where personality plays a key role: Of the major personality traits that are usually used to profile individuals, three traits are particularly salient to improve your ability to manage yourself and others. First is Openness to Experience, a trait related to preference for novel and intellectually stimulating experiences and the main marker of intellectual curiosity. This trait characterises people who are flexible and open-minded, and therefore open to change (a related trait is psychological flexibility, because it makes dealing with unpleasant thoughts less traumatic).

The second trait is Emotional Stability. Contrary to what common sense may dictate, sometimes it is better to be less stable; indeed, when it comes to change, less stable people are more likely to question their behaviours, be self-critical, and also be motivated by guilt or fear of failure. All these aspects of personality can make you less confident, but if you are too confident you will be less likely to think that you need to change (and you end up being arrogant). At the same time, very low Emotional Stability may be problematic because then you are never happy with anything and you will constantly seek to change things, even when they work — because you don't realise that they do.

The third and final trait is Agreeableness or Inter-Personal Sensitivity. This trait is important because it enables you to get feedback from others and take others' views into account. It is the secret path to empathy and having a warm connection with other people.

So, if you pay attention to others and yourself, and you are open to change, any obsession will have the potential to turn not only into a "healthy obsession," but also a driver of career success. Jung said, "the creative mind plays with the objects it loves." The only way to love something is to be obsessed with it, but if you have the wrong combination of personality traits, you may end up being obsessed by it — and then you will most likely have a problem.

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