The Thin Line Between Passion and Obsession - Part 1

How to do what you love without becoming addicted

Posted Oct 25, 2016

Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock
Source: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

Until a couple of decades ago, academic discussions about passion were limited to only one context: interpersonal relationships.  In Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love (not the same as a love triangle!) passion is one of the three kinds of love (intimacy and commitment are the other two).

In the context of love, passion refers to the attraction and excitement that you feel in the beginning of a romantic relationship.  It’s what happens when you have a crush on someone and you can’t stop thinking about them.

In more recent years, psychologists started wondering, what if the object of your passion is not another person, but instead, it’s an activity.  Is it possible to have such an irresistible desire to engage in our own pursuits? Can we fall passionately in love with what we do?

Of course we can.

Robert Vallerand, a social psychologist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, is one of the researchers who is passionate about studying people’s passion for activities.  The research that he and his colleagues are doing shows that being passionate promotes psychological health and makes life meaningful and fulfilling. 

Alas, nothing comes without a price.  A few months ago, I wrote a post about the bright and dark side of perfectionismPerfectionism can be a source of diligence and motivation that leads to growth, or a source of stress and frustration that leads to self-punishment

In a similar way, passion has a bright and a dark side.  Just like falling in love with a person can turn into an obsession, so can falling in love with what you do.  Your passions can cross the line into obsessions, and instead of becoming a source of joy they turn into a source of misery.

Vallerand and his colleagues identified two kinds of passion.  Harmonious passion is the good kind. Harmonious passion means that you engage in activities that you enjoy, that you have find important, and on which you spend considerable amounts of time.

The most important feature of harmonious passion is that everything you do, you do out of your own free will.  You can start and stop what you’re doing whenever you choose to stop.  Or whenever it makes sense to stop.  For example, if you like running, you make sure that you have a regular running schedule, which doesn’t interfere with other important activities in your life, like work or family obligations.  You may spend time browsing running websites and blogs, reading magazines, and watching videos, in order to stay up to date with the latest techniques to improve performance and prevent injury.  You may spend a lot of time in stores looking for new gear.  You could also sign up for a short-distance run once in a while, to maintain your motivation and conditioning.  Sometimes you skip runs, because the weather is bad, your schedule is too busy, or you just don’t feel like it.  Spending an extra hour with your loved ones sounds like a good alternative.

Then, there is obsessive passion.  The dark side of passion.  There are many similarities between obsessive and harmonious passion: You spend considerable amounts of time doing something that you enjoy and you find important..

But there is one difference.  When your passion is of the obsessive variety, you no longer have control over it.  You can’t start and stop as you wish.  You become addicted to the excitement you get from it.  You start prioritizing your passion, over other activities and commitments.  When you can’t engage in it, you become restless and frustrated.  Take running, for example.  Unless you go for a run in the morning, you’re in a foul mood all day.  You may start going to work late, taking longer lunch breaks, or asking someone else to pick up the kids from school, so that you can fit in your run.  You won’t let things like freezing rain or icy roads get in the way of your running routine, even though you risk getting sick or injured.  When you skip a day, you feel like a wimp or a slacker, you worry about the impact on your performance or your weight, and you come up with good excuses in case your running buddies ask you why you skipped.  Your passion has just crossed that thin line.

What struck me the most about this concept of too much passion, the dualistic model of passion, as it is formally called, is that till now I thought that the problem that most people were dealing with was lack of passion.  Many of my clients are struggling to find passion, some of my friends and family often complain about their lack of passion for anything, and even I have had times in my life when I thought I had run out of passion for what I do.  The dualistic model of passion, the fact that passion could result either in harmony or in obsession, made me re-evaluate some of the things that I do, only to realize that I had crossed that thin line from harmonious to obsessive passion a few times, without being aware of the consequences.

I invite you to go over some of the things that you are passionate about, whether they involve work, relationships, family, recreation, sports, politics, civil rights, religious practices, hobbies, and so on, and run a quick check.  On which side of the thin line do your passions fall?

While having a passion, or many passions, can be a source of joy and fulfillment, it is important to be mindful when you are letting your passion become a fixation.   How do you keep your passion harmonious?  How do you prevent if from becoming obsessive? 

Find out in Part 2 of this blog post.