THE UPSIDE OF OBSESSION
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Allow time to pass. With time, many obsessions gradually lose their flavor.
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.