Obsession is a powerful psychological state that consumes a person — an idea or thought that preoccupies or intrudes on the mind. Obsessive thoughts produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear and worry. Lost love –which leads at its worst to stalking — is perhaps the most upsetting, especially when it leads to unlawful behavior.
The hallmark of obsession is self-doubt.
–Did I lock the door, turn off the coffee machine, let the dog into the house, wash the germs off my hands? Did I even wash my hands?
–Other profoundly disturbing thoughts may become obsessions: fear that your parents will die, or that you may harm them. Thoughts of inappropriate or taboo sexual behavior may also recur frequently.
Causality is a mystery; fear and anxiety play a part. The disorder is almost always diagnosed by age 19 and sometimes runs in families. Obsession itself can be a symptom of other disorders: autism, ADHD or PTSD. The domination of invasive thoughts always drives the obsessor to seek relief — most commonly, via alcohol and drugs. Or control – eating disorders or self harm, but mainly rituals — repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety. Called compulsions, these rituals include:
- Counting — quite common is the belief that a certain number has power: ie, taking less than 7 steps may bring harm to someone. 30% of obsessives report this behavior.
- Checking — returning home dozens of times to make sure the oven is off or the front door is locked.
- Organizing — to the point of perfectionism; a laser focus on order and symmetry.
- Cleaning — hand-washing and excessive housecleaning can help chase obsessive thoughts away…temporarily.
- Seeking constant reassurance — repeatedly asking family and friends their opinions (“How does my hair look?”, “Is Daddy mad at me?”)
- Extreme hoarding — television has introduced us to the agonies of this behavior.
We all double check and fill boxes with memorabilia. When these behaviors seem irrational even to us and interfere with daily life, it’s time to seek professional help.
Obsession in Action
When Jeff met Vivian, he didn’t hold back. He told her who he was: he ONLY drank Bud in bottles. He ONLY smoked Marlboro red packs. He ONLY wore Levis and he ONLY drove Fords. Although she liked Jeff, she quickly got tired of the sameness of Jeff’s comfort zone. She wanted to go to different places that might make Jeff uncomfortable because they were a little more upscale and he wouldn’t be able to wear Levis or drink from a bottle. Jeff wanted to please his new girlfriend but he found he was unable to function without his “trademarks”. He needed help.
His therapist introduced 3 concepts:
- Doing something you’re not used to doing will be uncomfortable at first, but you can survive that initial feeling of discomfort
- Lifestyle compulsions (“trademarks”) may function as a shield to hide painful or frightening thoughts from the mind. Jeff’s small world was easier to control than the daunting universe of upscale restaurants.
- Making one small change at a time and keeping every other “trademark” would assist with the transition.
Until Jeff confronted a situation in which his “trademarks” were a liability, he viewed them as integral to his “classic” self image. Such milder forms of obsession are often not readily detectable.
Is obsession affecting how you live your life? Here are just a few examples to get you started on examining your own behavior:
- Delusional jealousy — interpreting your significant other’s (SO) gaze at a passing stranger as proof of infidelity
- Constant phone checking — social media makes it easy to stay connected with your SO, but are you texting, calling and facebooking incessantly?
- Distraction — Are you having trouble focusing on your work, forgetting important tasks?
If you recognize that you are allowing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior to run your life:
Here are 6 coping skills you can apply today:
- Lend a helping hand. Giving is the single most powerful weapon against obsession.
- Begin changing your behavior, even if your feelings haven’t changed yet: cut your SO communications way down. Don’t press “send”.
- Design a Pinterest page or poster filled with images of your skills, dreams and role models. Add your favorite quotes. Remember who you are by building a visual cue to your identity.
- Get healthy. Instant benefits: more energy = more productive, sharper focus at work, introduces perspective and balance, boosts self-esteem.
- Find a support group. Become involved and be an active member.
- Give to yourself: a vase of supermarket flowers, a manicure — choose a shade outside your comfort zone to remind you that you’re brave, buy something just for you.
The payoff is extraordinary.
Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”