Obsession can best be described as a mental fixation. It goes beyond mere interest or even passion; it’s more consuming and usually has a companion compulsion. The conscious or unconscious obsession (thought) drives the compulsion to act. The accompanying action (compulsion) is aimed at alleviating tension associated with the obsession itself. Obsessive-compulsiveness has an addictive, almost manic, quality to it as the individual experience a sense of lost control over the amount of resources (time, money, and mental/emotional energy) dedicated to the fixation. Both obsessions and/or compulsions can become consuming and tremendously intrusive in one’s life. Sadly, many relationships and opportunities are destroyed in their wake.
Despite all the damage incurred, the allure of obsession is that is serves a beautiful function…until it no longer does. Think about it. Our psyches, like our bodies, are designed to protect themselves, not invite harm. If they did not initially offer a benefit, obsessions would not exist. No one simply decides to have an obsession. They develop in autopilot as a function of this self-protective feature.
Like addictions, obsessive-compulsiveness can best be thought of as an escape mechanism. Ultimately, mental fixation offers distraction from a problem, until it becomes an additional problem itself. It serves the same function for the mind as blinders for a horse; obsession blocks out everything, except for a narrow window. While blinders on a horse do not remove the reality, they tremendously change the perception of that reality. Simply put, it simplifies things for the mind. When things feel overwhelming and unmanageable, what could be more comforting than something manageable upon which to focus (obsession)? When things seem out of control, exerting control over anything becomes extremely gratifying (compulsion).
Obsessive-compulsion is a classic example of displacement: trying to address one thing by managing another. We apply this principle often and in many ways. If relationships, circumstances, and emotions feel unstable and deregulated, thinking about controlling numbers, the shape/size of one’s body, productivity, the safety of one’s perimeter, or amount of bacteria exposure, etc. reduces the flood of mental and emotional stimulation one consciously experiences. Temporarily.
Meanwhile, the real problem still exists. Furthermore, a new problem exists as the law of diminishing returns takes effect; the obsession-compulsion escalates in effort to maintain its perceived benefits. Eventually, it becomes painfully obvious that neither the obsession nor the compulsion resolved the underlying anxiety. Ironically, distress is increased due to the inability to control the obsession/compulsion itself.
The human brain tends to pair things and create stronger associations with repetition (the neuroscience behind this phenomenon is fascinating!). Consequently, the process of changing obsessive-compulsive tendencies is not always a quick one, but it can be done utilizing that same repetition coupled with some insight. Behavior modification is only a partial solution. If the underlying purpose/need is not addressed, the behavior will simply manifest itself in another form.
A good therapist can help you identify the origins and development of the obsession/compulsion and assist you in the process of change. Because obsessive-compulsiveness falls under the broader category of anxiety disorders, it bears asking “What am I anxious about?” “What does this help me to escape/avoid/alleviate?” Another simple question that can help you get to its source is “What need does this meet for me?” The therapeutic process includes gaining understanding into the origins and development of the obsession (usually surrounding circumstances and painful life themes are good indicators), identifying the underlying need that the obsession/compulsion is aimed at gratifying, addressing that need in satisfying ways , and/or learning how to cope when that need remains unsatisfied.
In efforts to help you begin the creation of new brain pairings to propel you on your journey to freedom, I leave you with these last words:
Therapy. Therapy. Therapy. Therapy. Therapy. Okay, you get the point.