This article isn’t meant to address obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is a mental disorder affecting one percent of adults. It starts in childhood and is believed to have a genetic component. OCD may include only obsessions. Usually, the themes are about: Fear of contamination or dirt; having things orderly and symmetrical; aggressive or horrific thoughts about harming yourself or others; and unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects.
The Mayo Clinic has developed an Apple app ($4.99) to cope with persistent anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions. If self-help isn’t enough, seek professional help for overcoming anxiety and obsessions. If you have OCD, seek professional treatment.
When an obsession dominates us, it steals our will and saps all the pleasure out of life. We become numb to people and events, while our mind replays the same dialogue, images or words. In a conversation, we have little interest in what the other person is saying and soon talk about our obsession, oblivious to the impact on our listener.
Obsessions vary in their power. When they’re mild, we’re able to work and distract ourselves. When intense, our thoughts are laser-focused on our obsession. As with compulsions, they operate outside our conscious control and rarely abate with reasoning.
Obsessions can possess our mind. Our thoughts race or run in circles, feeding incessant worry, fantasy or a search for answers. They can take over our life, so that we lose hours, sleep, or even days or weeks of enjoyment and productive activity.
Obsessions can paralyze us. Other times, they can lead to compulsive behavior such as repeatedly checking our email, our weight or whether the doors are locked. We lose touch with ourselves, our feelings and our ability to reason and solve problems. Obsessions like this are usually driven by fear.
Codependents (including addicts) focus on the external. Addicts obsess about the object of their addiction. Our thinking and behavior revolves around the object of our addiction, while our true self is cloaked with shame. But we can obsess about anyone or anything.
Obsessive worry frequently occurs. Because of shame, we’re preoccupied with how others perceive us. This leads to anxiety and obsessions concerning what other people think about us. We especially worry before or after any type of performance or behavior where others are watching, and during dating or after a breakup.
Shame also creates insecurity, doubt, self-criticism, indecision and irrational guilt. Normal guilt can turn into an obsession that leads to self-shaming that can last for days or months. Normal guilt is alleviated by making amends or by taking corrective action, but shame endures because it is “we” who are bad, not our actions.
Codependents typically obsess about people for whom they love and care. They might worry about an alcoholic’s behavior, not realizing they have become as preoccupied with him or her as the alcoholic is with alcohol.
Obsessions can feed compulsive attempts to control others, such as following someone, reading another person’s diary, emails, or texts, diluting bottles of liquor, hiding keys, or searching for drugs. None of this helps but only causes more chaos and conflict. The more we’re obsessed with someone else, the more of ourselves we lose. When asked how we are, we may quickly change the subject to the person we’re obsessed with.
In a new romantic relationship, it’s normal to think about our loved one to a degree, but for codependents, it often doesn’t stop there. When not worrying about the relationship, we may become obsessed with our partner’s whereabouts or create jealous scripts that damage the relationship.
Our obsessions may also be pleasurable, such as fantasies about romance, sex, or power. We may imagine how we’d like our relationship to be or how we want someone to act. A big discrepancy between our fantasy and reality may reveal what we’re missing in our life.
Some codependents are consumed by obsessive love. They might call their loved one many times a day, demand attention and responses, and feel easily hurt, rejected, or abandoned. Actually, this isn’t really love at all, but an expression of a desperate need to bond and escape loneliness and inner emptiness. It usually pushes the other person away. Real love accepts the other person and respects their needs.
Denial is a major symptom of codependency: denial of painful realities, of addiction (ours and others’), and denial of our needs and feelings. A great many codependents are unable to identify their feelings. They may be able to name them, but not feel them.
This inability to tolerate painful emotions is another reason why codependents tend to obsess. Obsession serves the function of protecting us from painful feelings. Thus, it can be looked at as a defense to pain.
As uncomfortable as an obsession can be, it keeps at bay underlying emotions, such as grief, loneliness, anger, emptiness, shame and fear. It may be the fear of rejection or the fear of losing a loved one to a drug addiction.
Often certain feelings are shame-bound because they were shamed in childhood. When they arise in adulthood, we might obsess instead. If we believe we shouldn’t feel anger or express it, we might not be able to let go of resentment about someone rather than allow ourselves to feel angry. If sadness was shamed, we might obsess about a romantic interest to avoid feeling the pain of loneliness or rejection.
Of course, sometimes, we really are obsessing because we’re very afraid that a loved one will commit suicide, get arrested, overdose, or die or kill someone while driving drunk.
Yet, we can also obsess about a small problem to avoid facing a larger one. For example, a mother of a drug addict might obsess about her son’s sloppiness, but not confront or even admit to herself that he could die from his addiction. A perfectionist might obsess about a minor flaw in his or her appearance, but not acknowledge feelings of inferiority or unloveability.
The best way to end an obsession is to “lose our mind and come to our senses.” It follows that if an obsession is to avoid feeling, getting in touch with feelings and allowing them to flow will help dissolve our obsession. If our obsession helps us avoid taking action, we can get support to face our fears and act.
When our obsessions are irrational and allowing our feelings doesn’t dispel them, it can be helpful to reason them out with a friend or therapist.
- Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and wait patiently until you know.
- Learn to meditate to quiet your mind.
- Do slow movement to evocative music and allow yourself to feel.
- Write about your feelings (ideally with your non-dominant hand) and read it to someone.
- Share at a CoDA or Al-Anon meeting.
- Spend time in nature.
- Read spiritual literature or attend spiritual or religious gatherings. (Note that religion and spirituality can become obsessions, too.)
- If you’re obsessed with a person, get “14 Tips for Letting Go” at www.whatiscodependency.com.
- Put your energy into expanding your social network.
- Do something creative.
- Develop interests and passions that feed, inspire, and nurture you.
- Do what you enjoy. Don’t wait for someone to join you.
- If you’re obsessing over a broken relationship, here’s a list of things to do and think about.
- Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies, especially Chapter 9 on nonattachment and the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency.
©Darlene Lancer 2014