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The Art of Obsessing Compulsively

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In working with clients as a family therapist, creativity coach and meaning coach I began to see the following recurring pattern: clients would quickly lose interest in activities, projects, relationships and careers that they had started with great enthusiasm. They would even lose interest in solving the pressing problems that had brought them to me. What is going on? Why are, we as a species, burdened by this debilitating penchant for starting things with great energy and passion and allowing the fire to die out in no time?

It turned out that part of the answer revolved around the way the word "obsession" had gotten hijacked by the therapeutic world and turned into a complete negative. Therapists define all obsessions as intrusive, unwanted thoughts and that way of thinking has helped prevent people from feeling comfortable getting really involved with their own passions and interests. If, as a culture, you say, "Watch out!" every time someone gets a little too engrossed in something, you begin to produce a culture that loses enthusiasm quickly for whatever it starts.

It is true that many of our obsessions are not of our own choosing and do not serve us -- that's why obsessions have gotten such a bad name. These unwanted obsessions arise because we are anxious creatures. Our unproductive thoughts keep cycling repeatedly to the beat of that anxiety and produce negative obsessions. We obsess about some trivial matter at work and, having resolved that matter, we obsess about the next trivial matter at work. We obsess about things that we want to happen, like winning the lottery, and about things that we don't want to happen, like getting wrinkles. Our mind, which ought to be ours, is stolen away by anxiety thieves.

These are unproductive obsessions that certainly do not serve us. They waste our precious time and pressure us to behave compulsively (hence the term "obsessive compulsive"). Anxiety fuels these obsessions and the effort to relieve our anxiety leads us to pointless, questionable or dangerous behaviors intended to quiet our nerves and banish the anxiety. Our own nervous system puts us under enormous pressure and produces all sorts of unhappy effects. No wonder psychology has taken aim at this serious human problem! But by focusing all of its attention on illness and on what's not working, psychology has missed the fact that the brain's ability to obsess can also amount to a real treasure.

The brain can also productively obsess -- and it really wants to. Consciously creating and actively nurturing productive obsessions amount to the very best solution for the problems that so many people are experiencing today, problems like getting easily distracted, starting things and then losing interest and feeling like life is passing them by. When you decide to raise the stakes, so to speak, and elevate an interest into an obsession, these problems resolve themselves. Turning mere interests into obsessions, a process that by its nature ignites your passion, is among the most important keys to self-motivation. People are happier and more efficient when they productively obsess.

Instead of giving up on their home business, their creative project or the personal problem that they're trying to solve, they find new motivation, new energy, and sustained interest in their own ideas and their own work. It is not enough to possess a perfectly good brain -- you must also take charge of it; and creating productive obsessions is an excellent way to do just that. If you don't take good charge of your brain you'll find yourself trapped in trivialities, condemned to impulsiveness, led around by anxiety and duller and sadder than you need to be. Productively obsessing is an antidote to all that.

Too many people allow themselves to worry about nothing, wasting neurons. They allow themselves to grow numb with distractions, wasting neurons. They stay mired in the brain equivalent of a rat race as they spend their neuronal capital on spinning hamster wheels. You can transform this picture by learning how to productively obsess. Cognitive therapists, positive psychologists and Eastern philosophers have all asserted that the trick to creating an authentic life is taking charge of how you use your brain. Rather than thinking about a million things, which amounts to thinking about nothing, you announce to your brain that you have a fine use for it and that you intend to move it to a higher gear. Because your brain is an engine meant to perform in that higher gear, it has been waiting for this exact invitation and it will respond beautifully to your invitation.

A productive obsession is an idea that you choose for your own reasons and that you pursue with all of your brain's power. You take the seed of an idea and nurture it, providing it with genuine neuronal devotion. When you live your life as a series of productive obsessions, your interest never flags and life feels genuinely worth living. If you've been reluctant to raise the bar and turn your interests into genuine productive obsessions, now is the time to unleash your brain and let it work beautifully! Next time I'll talk about tips for doing exactly that.

Around the Web

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) - MayoClinic.com

A New Prescription for Happiness - Healthy Living - Health.com

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