03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Obsessions: Small and Monstrous

Young men and women often obsess about romantic partners, to the point of becoming infatuated. These infatuations may become painful, but often not. One imagines things, such as how one might meet for the first time.

Most people, however, myself included, also have painful obsessions, lasting for hours or days. Someone has been rude or rejecting, so we think about what we should have said, or how we could have avoided the incident entirely. These thoughts go on night and day. We try to think about other matters or do other things, but we eat obsession with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

These small obsessions usually leave. We can still remember the moment, but the pain and compulsion have disappeared. What happened?

Perhaps emotions are the secret, particularly humiliation or shame. Instead of acknowledging the pain in the moment ("That hurt"), we suck it up, as my students would say. The danger is that one can become ashamed of being ashamed, and so on, a spiral. People who blush, for example, can be ashamed of the blush, and so blush even more, round and round. So humiliation can spiral to the point that it haunts us. Emotions, at their core, are bodily states of arousal. It is bodily arousal over which one has no direct control that makes the obsession painful and compulsive.

One more issue: at times, instead of merely swallowing the insult, one responds in kind, either in the moment, or more likely, in thinking about it afterwards. Instead of suffering humiliation in silence, we cover it with anger. I am still obsessed, but now being driven by anger about being humiliated, and shame about being angry, a loop. Both shame and shame/anger spirals can lead to endless obsession to the point of delusion.

Are there bigger episodes of this kind? It seems that some of the vicious attacks on political leaders are obsessions like these. Consider, for example, the kind of the hatred directed at President Obama when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. On a still larger level, suppose one group feels insulted by another to the point of humiliation. Further suppose that the feeling doesn't get resolved because group members keep obsessively rehearsing it, acting not only on themselves but also on each other. In large groups, the media plays a part, too, leading to collective spirals of shame or shame/anger that have no natural limit.

My book Bloody Revenge (1994) proposed that this cycle can be used to explain the origin of unnecessary wars, such as Iraq and World War I. There were no negotiations before the outbreak of WWI, even though virtually all of the differences now seem readily negotiable. After almost a century, historians and political scientists have virtually given up, because they have been looking for a "rational" explanation.

A close look at the media in France for the 43 years before the war suggests that the great majority of the French and their leaders were obsessed about their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1871). Leading newspapers, plays, novels, songs and poems openly decried the loss of French honor in the defeat, vowing to regain it by revenge. One military leader who became a leading politician was known as General Revenge. The French made an alliance with Russia, claiming it was insurance against an attack by Germany. But in retrospect it seems that it also could have been a step toward instigating a war of revenge on Germany.

My next column will discuss spiraling obsession as an explanation of the rise of Hitler in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, and the origins of the Iraq War.

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