‘Mark’ was a member of a group I led a while back. His wife said she’d lost him to his Xbox, and he couldn’t really disagree. It was typical for him to be up well past midnight—with work the next morning—eyes fixed on the TV screen, often cursing at it. When he wasn’t on the machine, most of the time he was mentally still plugged in.
‘Lisa’ was a hardcore bodybuilder. Nothing wrong with that, but she was pouring more time, energy and money into it than friends of hers who were doing it professionally—which she wasn’t. With daily weightlifting sessions that could reach six hours in length, her home life was starting to suffer. Then she blew off her husband for their anniversary dinner, because she didn’t want the calories.
The word ‘addiction’ gets thrown around a lot, and while that can dilute its correct meaning in some instances, I think it’s telling that people are more and more aware of how easily some aspects of life can develop an obsessive quality. Many of the clients I’ve gotten to know were inspired to come to counseling by some part of their life that, while not unhealthy on its face, had begun to take up too much space.
What is it that draws us into obsession? People can allow their time and attention to be consumed by almost anything. It can be innocuous pastimes like video games, social media, or TV shows, or even healthy living habits like working out, managing finances, or keeping the house clean. Then suddenly a husband has completely retreated from his marriage and family into a virtual world that’s meaningless. Or a young woman’s devotion to getting fit has crowded out time for almost anything else.
And what is so hard to realize is that pushing away life is what the obsession is there to do. Fitness fads, video games, Facebook—they aren’t the problem. They just mask it. What I’ve found with clients who are coming to grips with an obsession is that the habit is, in fact, a haven from a heartbreaking story they believe about life.
As I got to know Mark’s story, including the devastation done to his family by a close relative’s betrayal, a theme began to emerge. People aren’t safe—especially family. Don’t trust. It became easy to see the appeal of a world full of code-controlled NPC’s, with clear objectives and dependable results.
The trauma of abuse had taught Lisa a long time ago that being powerless was a terrifying thing. Discovering that her body was something she could build and empower to achieve expected results, that felt amazing—and finally safe.
When the search for safety, belonging, and love seems fruitless for long seasons of life—or worse, is shattered by tragedy or abuse—it can become instead need for control or escape. That’s when obsessions emerge. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
Is something taking over your life?
Here’s a way to determine whether a hobby, hang-up, or even a healthy habit is starting to become an obsession.
Ask yourself, are you:
Neglecting other responsibilities or relationships?
Spending too much money and/or time on it?
Unable to do other things without thinking about it?
Anxious when you don’t have access to it?
Defensive or angry toward people who ask you about it?
Angry or depressed when something having to do with this activity doesn’t go right?
If this sounds like your situation, you may be in the grip of an obsession. But that doesn’t make you a bad or “toxic” person. There’s a very real and authentic root to these kinds of struggles—and there are redemptive, healthy steps that can get you re-engaged with a full life.
Steps to De-Obsess
1. Identify what your obsession is doing for you. Like Mark and Lisa, you didn’t just wake up and decide for this to happen. Unhealthy and unhelpful patterns develop because they are doing a very important job. And letting go of something that isn’t good doesn’t mean giving up on what you need. So what are you really after? Chances are, there are ways to attain it that will leave you happier and healthier.
2. Let people close to you know you’re aware. Facing an obsession can be especially hard when we know its hold on us has impacted people we love. Letting them know that you see it, and that it matters enough to you to do something can make more of a difference than you might imagine.
3. Manage your expectations. Habits are hard to break, especially when they have the power of deep hurt behind them. People may not respond to your changes in the way you hope. At least not yet. But you aren’t doing this for applause or predictability. You’re doing this to move closer to your best self.
4. Get to know your relationship with control. The danger and unpredictability of life convinces many of us that either we have less power over our circumstances than we really do, or that only by controlling everything in our sphere can we be safe. In what areas of your life have you fallen into one of these camps?
5. Get help. So often a big factor in our unhelpful patterns are our own faulty perceptions, misunderstood stories, and mistaken beliefs. Enlisting the help of a compassionate and understanding travel companion is an invaluable tool on this journey.
If you are ready to begin that journey toward reclaiming your story, there is a way, and there is help.
Mike Ensley is a professional counselor based in Loveland, CO.