Written by Philippa Perry


The Meaning of Obsession

In the latest part of a fascinating series, psychotherapist Philippa Perry continues her quest to mine the meaning of things. This week, she’s digging around obsession.

When I’m talking about ‘obsession’, I’m not talking about a hobby you’re fond of or the marketing of perfume. I’m not so much talking about how often your mind wanders towards its object of lust when you are in the very early stages of a possible relationship.

I want to talk about when you’re stuck. When you go over and over and over and over and over the same thing, when you have the same imaginary argument in your mind and yet you don’t seem to have won it yet.

When you go on and on and on and on about something so much that your friends and family’s hearts sink as soon as you begin about it, when you keep saying the same thing and nothing changes.

Quite often the crux of such an obsession is that you are right and they are wrong. We can take this model and perhaps apply it to many areas of life: a relationship with your boss, with a best friend (ex-best friend probably), with a partner, a parent, even with your children.

Accepting the likelihood you’ll be wrong as often as you’re right is a good first step for an obsessive looking to change

Quite often the obsessive will find themselves convincing a stranger about their rightness and the other’s wrongness – anyone who will listen.

Obsessives often go to therapy but their goal is often to be vindicated, have a judge decide in their favour, rather than look at why they need to obsess and so therapy often breaks down, as a good therapist won’t collude.

What’s the point of obsessing like this? Why when this behaviour harms a person more than it affects others, why do they persist in it?

If one obsession ends, pretty soon a new obsession will rise up in you and the whole thing starts all over again. The obsessive is usually the only person who hasn’t recognised that this is a pattern.

What’s the point of obsessing like this? Why, when this behaviour harms a person more than it affects others, why do they persist in it? I will tell you why.

The purpose of being obsessed is to feel self-righteous indignation rather than the pain of shame.

Once upon a time, way back in the past, maybe before the conscious memory kicked in, the obsessive person was wronged. Really wronged and somehow they were made to feel it was their fault and they felt ashamed. The sort of shame that gnaws at you so much it feels like it will annihilate you.

The original injury may even be forgotten but the lessons it taught – never be wrong again; seek out righteous causes – those have not been forgotten and the obsessive will have been spoiling for a fight ever since.

If you are obsessive, here is my remedy for you. It will feel more difficult than it really is. You must lay down your arms. You must entertain the notion that you are wrong as often as you are right and learn another lesson; that the shame of saying “My bad” does not kill you, and nobody expects you to be right all the time.

And if you start those internal arguments that start to play out in external reality, notice what you are doing, and do something else instead. Good luck.

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Written by Philippa Perry

White middle-class-aged woman psychotherapist, author, journalist, occasional broadcaster. Likes watching telly, tweeting, eating and lying down. Great hair.