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Obsess and Progress

In one of my favorite movies, Jack Nicholson walks into a restaurant, sits down, and unwraps a set of plastic tableware.  He doesn’t order off the menu because he always eats the same thing.  His waitress, Helen Hunt, has his number, though.  He’s not going to rattle her today, even though he always finds something to complain about.  She knows that for obsessive/compulsive types like Jack, it’s never completely possible to “have it your way”.  Instead, Jack spends his life carefully negotiating each moment as best he can, and this is “As Good As it Gets”.

Obsessive/compulsive disorders (OCD) seriously compromise quality of life for the people who suffer from them.  Each day with OCD can feel like an endless journey through an unmarked minefield.  Other people, while not clinically shackled by OCD, may struggle with obsessive or compulsive tendencies, which can emerge particularly under stress.  Obsessions and compulsions are symptoms of unresolved trauma, and are mechanisms for coping in a world that feels chaotic and out of control.

The May/June issue of Psychology Today includes a thought-provoking and inspiring article by Dr. Eric Maisel, titled, “Go Ahead, Obsess!”.  “Forget life balance,” Eric proposes.  “Throwing yourself 110 percent into a complex project could be the key to creative breakthroughs – and to a meaningful life.”  The article is adapted from Maisel’s forthcoming book, Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, coming out next month from New World Library.

Eric, according to his website, is an author, family therapist, cultural observer, and creativity coach.  He has written and spoken extensively on meaning-of-life issues, and the value of creativity and taking personal responsibility in life.  He stakes out his claim for positive obsessions in the opening paragraph of his article.

“Obsession gets a bad rap.  Of course, obsessions with people, or with irrational beliefs such as those held by OCD sufferers, can be unhealthy or even dangerous.  We are lobbying for something quite different: productive obsessing, or putting yourself wholeheartedly into a useful and meaningful passion.  These healthy preoccupations are an antidote to boredom and passivity.  They aren’t just for people driven to accomplish something out of the ordinary.  They are for everyone.  We firmly believe that doing things by half – merely dabbling in a hobby or professional endeavor – produces sad human beings.  It’s dangerous to feel as though you aren’t making a meaningful contribution.  We don’t want you to look at yourself in the mirror and see a person who might have done this but didn’t, or who loves that but, for some odd reason, takes no active interest in it.  In order to lead a life that makes you proud, you likely need to up the ante and get obsessed.”

I’ve been delivering a message like this for some time now.  Eric is just coming at it from a different angle, with a perspective that adds new dimensions to the issue.  In my last two posts, I’ve talked about the urgent necessity to harness your energy to move forward in life, in spite of obstacles and setbacks.  Harnessing your obsessive or compulsive tendencies in the pursuit of constructive progress is another valuable skill.

I believe people can channel their obsessive tendencies in order to create something positive, turn their obsessions into passionate pursuits that prompt them to act, and allow those actions to feed their lives.  In doing this, they will become more enthusiastic and hopeful; they will grow into their life purpose and calling.  Things may not always be practical or clear, but if they keep moving ahead, and beware of self-criticism, they will eventually take ownership of their very self.  They will develop their “soul passion”.  They will live without regret that they didn’t follow their dreams.  They join others who have chosen the path of, as Eric puts it, “big thinking and big doing”.

Those of my regular readers know how often I say – and I mean it – never give up!  Eric delivers the same message:

“Each of us has that do-nothing, watch-a-little-more-television place in our hearts and that harder-to-engage work-well-and-think-intensely place.  The life of your productive obsession depends on your constant recommitment, which sounds like ‘I am doing this, damn it!’  Your mind may prefer its habitual ways and opt for fear, fantasy, worry, regret, or idleness.  The instant your mind produces one of its stories about why you ought to abandon your productive obsession – because you can’t succeed, because a storm is coming – shout, ‘No!’”

I heartily agree.