Confession time: While I’m not going to share the specific issues, I will let you know that I’ve found myself recently getting back into some compulsive behaviors as a way to cope. My way of doing this is to constantly “manage” things and try to fix them so I can get past what I’m feeling. Depending on how deeply I get caught up in this behavior, I sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, and forget to stay in the moment. I become obsessed with the future and try to control it.
I KNOW and share with others that we need to allow ourselves to feel things as they arise. But I, like everybody else I’ve ever met, have certain ways I’ve historically coped before I understood and implemented this tool, and at times of stress we tend to slip back into old behaviors, even if we’ve learned better. I tend to go into denial and stay compulsively busy in order to not allow the feelings in. Some people drink or eat too much, others use sex, exercise, gambling or work to escape their feelings.
The purpose of obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors is to avoid what we’re feeling inside – which is usually some level of fear. So we get hyper-focused on something on the outside. Obsessions are like a downward spiral. The longer we stay in them, the more difficult it is to stop. (For me, it feels like it’s just sucking me down against my will). And the more we repeat the obsessive thought, the more ingrained it becomes. This seems to give it a life of it’s own – and makes it much more difficult for us to stop the obsessiveness. Then we go right into compulsive behavior, which is an attempt to control something, because we feel out of control inside. (As I said, it’s a way to avoid the fear we’re feeling, but we kid ourselves into thinking that controlling SOMETHING will help).
It takes a deliberate act to stop it. We need to make an effort to move away from obsessiveness. This usually means getting OUT of our heads and into some other part of our lives – physical activity, expressing emotions appropriately, communicating with others, distracting ourselves visually or with some other sense.
It can feel impossible to break an obsessive pattern, but it’s not. Like any other skill, it takes practice, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. First, I encourage not judging our obsessions, but becoming conscious enough to be able to witness them with awareness, curiosity and self-compassion. This way the old beliefs upon which the obsession is based can eventually become more clear. Only when we recognize irrational beliefs for what they are, can we begin to change them.
Why is it important to change them? Because we behave according to what we believe about ourselves and the world and people around us. If we think about it, much of the marketing in our culture is based on fear: We buy health insurance, auto insurance, homeowners insurance – the word insurance gives us the sense of a “guarantee” that even if the worst happens, we’ll be covered. But even in selling us clothing, makeup or cars, the advertisements are aimed at our fear that if we DON’T buy their product, we won’t be cool, attractive to the opposite sex, or at least “OK”.
Look at a certain presidential candidate, for example. He becomes verbally abusive when he feels he has been mistreated. The fear (or irrational negative belief) underlying that behavior might be something like, “I am unlovable”, or “I am inadequate.” That’s why he swoons over those who pay him compliments. His ego needs that validation.
Because I don’t know him personally, or enough about his childhood, I can’t definitively say what his fear is. (And it’s never appropriate to diagnose someone from a distance). But there are patterns we can witness, and I would guess that the reason he feels the need to boast and show his “strength” by hammering back at those who strike at him first (or those he perceives are aiming at him), is because he was deeply wounded as a child. Behavior doesn’t come to be so extreme for no reason. He likely has a fear that he will not measure up – so one of his obsessions is to turn it around on his followers, by aiming for their fears. He’ll say anything, true or not, to make them believe something awful is about to happen, then he sells them the insurance – that HE is the only one who can save them. He needs to feel that sense of power to believe he’s OK.
Thankfully, most of us do not have the extreme issues of a Donald Trump. Because his behavior has been present for years, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that he will ever change to any degree. But most of us have some options if we choose to use them.
If obsessive thoughts are really interfering in your life, I suggest finding a good therapist. But if you’re like me, and they just pop up when you’re off your game a little, or when something out of the ordinary happens to throw things out of balance, I encourage slowing down your mind, changing your focus, and reconnecting with your emotions. If you’re someone who meditates regularly, I highly recommend that.
Here are some other activities that might help (notice many of these are getting out of your head and into your body):
1) Physical exercise. Helps if this is something fun for you – dancing, tennis, running or whatever you enjoy.
2) Belly Breathing. Breathe deep into your abdomen. If you can, breathe in through your nose. As you let the breath out, let it out through your mouth. Notice that each time you breathe in you have to work at it – you have to contract your muscles and draw the breath in. But when you exhale, all you have to do is – just let go. (There are other variations on this, but this is a good start). Just get used to that feeling of “just letting go”.
3) Progressive muscle relaxation. There are different ways to do this, but one of the simplest is to start at your head and tighten each muscle, then relax it. Take a breath and notice for a few seconds – minutes how it feels to be relaxed in that part of your body. Then go to your neck, your shoulders, arms, and all the way down your body. Finally feel your entire body sink into your bed or chair and imagine what it would feel like to have no bones – to just be limp. Sit with that as long as you can.
4) Talk to someone you trust – and preferably someone who understands the issue you’re dealing with. OR just contact someone you enjoy visiting with and talk about a completely different subject.
5) Find an alternative (more positive) obsession. Work a crossword puzzle, or find craft or hobby – like gardening, repairing things, etc.
6) Other distractions. Reading or listening to calming music can be helpful. One of my favorite things to do after a stressful day is to watch Ellen or a stupid sitcom, or comedy so I can just laugh & release the negative energy. I also listen to spiritual or uplifting/inspiring podcasts or audiobooks as often as I can.
7) Practice healthy rituals. Positive affirmations (example: “I’m free of stress” or “I can handle this”), prayer, meditation and yoga are free and can be uplifting.
Finally, and for long-term success, work on staying fully conscious on a consistent basis. This means to stay in the moment. Our past doesn’t dictate our future, it only informs it. The future is not here yet, and worrying will not change it. As long as we stay in the now, we can make the choice to do or be different.
Obsession is a way of organizing our lives so that we never have to deal with the hard part. -Geneen Roth