Posted by: Marie | November 6, 2009

(180) Guest Post: Learning from Our Obsessions

Post #180

Guest Post

Today, I am honored to publish a guest post written by Evan Hadkins. Evan lives in Canberra, Australia, where he works in the mental health arena. He writes a fabulous blog, Wellbeing and Health, which deals with all aspects of health (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social), with an emphasis on psychology and personal development. His current post discusses how he is becoming comfortable in his own skin — which is a topic that is very relevant to the subject matter discussed on this blog.

He also posts articles on the website Counselling Resource, which provides information on counseling and mental health resources. Finally, he is a writer of books and a developer of personal development courses. You can learn more about his books and courses at the Living Authentically website.

Evan has written this article specifically in response to my previous post (Can’t stop talking about it). In this article, he provides us with a better understanding of why a person commonly thinks and talks obsessively about the abuse during the “emergency stage” of the healing process.


Learning from Our Obsessions

I think we humans have a need for meaning – to draw conclusions about what we’ve experienced, to reflect on what has happened to us, to learn from past mistakes and successes. I think this is a big part of developing our sense of who we are.

We may leave a tradition that we grew up in and decide to do things differently to the way we were taught; nevertheless, we are usually shaped in some way by the tradition or our up-bringing. It often affects the meaning we attach to our history – and it can have consequences that, in some ways, can look quite funny. For example, because I decided early on that “I am unacceptable because I’m incompetent”, I wanted to do everything well.

Selflessness Forest by Martin Chen

Selflessness Forest by Martin Chen

Just like I decided I was incompetent, we all make decisions about who we are based upon the meaning we give our history. If you find that one of your decisions is a problem for you – that it seems inaccurate – you will want to re-decide. When I realized I had a problem with the idea I was incompetent, I decided again.

My temptation is to show that I have done this re-decision well – to show that I know the steps and understand them thoroughly – in short, to show that I did the re-decision competently. Likewise, a perfectionist may learn that perfectionism leads to misery and will try to undo the impact of perfectionism – systematically, thoroughly, and completely (in short, perfectly).

Sometimes we struggle to find meaning in a situation and it affects our ability to make accurate decisions about ourselves. The need to find meaning in that situation is strong. Sometimes we become frustrated with our inability to meet that need; then, our focus turns to our inability to meet the need.

For example, if we are a little thirsty, we get up and get a drink. If we are somewhere where this isn’t possible (a desert or a formal occasion, for instance), we will likely find that more and more of our attention is devoted to our inability to get a drink.

The more important it is to us to have the need met, the more our focus will be on finding a way to meet that need – and the more our focus will be on our frustration at our inability to meet the need. This is illustrated during an emergency when our attention will often focus intensely on doing just one thing – and, if we don’t know what to do during the emergency, our attention will focus on this not knowing.

However, when I am able to find meaning in a situation and my need for meaning is satisfied, a new need emerges: I may need to find ways to deal with the issue – if the issue is important enough to me to require further attention.

Let’s look at a practical application of this concept: Sometimes we struggle to find a cause for our exaggerated reactions to commonplace events. We need to understand the meaning behind the strong emotions that we feel as we are overreacting. If the meaning is not obvious to us, we can become frustrated by our inability to meet our need to understand.

For instance, sometimes I’m surprised or puzzled as to why I react so strongly to something. I have found that it can be helpful to remember what happened just before I had this feeling. It may be a stray remark from someone that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, or it may be that what happened reminded me of some past trauma (for me, the issue triggered is usually competence).

If it was a stray remark, I may think the other person was just in a bad mood and didn’t mean to upset me – this realization may be enough to resolve the entire issue for me. If I am more upset, it may mean I need to find ways to remind myself that I don’t have to be competent to be acceptable. It may also mean finding ways to nurture myself.

It may also mean that I need to examine the decisions about who I am that I made based upon the historical events in my life. It may mean I need to revisit the meaning I have assigned to that history. Once I arrive at a better understanding of my decisions, I may find I need to re-decide.

Sometimes the process of finding the meaning in reactions, decisions or historical events can be very challenging and very frustrating. When the need for meaning is not being met and our frustration increases, then more and more of our attention may focus on this need. In psychotherapy, this is sometimes called “unfinished business”.

Unfinished business is the collection of events in our past that we find ourselves going back to again and again. We may feel we should have done or said something, anything – or we should have said or done something differently. It might also be that we don’t understand why someone did something. We turn this event over and over in our minds.

Inline Teasers_Page_8

The way to finish the unfinished business is to find its meaning for us. This is usually far more than just intellectual understanding. When, through therapy with a very skilled psychotherapist, I discovered that my decision had been, “I’m unacceptable because I’m incompetent”, I went into a kind of shock or hibernation; I barely spoke for three days. (I was fortunate that the situation I was in allowed this, and the people around me were understanding enough to not try to ‘fix me’.)

Gradually, over the following weeks and months, I understood more and more what this decision had meant for me and how I lived my life. (This occurred two decades ago now; to appreciate fully what this decision had meant for me took a couple of years or so.) With this new understanding, I could begin exploring other ways to live, and to find out what interested me and how I really wanted to live. My obsession with competence decreased and rarely bothers me anymore.

The months following the discovery of my early decision were a time of suffering for me – especially the days immediately after the discovery when I was in shock. It was a difficult time. However, the suffering was worthwhile because I came out on the other side with my need for meaning having been met.

This need for meaning is important, I think, even if suffering is part of the process of finding it. Friedrich Nietzsche said that, “If we know the why, we can bear with almost any how”. Viktor Frankl explored the more positive side – noting that what helped prisoners survive prisoner of war camps wasn’t so much youth and fitness as having a meaning to live for. (Frankl wrote a wonderful book about this called “Man’s Search for Meaning”.)

When we have something very traumatic in our past, it can be very difficult to finish that unfinished business. Often, the hardest situations to bring to completeness are those situations in which people who were close to us have hurt us – especially if we were young at the time. In those instances, we often have very intense feelings all mixed up together.

Remembering these events can bring the feelings flooding back – and this is awful. (We learned how to ignore or suppress these feelings for good reason – they were so awful to feel.) We may well feel like a child again, and like a child experiencing trauma (and who wants to feel like that?!)

Because we are not able to find the meaning behind these historical events, and because we are having trouble making decisions about who we are based upon the meaning of our history, we become frustrated. Our focus on our inability to find meaning and to make decisions becomes obsessive.

However, there is hope. We can gradually understand what this child needed and meet these needs now. We can come to understand what the past trauma meant. If we don’t have supportive and understanding people around us then we may need to do this in small steps. Allowing ourselves to feel the full impact of the emotion can feel very scary. It has helped me to know that I can feel a little of the emotion, become comfortable with it, and then feel a little more of it.

Our obsessions give us good information on where our needs aren’t being met. In this sense, our obsessions are entirely healthy. Over time, our need for meaning is met and our obsessive thinking and talking about the abuse will diminish. This allows us to move on to a new way of living.

Do you feel obsessive about some things? Have obsessions been a part of your life? Has your focus been on a person or subject or some area of interest? Was it a happy time? Difficult? Mixed? I’d like to hear about your experience with obsessions.

Quotes 105


  1. Thanks for honouring me with a guest post Marie. I’m looking forward to hearing what people have to say, Evan.

    • Hey, Evan –

      I am so pleased that you chose to add value to the community via this forum! The pleasure is mine!

      – Marie

  2. Great post. Whenever emotions seem out of proportion to what’s happening in the present, I know it’s resonating with the past. (I think of it as an emotional landmine I’ve just set off.) The good thing is that as I’ve processed these “explosions” there are fewer and fewer of them and sometimes I even disarm the landmines before they go off. It’s an interesting journey, healing from childhood trauma….

  3. Hi April_optimist, I love that image of landmines, thanks for sharing it with us.

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