I’ve written about how obsessions work for me, how they make me feel, and why I have them. For the most part, since I’ve been in therapy, I’ve managed to severely reduce the frequency and potency of my obsessions by not allowing them to have power. I’m getting better at truly ignoring them, or by just letting them happen without having them affect me emotionally.
But I haven’t really explored the sort of long-range obsessions that plague me. Some obsessions happen for a day or an hour. But some go on for months. They’re usually just thematic, and unspecific. Like…a recurring dream that happens every day for three months. These obsessions are usually less potent, calmer, and easier to ignore (in the sense that I can carry on with my everyday).
Every couple of months, though, they’ll change. And that’s where the anxiety with long-range obsession occurs for me. For three months, I’ll have a minor, background obsession about – well, the last few weeks it’s been: my significant other’s ex. I really know nothing about this person, nor do I know much about their relationship, but the obsessions are more like minor ruminations.
I get on a ground-out track of thought processes, and let my brain do its thing: How did he feel about her? Does he miss her ever? Is anything about me the same? What if I’m just a replacement for something he misses? These kinds of thoughts drive me mad. Because no one wants to think about their significant other with another person, regardless of who that person is. Regardless of what my reality is. I think thoughts like these are common for many people – I just happen to think about them more actively. Or, the difference is, I spend the energy trying to find some sort of conclusion utilizing evidence.
This month, that obsession has converted itself/evolved into: what if my significant other doesn’t love me enough and doesn’t know it? This is a dangerous obsession. Because it’s totally impossible to disprove. If the obsession simply were “what if he doesn’t love me?” I could use a series of syllogisms and evidence sets to override this obsessive doubt. I could have a conversation with the Doubtful, Mean Self and say: “If he didn’t love you, he wouldn’t do A, B, C, D, E…and all this other stuff he does all the time. He very obviously loves you and treats you well, so this thought is bullshit, and you know it.” But the addition of “he doesn’t know it” will withstand this set of evidence. The conversion of the previous obsession into the new one presents a new challenge: Is this real doubt? Is this a real red flag? Or is it Just. Another. Obsession? If it’s real doubt, I need to actually evaluate my relationship – a pretty big deal. But if it isn’t real – if it’s a delusion conjured up from the darkest, most jealous and insecure parts of my psyche – the content doesn’t matter.
I’m going to repeat this for any of you who struggle with obsession as my therapist repeats to me: the content doesn’t matter.
The more likely scenario is that this is just another obsession. But, the logical difficulty here is that there’s no way to prove that it is just another obsession. Usually, this is the core of why obsession is so difficult to overcome: the impossibility of disproving the obsessive thought.
Most obsessions require certainty. A person with an obsessive mind will set a parameter of: I must know with absolute certainty that [my spouse loves me, my boss approves of me, I care about my family, etc.] Here is where the obsessive mind becomes problematic. How CAN you know this with absolute certainty? You can’t. No one can. Everyone pretty much always lives out life accepting that grain of doubt that exists in all of us. Life is simply imperfect. The person who is obsessing sets an unreasonable exception (i.e. perfect logical evidence and proof), an expectation that can NEVER be reached, and has therefore set themselves up to fail. If I set the standard that I must know with absolute certainty that my significant other loves me unconditionally, through and through, my mind won’t be satisfied. Because although my significant other could (and does) tell me over and over and over again how much he really does love me and wants to be with me, the truth is, neither of us can really know with 100% certainty. That’s just the reality of life right there. It has nothing to do with our relationship. This uncertainty causes me to seek reassurance constantly, a behavior that’s very common in people with OCD.
But, let’s for a second imagine his frustration with having to constantly tell me this over and over again. Imagine how this must make HIM feel. To know that I am gripped by these irrational doubts. It makes me sad, the potentiality that my thoughts have to hurting his feelings, regardless of how resilient and impervious he is to them. I know he can handle my anxiety most of the time. I’m just terrified of the moment when his patience runs out. But, I digress.
To someone with an obsessive mind, or – more specifically – with OCD, imperfection is unacceptable. Imperfection and doubt cause anxiety. The same with pattern and consistency. I have an incredibly difficult time accepting a change in pattern.
Every Friday, my team gets free bagels. My manager brings them in, and I set them up for everyone. It’s been a part of my weekly routine for months. Today, my manager wasn’t in and passed on his title of Bagel Santa to one of the other managers. The new Bagel Santa, not usually in as early, didn’t know how Bagel Friday was handled every week and went ahead and set them up without me.
When I found this out, my entire emotional well-being came to a crashing halt. I was devastated by this tiny, tiny, insignificant event. On top of it, when I tried to express my frustration and anger (irrationally, at this other person) to a couple of my friends, I could tell they were thinking that I was blowing things out of proportion. I could tell they didn’t want to listen to my irrational rampage. It was incredibly alienating.
For the record, I was blowing things out of proportion. But, also, I have had a really bad week; this was just kind of the icing on the cake. Setting up those bagels gives me a sense of stability. It also makes me feel useful. So when that stability is yanked out from under me, I freak out. And on top of it, some people can’t understand that. Because my friends reacted in a way that wasn’t up to my standards (i.e. validating my feelings), my anxiety over it compounded. I was behaving imperfectly. I couldn’t handle myself. And I was getting down on myself for not handling the situation well.
Dudes, this bagel thing upset me so much, that I actually had to go to the bathroom to cry so I could let out.
Imagine my self-embarrassment; my self-harassment: “You’re crying over bagels, you little baby. Get yourself together.” This is how I speak to myself in these instances. But, frankly, as much as I am empowered and in charge of my emotions, getting down on myself for getting upset is the real problem. I felt misunderstood, I felt unheard, and on top of it, I was ashamed.
It wasn’t until I spoke to another friend, who has difficulty with obsession (and, additionally, a family member with autism), that I felt understood. She recognized that just the dramatic change in event alone was enough to drive me out of rational and into irrational, suddenly-heightened anxiety. She gave me the permission to be upset. It was the validation I needed.
Immediately after, my significant other gave me the permission to complain about the event later, which was extremely helpful. Because it A) indicated that the event was of enough importance (to me, and therefore to him) that it meant he was willing to set some time aside to hear me bitch, and B) therefore, validated my (albeit irrational) feelings and made me feel less ashamed. I was then able to bring myself back down from an 8 to a 5 and put the anxiety off until later.
The truth is, by later tonight when I am allowed to complain…I probably won’t need to. This, my friends, is how I overcome anxiety, emotional distress, and the driving force behind my obsessions: my mean voice. Not by pushing the feelings down or ignoring them, but by taking hold of the emotions, screaming at my mean voice to fuck the hell off, and say:
No, you will not control me.