There are many kinds of obsessive preoccupation. Learning How to stop obsessive thinking can save your life and your mind! A spouse may become overly involved with work and begin to use it as the only source of good feelings. Or the spouse’s energies may switch to the children, so there will be the kind of emotional involvement more appropriate to a marriage, plus an engulfing kind of control. A teenager may obsess about collections or sports to block out negative feelings, or use compulsive achievement as the connection with life. If you can’t get good feelings from relationships, you may work all the harder to feel good about accomplishments.
Obsession does serve a purpose. It gives an illusion of power and control over life. Some people even experience worry as an accomplishment of a task, and have a worry quota, whether the problems are large or small. Obsession gives a sense of movement, though there is no change, so that it is an ‘action’ that fills the day, whether it is scheming, actively rescuing the chemically dependent person, or blocking out awareness by endless, pointless tasks. From the fear of loss of control and the feeling of omnipotence comes compulsive behaviour, which helps you feel you are doing something, and covers the feelings of helplessness. Obsessive thinking may allow you to blame all your problems on The Problem, which releases you from the effort to solve them. In this way, it blocks out solutions and creative problem solving. If you were freed from the fears that lead to obsession, you would have the serenity in which you could identify choices and options. What, for example, would you be thinking about if you were not thinking about the emotional sufferer in your life? What would you be feeling if you were not using activity to block your emotions?
If you did not have a compulsion to play counsellor to the alcoholic, if you stopped helping and watching, what would you be doing with your life?
A grown daughter looks back on her adult years with her emotional mother in crisis: “My sisters got as far away as they could but I got stuck. I still spend too much of my time checking on her, thinking about her, and helping her solve her problems. It’s kept me from ever having much of a life of my own. In a way, I guess I’m living hers.” Obsessive thinking and behaviour serve to block out anxiety, which many feel overwhelming. This may be a fear of abandonment, of being alone and unsupported. These fears may have a traumatic origin. Perhaps you had an emotionally unstable parent. If you were raised in an emotional sufferer’s home it’s very likely neither parent gave you focused attention. Your chemically dependent parent was unable to be emotionally close, or to put your needs first. Your other parent was usually too absorbed in the problems created by the chemical dependency to have energies for you, either. You have felt emotionally abandoned. Now, in your adulthood, these fears of still another abandonment can be so intense you will do anything to avoid that terrible feeling, even to living in a toxic, chaotic environment. This is a very normal reaction, but you stay in pain to avoid pain. To survive you will do whatever ‘works’, even if it means walling off your feelings by compulsively focusing on something outside yourself.
Other people may think it is remarkable that you will cling to a painful, abusive relationship. That is because they can’t understand your terror of being alone and abandoned is far stronger than the pain of the current situation. On the emotional level, you may even believe you can’t survive without the emotionally unstable in your life.
How to stop obsessive thinking
The Truth shall make you free – but first it shall make you miserable – proverb
It’s hard to let go. We hang onto habits, relationships and defences long after they stop being good for us. It’s natural to ignore what we know, hoping that if we don’t notice it, we won’t lose what we thought we had. But as Freud commented, “Much is won if we succeed in transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness”. It is very sad to face the reality of our powerlessness over someone else and the uselessness of obsessive behaviour, but it will release us from hysterical misery! The First Step, as Al-Anon states, is to admit the situation to yourself: you are powerless over emotions and your life is unmanageable. Your thinking and feelings have become obsessive. The feelings and emotions and acting out is not the problem you can solve; it is the problem that lies before you. The chemically dependent person needs help, but so do you. To admit powerlessness is to surrender to a new way of looking at your life. Many people equate surrender with defeat and humiliation. They are like the alcoholic who chooses death over admitting the self-destructiveness of his or her lifestyle.
Yet those who have made the choice to let go of a drug or another person have found that surrender was liberation. You can’t stand guard over someone else without losing your own freedom.
You can make a decision for acceptance, and live through that pain until it is finished, rather than staying in pain for a lifetime. Today you can decide to learn how to feel better, by changing your own thinking and actions.
This sounds like a very large job, and it is. But it is to be done slowly, in small steps, and at your own pace. There are many people who have gone ahead of you, and they can be there for you as a sponsor, a counsellor or in their writing. Use all those resources when you need them. You will discover change brings anxiety and that is normal. The fear will diminish as you get used to new patterns in your life. It’s important to be gentle and non-blaming with yourself. Remember, your goal was good and reasonable – to help someone else and to feel better yourself. The problem was that it didn’t work. You are now beginning a process that will work and it will be accomplished in small steps, a day at a time. You begin with the basic philosophy of allowing the emotional sufferer the right to be wrong, the right to hurt, and the right to get well or not.
You will begin today to concentrate on your own thinking, behaviour and needs. Remember, when you begin to become obsessed about anything, your thoughts circling around and around, it is simply a process you’ve used to solve a problem, but it doesn’t work. Whether you are scheming about methods to control someone else, rehearsing what you will say next time, or going over painful events from your past, you are wasting valuable time. You could be productive instead, by doing something that feels better, or organising your own day. Be aware also, that though it may feel to you that the emotional sufferer is the source of your feelings, actually you generate them yourself by your own thoughts and actions. When you notice your feelings come from you and are not put into you by another person, you begin to take charge of yourself. This will do a great deal to lessen your feelings of helplessness. Then you can begin to change non-productive bad moods.
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