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Obsessed With the One You Can't Have

I think it is all a matter of love;
the more you love a memory the stronger
and stranger it becomes. ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, the never-ending struggle known as love! Love is that emotion that has the power to penetrate all other emotions, healing us on our deepest levels of being. But what happens when love itself becomes corrupt and negative emotions creep in, such as fear, anxiety, or anger? The result is an adulterated version of love, known as obsession.

None of us want to believe that we're obsessed with anything or anyone since obsession denotes a harmful state of being. But in fact, we're all obsessed with something: some of us may be obsessed with clothes, others with food and eating, still others with the way we look or with our work.

What we need to understand is that obsession is never a positive thing. Even if we're obsessed with helping the world or spreading love, which are positive in essence, no thought or act should dominate our lives to the point that we live only for it. Moderation is truly key: everything in moderation, nothing taken to an excess. This includes food, money, love, etc. etc. When we take anything to an excessive state, we overthrow the delicate balance within our minds.

Our brains are split into sections. It's like a school with many classrooms: one classroom teaches science, one philosophy, one mathematics, one writing, and so on. There's an even harmony spread throughout so that no one subject overlaps another. But when all the students of that school only attend the mathematics class and no other class, the other subjects are abandoned. This principle easily applies to the classrooms within your brain. If you're only focusing on a person you're in love with day and night, you're ordering all of the neurons in your brain to go to that particular section of thought. And over time, neurons form bonds and establish relationships and multiply in number. So if you're stuck on an ex-partner, the more you obsess over him or her, the more you're implementing this person permanently into your brain. Ideally, you want the neurons in your brain spread out evenly between work and family and love and a social life and self-care. Like the students all crammed into one classroom, you don't want your neurons bunched up on only one side of your brain.

This is what happens when we're obsessed with a person. The word "obsess" comes from the Latin verb "obsidere," which means "to sit inside of, or occupy." The person we're obsessed with figuratively occupies our brains. They become the main concern circling within our minds. We might lead perfectly normal lives, but the one we're obsessed with will constantly pop up in our thoughts. So who are you thinking about every day, and maybe not even realizing it? Is your ex-spouse in your thoughts? Does a former partner keep coming to mind?

It's not entirely difficult to become obsessed with someone, such as when a relationship ends suddenly or is ended by the other person. If a relationship comes to an end before we're were ready to let go, it can take a real psychological toll. Whenever any chapter of our lives comes to a close before we're prepared, we experience struggle in letting go.

As a psychologist and relationship specialist, I see and hear all sorts of cases every day. But the type of case I most often encounter is obsession with another person. A large number of the clients I speak with come for help on letting go of another person they just can't seem to forget. I counsel women who have fallen in love with other women's husbands, men who just can't stop thinking about their ex-partner, even women who are dating men who are dating three other women, but they just can't let go. The common thread between these examples is being obsessed with someone they can't have.

And that's the key to obsession: you can't have the person. That's exactly what keeps someone totally bound to an ex-partner, or someone else's husband, or an estranged boyfriend who only sometimes comes around.

It seems the old phrase "you always want what you can't have" is true. And it's not just true of wanting to have unrealistic, tangible things, it's true of the people we want to have, too. It's a psychological phenomenon; if the relationship isn't a challenge, we aren't as interested in it. If that were the case, every person in the world would settle down with an uncomplicated partner and no one would experience relationship problems. But we're not programmed that way. We're wired by nature to seek and take on challenges. This is in our DNA, and this is because challenges lead to evolution. When a species is faced with environmental challenges, it quickly evolves to adapt to those challenges. So subconsciously, we seek challenges as a means towards evolution and self-improvement. This also holds true of the types of relationships we seek; we challenge ourselves to be with a person so as to make them, and us, better over time.

When someone has broken up with us or doesn't want to be with us, the challenge becomes to get them back. And our stubborn brains don't want to let go of this task until we've fulfilled it. What I want you to think about now is who is your challenge? If you're in a stable relationship, you may have already conquered your challenge, but if you're not then there probably exists someone you're interested in. Who is it, and how does this person impact your life? Could it be that you spend too much time thinking about him or her, or that you won't give up on this person even if they're not right for you? Are you obsessed?

Infatuation vs. Obsession

Being infatuated with someone is a healthy, normal element of life. Think about infatuation as that feeling of being head over heels for someone; we smile just at the thought of that person! We can be infatuated with our partner or potential love interest without crossing the line into obsession. And that's a beautiful thing. But how do we know when it's gone too far? How do we distinguish between an intense love and an unhealthy preoccupation? Even worse, how can we decipher when it's time to move on because the other person doesn't reciprocating our feelings? It becomes very difficult to answer these questions on our own when we're trapped within an emotional bubble, and it becomes all too easy to make the wrong decisions.

Answer the following nine questions truthfully. These questions will help you evaluate whether you are in fact obsessed with a person, whether your obsession is justified based on the other person's response to you, and whether you need to detach from whom you're mentally dependent on. I want you to introspect and be honest with yourself.

  • 1.) Identify who you think you're obsessed with: This is a pretty easy question to answer. Is there a person you're interested in who you just can't get off your brain?
  • 2.) How much of your day is taken up thinking about him or her: Are they the first thing you think about when you wake up or the last thing before you go to sleep? Do they suddenly float into your mind as you're working, socializing, or occupied with other activities?
  • 3.) What routine activities are interrupted by him or her: If they don't return your phone call or don't want to see you, do you feel emotionally damaged? Do you cry easily because of this person, and are you overly sensitive to their responses to you?
  • 4.) What is your expected outcome: Do you realistically expect to be with this person, or do you know deep down that that will never happen?
  • 5.) What is their response to you: How does this person treat you, in turn? Do they make an effort to be with you or are you always the one to seek them?
  • 6.) Are you hiding your obsession: Are you afraid to admit to anyone else just how much you dwell on this person? Do you have feelings of shame or embarrassment to confess how much you think about them?
  • 7.) Evaluate your life within this person: How would your life be if you weren't stuck on this person? Would you actually feel freer and more willing to try and find a new love interest?
  • 8.) Get to the root of the problem: Where is this obsession coming from? Were you traumatized by a breakup or damaged by a former relationship, which is making you not want to let go under any circumstance?
  • 9.) Realize the need to detach: After answering these questions honestly, do you feel a guilty need to detach from this person for your own well-being?

How to Detach

If you answered yes to more than four of the above questions, you may want to consider mentally and emotionally distancing yourself from the person in question. There are effective ways to detach from someone, and the process doesn't have to hurt. This takes time and a bit of effort on your part, with small steps taken each day. Here are five simple steps to apply every day to help you detach:

  • 1.) Start your day with empowerment: Say a quick prayer of empowerment each morning. Ask the Divine to make this a stress-free day and believe that it will be. Affirm to yourself as soon as you wake up that your happiness is not dependent on this person. Recite quotes which strengthen your independence and inner force.
  • 2.) "Replace" your obsession: Exchange your obsession for a much more positive activity. Every time you find yourself thinking of the person, force your thoughts away to a more pleasant idea. Contemplate a project, think about an upcoming event that excites you, or evaluate the outcome a different concern. The more you force yourself to think about something else, the more you train your brain to function on other elements of life.
  • 3.) Turn to others for inspiration: This is not a time to isolate yourself. Rely on the support and compassion of friends and family, especially those who have experienced similar situations. Seek experiences like yours to help inspire you to overcome your dilemma. For example, buy a book which explores the theme of letting go of a former love and relate this to your own life.
  • 4.) Practice self-care: This is the time to take care of yourself. Invest in yourself and your needs. You are your own main priority. There's nothing wrong with a bit of self-pampering; exercise regularly, take care of your health, splurge on one item, reinvent your look- anything to make yourself happy!
  • 5.) Get into a new routine: You need to distract yourself, even force yourself to look the other way when all you want to see is this person. You need to rewire the neurons in your brain to turn away from the "obsession" corner they're crowded in. Daily activities help with this. Take up a new hobby, join a club, do anything which does not harm you and which doesn't remind you of the person.

Like anything else in life, detachment takes time and is a process. But the results are remarkably liberating: a life in which an unhealthy obsession doesn't dominate your day to day thoughts and actions.

With Love,
Dr. Carmen Harra

Dr. Carmen Harra

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