From obsession to a sustainable life

I just read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a book club I am part of.

At the close of this thrilling tale, Victor, the creator of the “monster”, warns a sea-captain who is on a risky expedition to the North Pole to “avoid ambition”.  You see, Victor’s misled obsession in the story came at a terrible price— moral failure, fear, exile (as he pursues the monster), the death of those most dear to him, and ultimately his own premature death.

While Frankenstein is a piece of fiction, I believe the author hits upon a universal truth. The truth that obsession comes at a terrible price. While it probably will not kill us and those we love, thank goodness, obsessive ambition (any obsession, really) leaves us unbalanced and has the potential to wreck our lives.

Brance and I were chatting yesterday about Netflix’s CEO’s recent comment that their main competition is not Hulu or Amazon Prime or any other streaming service, but rather SLEEP (this is my paraphrase).  I kid you not. In other words, they are building their business on the back of obsessive behavior that causes us to opt to bing-watch rather than sleep.

And I think we all have fallen prey to their ploy to get us to skip sleep to watch the NEXT episode!  Oh man, it’s a chore to get one of these streaming services to STOP playing and NOT load the next one. While binging on too much tv really might pose a problem for some people, for most of us it is a funny example of where an obsessive, weak moment can lead us ocassionally— a  bing-watching hangover.

In all seriousness, I really do think Netflix’s CEO, like Shelley, has tapped into something big here. And that is our tendency to allow obsessive desires to control us—regardless of the consequences. At times to our own demise and the harm of those we love.

I think this applies across the board. From businesses/jobs to relationships to health/wellness to beauty/decor to hobbies to even ministry/charitable work (!). We can get totally obsessed. We can easily cross the fine line from passion into obsession and lose balance and wreak havoc in our life as a result.

Okay, I’ll confess first.

It’s something I experienced when Brance and I attempted to grow a wedding videography business early in our marriage. I found that my obsession with trying to make that business work threw a monkey wrench into my entire life. It was like perpetually having a new baby. My house was a constant wreck, I was barely getting showers, I wasn’t carving out enough time with my husband and friends, and I was finding it difficult to care for our REAL baby. This obsession over our business was NOT creating a healthy/ sustainable life for me. I fell far behind in so many areas and it was creating a strain on my relationships. Obsession tends to do this. Any external success we experienced with this business was not worth the sacrifice and damage it was causing.

I learned a lot about the danger of obsession from that videography business over a decade ago. As a result, it is something I try to guard against. I don’t do this perfectly, but it is something I am constantly aiming for. I would much rather have a balanced and sustainable life than to have a wildly successful one filled with chaos and turmoil. Or even worse yet, one where obsession has led to moral compromise or failure.

I have seen this obsessive ambition in other bloggers and business people who skip sleep and neglect their family to work or make that next sale. And this is the trickiest and subtlest form, because you can be distracted and unavailable even while seemingly present and working from home. Or you can be seemingly present as a friend while completely self-driven and absorbed.

There is a biblical proverb that talks about pursuing wealth being like pursuing a bird. It is always flying away and evading capture.

Where a desire for more and more money, or more and more success, or more and more followers, or more and more (fill in the blank) drives us—we are being led by obsession. And those things will NEVER be enough.

The number–obsessed pastor will never have enough church attendees.

The money-obsessed person will never make a large enough salary.

The stats-obsessed blogger will never have enough visitors.

The fitness-obsessed individual will never reach physical perfection.

The growth-obsessed business owner will never grow large enough.

But obsession is subtle. It’s like how we sit down to watch an episode of our favorite tv show only to find we stayed up half the night and finished the entire season. Obsession is never the goal, but it is easy to fall into if we do not guard against it.

So, how do we move away from obsession so we can create a passionate, yet balanced and sustainable life? One where we have goals and accomplishments, yet are not driven by obsession. That’s the million dollar question, right!?

I believe, and know from experience, it can be done and it is something worth pursuing! PURSUE—because, you know, it will take some intentionality and some effort and at times we may have to return back to this way of living. I think for most of us our natural inclination is towards obsession and imbalance in some area of our life. And the focus of our obsession will likely be different at different stages of our life depending on what we have going on.

What we can do…

1. We have to get to the root of the obsession. The why.

I believe that at the root of most all obsession is a misplaced or overly emphasized affection. (As a Christian, I think of this as misplaced worship. Because God should always be #1 in my life.) To have passion for something or someone can be a wonderful thing and the reason for a lot of joy in this ‘ole life. But when passion turns into obsession, a good thing quickly turns into a bad thing.

2. Not only do we have to get to the root of obsession, FIRST we have to recognize obsession for what it is. We have to move out of denial. We have to stop excusing our behavior.

This requires some humility and a willingness to change. Oftentimes we despise the consequences of our obsession, all the while clinging to the cause even tighter—the obsession.

But when we see the obsession for what it is and for the harm it is causing, we FINALLY can take the necessary steps towards a passionate, sustainable way of life. Oh man. It’s so worth it! Who cares what other people might think of this shift in your life. In the end you and those who love you will benefit!

3. Deciphering between a passion and an obsession can be a little tricky. And at times we might fluctuate between the two.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if something is an obsession or a passion.

  • Is this interest negatively affecting my relationships with family and long-time friends? Am I treating and interacting with them differently? Have they noticed a change?
  • Are other areas in my life being majorly nose-bombed by this interest? Will there be any balance in the perceivable future or does chaos and this interest co-exist indefinitely?
  • Is this interest causing me to spend money irresponsibly or uncharacteristically? Is it “promising” wealth or success in exchange for this?
  • Is this interest demanding my undivided attention or an unrealistic investment of my time? Is it “promising” wealth or success in exchange for this?
  • Is this interest causing me to compromise my morals? Do I finding myself excusing my behavior towards others to continue with this interest?
  • Have I lost other interests? Does this interest monopolize the majority of my thoughts and energy?

If the answer to one or more of these is yes, there is a good chance an obsession has taken root.

If you are uncertain, you may find the following article from Harvard Science Review helpful: Overstepping your passion? The Science of Obsession.

4. Once you discover obsession in your life, it’s time to make the necessary changes. (As a Christian, for me this often requires prayer and repentance). It may require a transitioning back to passion from obsession. It may mean completely abandoning the thing all together. It depends on what it is and what is going on in your life! Only you will know. Although, seeking counsel from those closest to you or a trusted advisor may help.

5. More often than not obsession is entangled with bad habits. And those bad habits will need to be overcome if you want to live a sustainable life. If you need to address some bad habits I recommend reading the following article I wrote on that topic: Resolved to break bad habits (a how to)

6. Once you begin to make a shift away from obsession, one of the positive signs that you have made the necessary changes is your life will move towards balance and become “healthier” and sustainable. Relationships may improve. You might feel freer or better able to cope. You may have more free time or simply the time to accomplish necessary things. You won’t feel controlled by your interests.

Passion can be a gift. But passion gone awry into obsession can cause a lot of problems. I hope this article helps you live a more balanced and sustainable life!

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