Obsession vs. Addiction
Obsessions and addictions are sometimes confused with one another. There are, however, very distinct differences between the two.
A person that is obsessed is dominated by thoughts of the obsession. That obsession can be one of an infinite number of things, such as an activity (like working out), an idea (like everyone is out to get you), or a person (or inanimate object, such as a car). Obsession can also come from a place of fear. Obsessive behaviors can be the result of a person’s fear of something changing, like your belief that your wife is going to leave you so you obsess about her every movement.
Obsession basically brings out thoughts and/or ideas that are continual and consistent, and that can be problematic to everyday living especially when the obsession is all a person can concentrate on. For example, if someone is obsessed with another person then the obsessor will talk about their object of desire whenever, and to whomever, they can. The obsessor will call or text that person a hundred times a day, will plaster hundreds of that person’s pictures on their bedroom walls, and/or will stalk them.
Like many psychological terms, however, obsession has been butchered, making obsession seem closely related to overly passionate. This is so far from the truth. Passion is mostly a positive result of a person’s desire, love, urge, etc. Obsession is beyond that. Way beyond that. When someone suffers from an obsession, they may behave so irrationally that it disrupts their everyday life. Passion has a positive connotation (feeling), whereas obsession should have a negative one.
Generally speaking, passion is a way of finding happiness in whatever you decide to do (passionate about saving the whales). However, obsession is finding happiness AND purpose in just one, single thing. Addiction, on the other hand, is solely dependent on the execution AND dependency on just one single drug or behavior (further defined below).
A person’s well-being can be disruptive with an obsession that their thoughts are consumed by it. Sometimes, however, someone with an obsession can control it; so much so that even the person who knows them best doesn’t know that they suffer from an obsession. For example, a guy who doesn’t know his best friend is obsessed with the guy’s wife, or a person who watches a lot of true crime television is really obsessed with seeing grisly crime scene photos.
Obsession can be diagnosed as a serious mental disorder if it is coupled with compulsive thoughts and behaviors, such as the case with OCD. Obsessive compulsive disorder is a neurological disease that will have their own tab on this website. Generally speaking, it is when someone is riddled with repetitive thoughts and unwanted compulsions that really dominate their everyday lives where they have difficulty functioning in a normal world. Again, that’s another post.
Obsession is a dominance of ideas, desires, daydreams, thoughts, etc. Many psychologists describe obsession as a domination of unreasonable emotions that preoccupy a person’s everyday life, with a disturbing outpour of irrational behavior. To dwell on something or someone unceasingly, to the point where normal living is not possible. Obsession can turn violent, like when a stalker finally breaks out of just voyeurism, or when paranoia turns into madness. However, unlike addiction, an obsession can be controlled or go unnoticed or unknown. We also have to understand that obsessions do not generally lead to addictions.
Harmful and Non-Harmful Obsession
I realize that I need to discuss the difference between harmful and non-harmful obsessions. This is a debatable topic because some psychologists believe that all obsessions are harmful. Let’s look at obsessions that can be odd or even disgusting, but can be considered pretty harmless because the person with the obsession can still be productive; work successfully, have meaningful relationships, and can enjoy other pleasures in life. For example, a person who likes to bathe their cat with their own tongue, or someone who likes the taste of (and drinks) nail polish, or even someone who is aroused by roller coasters so they decide to marry one (yes, all of these are real). These are examples of cases that were seen on a television show a few years back called My Strange Addiction. Now, these behaviors are very strange and obsessive but are they true addictions?
Some people who participate in strange behaviors could be plagued with a mental disease or personality disorder, or they could just like harmless (and odd) behaviors, like dressing up and pretending to be a horse (yes, this is also true). But these are not necessarily addictions. Once addicted to a drug or behavior, that person is no longer enjoying a habit or engaging in a weekend of binging; that addiction becomes a disease.
An obsession can be a fixation that can be odd or irrational, but can also be harmless even though it may not be accepted by the general public. For example, a man who likes to wear women’s underwear under his everyday clothes, or someone who likes to spend a weekend dressing up in an animal costume and having sex with other people who are dressed up in animal costumes (they are called Furries, in case you were wondering). These can be considered obsessive hobbies, but not harmful to those around them, and not an addiction.
Addiction is a way a person escapes from their reality, or their perceived reality. People who are addicted use their addiction when they experience a level of stress that they deem to be too much (sometimes that can simply be having to get up in the morning). The addiction causes a person to lose control over doing something that they know will be harmful to them, but can’t stop themselves from doing it anyways.
Addiction can be broken down into two categories: drug or action. Some psychologists argue that actions are the drug but I like to separate the two, for a very specific reason. “Drug” is something ingested; either smoked, swallowed, injected, etc., whereas an action is something that you have to perform such as shopping, gambling, etc. Either way, an addiction causes problems that can be harmful to not only the person who is addicted but definitely to those around the addict.
Defining addiction has become more difficult due to the media and the general population describing broad overindulgences as addiction. Like someone who loves chocolate can be described as a chocoholic (someone addicted to chocolate), or someone who has a glass of wine every night as an “alcy” or alcoholic. Both terms water down the word “addiction” into everyday terminology, making it less consequential than a true addiction. Relatively harmless indulgences are not true addictions, and there needs to be a divide between the two.
A generally accepted description of addiction is the continual participation in an activity or substance that changes or alters a person’s mood regardless of the adverse consequences, and there are always adverse consequences with addictions. Although this may seem broad it does cover a wide scope of activities that were previously not considered addictions, such as porn, working, shopping, gambling, etc. This also helps to describe the over-use of pain killers, alcohol, cocaine, and other substances that an addict has to have every single day, and that an addict thinks about every single minute.
Narrowing down this description, most addiction progresses and develops into a dependency for not only the physical but also the psychological dependency on that addiction. There becomes a tolerance, so much so, that the addict has to increase their participation in their addiction in order to feel that “high.” Gambling for a couple of hours slowly increases to where the addict is gambling for 32 hours straight, or a heroin addict continues to use more and more, at higher doses every time, until they over-dose. Not only does the tolerance increase but if an addict stops their participation in their addiction, they will experience horrible withdrawal symptoms. Addicts also become so psychologically dependent on their addiction (similar to those who are obsessed) that they believe they cannot live without it, and can become suicidal.
Addiction is when a pleasurable experience becomes sought after, no matter what the cost. There’s a compulsion that interferes with everyday life and responsibilities, where a person needs to ingest a drug or engage in a particular action in order to function normally, no matter how it affects work, relationships, personal health, or general well-being. The addict is in a continuous loop of either the participation of the addictive action or the use of the particular drug, and it is compulsory. Those around the addict can only watch (generally in horror, disgust or helplessness) the rate at which the addict feeds their addiction. Some addicts want to stop their addiction, and the behaviors that accompany that addiction, but find that it’s too painful to be without it.
As stated earlier, obsession does not evolve into addiction; however, an addiction could have started with an obsession.
The exact cause of why someone becomes obsessed or addicted is unknown. There are some predispositions or factors in a person’s history or personality that can have an impact on whether they may become obsessed or become an addict:
- Compulsive behaviors
- Low self-image and self-worth
- Introduction to drugs at a young age
- Aggressive childhood behavior not addressed
- Undiagnosed mental disease or disorder
- Family history of drug use or other addiction
- Poor social skills / lack of friends
- Not able to deal with stress
- Impatience / unable to wait for gratification
- Neglect or absence of parental care
- Childhood abuse or trauma
- Needs to be the center of attention / grandiosity
- Suffers from anxiety and/or depression
- Antisocial; needs “liquid courage”
As we hear people talk about addiction, it is generally in the form of drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, alcohol, and the such. These activities, on a non-addictive level, can make us feel good and we enjoy participating in them. It is then understandable that someone with a predisposition to obsession or addiction can fall victim to that activity, even if the more they participate, the more they change. Someone who becomes obsessed can behave erratically, irrationally, or just plain strangely. The question that I get asked the most is when does strange obsessive behaviors become an actual addiction.
An addiction causes great damage to a person’s self-worth, making that person not care about daily things such as their personal hygiene or their relationship with others. Their ability to function in daily activities becomes impossible as the addict soon only participates in self-destructive behaviors that turns into a vicious and dangerous cycle.
The generally difference between obsession and addiction is not a matter to take lightly. Both are equally dangerous and can cause harm to those around the person who suffers from either.