I have a problem that I can’t seem to get rid of. I guess you would say that I have obsessive thoughts. There are some things that I am always obsessed about (like if people like me and if I look ok), and there are other things, like if a tragedy happened, then that’s all that I think about, and ultimately all that I talk about. I often then get scared that my family is in danger, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
It actually doesn’t bother me that I am like this—I’m just vigilant and get nervous when I am not thinking about or talking about it. The only reason I am writing to you is because a close friend just told me that I am too much for him and he wants to hang out less! This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it is the first time that I was clued-in to why I was getting ditched. So I just wanted your take on this.
-OK to be Obsessed
Dear OK to be Obsessed,
You are in a funny position: You have a “problem” of obsessing, and that isn’t really a problem to you. Your real problem is that you are losing friends because of your obsessing. It sounds like you are willing to look into changing for the sake of keeping your friendships. Good for you—you sound like a committed friend.
So here is my take on it: Your problem is not obsessive thoughts. That is just a symptom. I believe that your problem is actually anxiety. I am picking up a lot of underlying fear, and it sounds like obsessing serves a purpose vis-à-vis your fears. You are able to soothe fear a bit when you obsess. It seems like a lot of the things that you obsess over are related to anxiety provoking matters, like if people like you, or if something bad will happen to your loved ones. These are all very common and normal, even healthy and adaptively protective fears that people have. But it sounds like they are very big fears that you have if they are taking over your thoughts.
It seems like when you do manage to stop the thoughts, you become more anxious. This tells me that the obsessions are actually helpful for you, and it seems to soothe the underlying issue, which is anxiety. But then it proves to be harmful when it irks your friends.
There is a possibility that this is a neurological issue and not simply an anxiety issue. Things like perseverating and obsessing can very possibly be coming from a neurological disorder, possibly a developmental disorder. So which route should you try first to figure out where this is coming from? The bio-medical route or the cognitive-emotional one?
I say try medical first. If nothing comes up there, then you can confidently get cushy in therapy. And the type of therapy that you should go for should be either attachment-based, mindfulness-based or cognitive-behavioral. If you are neurologically diagnosable, then you will know what you are dealing with. Most likely, your doctor will advise, or in the very least endorse you going to therapy in addition to any medical interventions that are recommended. If you do have a medical diagnosis, then I suggest trying behavioral therapy. That should be very effective, as it is proven to be. If for some reason that does not work, then you can try the other therapies above.
In the meantime, until you book that appointment (or until your appointment date with a sought-after doc arrives in 3 months), try getting to know yourself better. First of all, don’t fight the obsessive thoughts. The more you slam that door and keep it closed off, the more it will push back.
I actually want you to try to befriend the thoughts. For example, let’s say you just read about a gas leak explosion in a far-away state that tragically killed an entire family. You now start worrying about your own family and can’t stop thinking about it. That’s ok. Now, invite that thought in by focusing on it and interpreting it. “Hmm, I am getting really worried right now about my family. I am hoping they are ok, and so scared to think that they are in danger of a gas explosion that may kill or harm them, G-d forbid.” That’s the focusing part, and it will probably feel more uncomfortable than the usual thought of “Are they ok? Are they ok?” Now let’s interpret what you focused on: “I would be really sad to lose them. I guess that means that they mean a lot to me. If I didn’t have them, I would be really sad and maybe scared. I really love them. My family is very, very important to me.”
Even though it is really scary facing our fears (I am breaking out in a sweat just writing about it!), this sort of introspection has shown to be effective in mitigating anxiety. Giving our fears a real voice somehow takes the edge off.
So open up that door and make up for your lost friend by getting to know some scary new ones.