When Does Dedication Become Obsession?
Updated: May 28
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, health is seen very much in terms of harmony and balance. So it should be clear that obsession, which is virtually by definition a state of imbalance, is an unhealthy place to be. Obsessional behaviour is of course quite common; the term ‘OCD’ has entered the language, and many people will describe themselves as having some obsessional traits, ranging from mild idiosyncrasies to full blown mental health problems.
But is obsession always bad? Is balance always such a good thing? Suppose you want to achieve, and not in a mediocre kind of way; perhaps you want to be an elite athlete, even an Olympic champion. Perhaps you want to be a millionaire. Maybe you want to find the cure for cancer. It’s clear that you will need to be one-pointed. Dedicated. Even, maybe, obsessed? There might be a fine line between a healthy dedication and an unhealthy obsession, and it is not clear where that line should lie. Could one man’s dedication be another’s obsession? If you want to achieve big things, you will have to make sacrifices, but how far should you go?
For example, think of Lance Armstrong, who seemed the very image of the dedicated champion, even overcoming what looked like a fatal cancer, until it turned out that his thirst for success and glory had led him to deceive everyone. Had his dedication gone too far? Had he become obsessed with winning at all costs? If we are aiming high, how do we avoid such a mistake?
If we do find ourselves becoming a little obsessive about our goals, one question we need to ask is, are our goals big enough, are they worth dedicating ourselves to? Perhaps dedication becomes obsession when the goal we aim for is not worth the sacrifices we make along the way. If you were to dedicate your life to collecting Mars bar wrappers, for instance, giving up all your spare time to hunt through rubbish bins, this would be an obsession.
But what actually is worth dedicating ourselves to? I’ve just come out of a supermarket which seems to like to project an image of its workforce as living only to provide happy smiling excellent customer service (although the reality seems more often that the staff devote themselves to ignoring the fact that they are blocking your access to the groceries you want!) I imagine when they advertise vacancies they say they are looking for people with a passion for customer service. Does anyone really have such a passion? You could dedicate yourself to being such an employee, but when it came time to retire, or even be made redundant, what would you have to show for it all?
Perhaps more ambitiously you might devote yourself to a career, maybe in big business. You may need to demonstrate a commitment to succeed bordering on obsession, which your bosses and peers might be glad to describe as dedication. You might have to make a lot of sacrifices along the way – your relationships might suffer, as might your health. But it will be all worthwhile when you finally make it, won’t it? Or will it?
In the past people would often devote themselves to religion, perhaps becoming a monk or a nun and thus sacrificing family life, sex, possessions, even individual autonomy. Nowadays their fervour might seem more like fanatical obsession, reminiscent of the kind of thing that leads turns people into suicide bombers. In today’s world it sometimes seems that sport has taken the place of religion for many people. Some people dedicate themselves to being a fan. They might spend all their spare cash supporting a soccer team, buying replica shirts, following their team everywhere, being absolutely distraught if they lose and ecstatic if they win. Some fans even have had their ashes scattered on the pitch of their favourite club after their demise. Is this dedication or obsession?
And what about the sporting men and women themselves? If they want to be the best, they will certainly need a prodigious degree of dedication, but as the case of Lance Armstrong illustrates, this can turn into something less than healthy. This also appears to be the case with Oscar Pistorius, someone who overcame tremendous difficulties in his pursuit of athletic excellence, but if some of the stories circulating around his trial are to be believed, turning him into a bad tempered obsessive.
Even setting aside such fallen heroes, we might (rather heretically?) ask what is so good about a gold medal, or winning the premier league? How much are such things worth, really? How much is it worth sacrificing for them? How much dedication/obsession is justified in their pursuit? If you are a top-level sportsman or sportswoman you are probably surrounded by people, maybe including thousands of adoring fans, who would not even dream of asking such a question. But as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is said to have pointed out, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Perhaps one aspect of the answer to these questions is indeed related to our health – in the broadest sense. We can ask ourselves if in the pursuit of our goals we are becoming healthier and, even, happier and more fulfilled. In Traditional Chinese Medicine we have the idea of a person’s destiny; this is not fate, but more like an innate potential. In a way our destiny is who we really are, so that as we gradually fulfil our destiny, we become more and more ourselves. This is a deeply satisfying experience, a humanising experience.
But what is our destiny? As with most things in life, we find out as we go along (or not!) I knew someone who in his youth wanted to be a fighter pilot, but who realised as he got older that what he really wanted was freedom – which for him was symbolised by a fast jet racing across the sky. So as we move through life we need to be open to our goals changing, or rather be open to finding out that what we thought we wanted is not what we really want. If my friend has clung doggedly to his ambition to be a fighter pilot, maybe he would have become one, but maybe also he would have been secretly disappointed and grumpy. (But then again, for someone else, zooming across the heavens at twice the speed of sound might be part of the journey they need to make.)
From this point of view, dedicating ourselves to a goal which is (at least for the time being) congruent with our destiny will indeed lead us to a more fulfilling life. If on the other hand we find ourselves becoming grumpy, angry, miserable, difficult to live with and ill, it may be that we have become fixated on achieving something which it is not really in our interest to achieve. In such a case we need to take a deep breath and see if we can let go of that goal and follow the advice of the Sufi poet Rumi:
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”
This brings us back to the idea of balance. Balance is not mediocrity; it is not a static thing. We don’t achieve it by sitting on our hands and doing nothing. If our goals are such that striving for them indeed helps us to gradually realise our destiny, then as we struggle towards them we become more balanced, not less. We draw on energy we did not know we had, which would never have been called forth if we had not aimed high. Of course this is not plain sailing and we will indeed have days when we feel anything but harmonious, but the overall trajectory of our life is in the direction of fulfilment and equilibrium. Far from being obsessed with something which is really of little significance (like winning the premier league or becoming a millionaire!), we dedicate ourselves to something worthy of us and our destiny.
Of course we cannot do all this in splendid isolation; we need help and support. At The Sean Barkes Clinic, this is what we do; using the tools of Traditional Chinese Medicine, we help people achieve the dynamic balance that comes with fulfilling their destiny by optimising our patients’ state of health.
Written by Vimalaprabha