Let’s Talk About: The Meanings of “Obsession”

So, at Social Club (at the Autism Society for NL; it’s basically a small group getting together for social activities – playing games, doing art, etc.) this past weekend, we had a new person there. And that person mentioned that xe was obsessed with one particular topic (I can no longer remember what it was, that wasn’t the important thing), “like with OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

On my post about Hyper-Focus vs. Lack of Focus, Unstrange Mind called me on using the term “special interest” for interests that we have and like to focus on – a term that I used to replace the term “obsession”, which tends to carry a negative connotation. She suggested using the term “passion”, which I thought was a very good idea, and have since cleaned up my vocabulary that way. 🙂

Anyway, getting back to the topic of the post, I was rather disturbed by the way that person was using the term “obsession” to define a particular area of interest, because at one point, my mother suggested I might be OCD, and I asked my psychologist about the matter. And what he said was something of an eye-opener.

There are two somewhat different definitions of “obsession” that seem similar, but when taken in context are not. I quote from the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is the Macintosh OS dictionary of choice:

Obsession: 1) the state of being obsessed with someone or something: she cared for him with a devotion bordering on obsession. 2) an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind: he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist.

Synonyms include such words as: “passion”, “fixation”, etc.

Definition number 1 is the one that I tend to think of when “obsession” is used to refer to a particular area of interest (the DSM, in the list for autism, calls it something to the effect of “narrow and focused areas of interest”). Synonym would be “passion”, and other words like that.

The psychological/psychiatric definition of “obsession” is definition number 2. That’s the definition that’s used when discussing OCD and the like, and the synonyms tend towards “fixation”.

So when I talked to my psychologist about OCD, the way he defined it is that there are certain thoughts (usually negative in some fashion) that are constantly intruding on your consciousness. You cannot get rid of them, no matter what you try. They’re always there, circling around in your mind and not letting you go. That’s the “obsessive” part of OCD. The “compulsive” part comes when in an effort to push those thoughts away, you engage in ritualistic behaviours (that usually make sense only to you). They’re actions that you take because (as I understand it, at least – please note that I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, I’m simply paraphrasing what my psychologist told me about OCD) focusing on the ritual lets you escape those obsessive, circling thoughts for a little while. But they always come back.

So, as you can see from those two different uses of the term, people’s passions tend to be far away from the psychological definition of obsession. Something to think about.

(And yes, I occasionally get obsessive thoughts – see my post Thinking, Overthinking, and Brooding for examples. I think everyone does. The difference is that for people who don’t have OCD, they’re occasional thoughts, and they do go away after a bit. Or if they’re easily indulged, like, oh, say writing a post on obsession because you keep thinking back to that comment made in Social Club and it irritates you because of how incorrect it was, and you can’t get to sleep until you do something to put it out of your mind…. What, this post? Whatever made you think that? ;))

Anyway, just something I thought might provoke an interesting discussion. And it doesn’t hurt to point out what Unstrange Mind said about the use of special terminology (see her comment on the Focusing post if you want details), and try to spread the word about using the term “passions” for our particular interests rather than “obsessions” or “special interests”. After all, non-autistic people have passions as well! (Don’t believe me? Stop by a science-fiction/fantasy/anime con. You might be surprised at what allistics get up to.)

Now. I really need to get some sleep, since I’ve got this out of the way….

😉 tagÂûght
(Oh, and if you’re wondering about the new accents on my name… see my recommendation of Unstrange Mind’s post “G is for Giraffe”.)

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