The Psychology Of Obsession
Obsession, fantasy and fixation are all expressions of relational deficit; an all-consuming need to engage in interpersonal contact with another. Obsession provides four psychological functions; predictability, identity, continuity and stability to what might otherwise be a fractured and fragmented self.
In this case, the client, Heather, was obsessed with Anna, a woman with whom she had no direct interaction, but peripherally knew of and busied herself with finding out all that she could about her through individuals and social media. Over time, Heather’s appearance began to change, together with the stories that she told the world about herself. Why? Heather had sought to become all that she envied in Anna. It was, if you will, an unreciprocated twinning. It was not clear if Anna knew of the importance that she came to have in Heather’s life; a person who did not know her, but had based herself on fantasies created about her. Heather’s self loathinggrew in parallel to the hatred that she felt towards Anna for being Anna. We can assume from Heather’s consistent fantasising and fixation that Anna served several psychological functions in her life. Heather was deeply insecure about Anna, and she struggled to recognise and be aware of her own shadow. She battled with her insecurity and envy and although there had been no direct contact between the two, Heather would go out of her way to observe Anna and imitate her when she found out new information about her. It was as though she wanted to crawl into her skin to become her.
If Heather’s obsession with Anna did not result from direct interaction with her, then what had caused such an intense preoccupation? Heather’s Anna was, for her, a psychic entity – an internal image of another, a self object that provided intelligence, creativity and a symbol of all that Heather wanted the world to think that she was. Heather would fixate upon, or bring Anna into the conversation if she ever felt threatened or insecure. Heather’s obsession with Anna may have reflected a longing for a secure attachment with a consistent other. The longing for stimulus from Anna and Heather’s morbid preoccupation provided for her the four core functions of stability, continuity, identity, and predictability. In healthy development, these psychological functions are provided within the parental relationship through a secure attachment.
Predictability: Heather’s obsessive fixation on Anna provided the psychological function of predictability. Heather spoke about Anna in therapy, but it seems from the case presentation that she never spoke to her directly. By not talking with Anna and sharing her feelings with her or a relationship of any kind , she passively created a non relationship or, perhaps, in the fantasy, even rejection. She was, through the fantasy, active and in charge of the the impact that she wanted to have on the other.
Identity: Heather expressed her unique identity through her obsession with Anna. This identity was of someone who longed for attention, to matter to someone and yet unconsciously knew that she didn’t have that and created imaginary conflict about not being seen for who she really was – hence the conflict between longing to have some impact on Anna and not communicating with her. “This is who I am!” is a felt sense that may be more affective and physiological than cognitive, one that often lacks words since the origin of this identity may be lost to awareness. Each fantasy of Anna was a further expression of Heather’s unconscious identity – playing out her life script. This archaic identity is maintained through fixation and fantasy rather than the ever-changing identity that occurs in active, spontaneous, authentic relationships. By maintaining a fantasy of Anna and indeed, other significant people in her life, Heather would not risk a new way of being in the world with the continually emerging “who I am” and the ongoing discovering of the other.
Continuity: By obsessing about Anna, Heather maintained a psychological continuity with the past and the threat that she perceived Anna to be to her. If she had actually been friends with Anna or understood how Anna’s world had crossed Heather’s, most likely something dramatic would have happened. She might have responded in a loving way, thereby creating a juxtaposition between her current experience and her emotional memories of struggle, pain and envy. She would probably be filled with fantasies about the love she did not receive as a child. She would hurt again. Conversely, if Heather had developed a real relationship with Anna, she might not have wanted an involvement with her, and that might also have stimulated the emotional memories of the introjected rejection from Heather’s childhood.
Stability: Obsessively fixating on the other and hyper vigilant to her is an attempt to remain psychologically stable and grounded. It is a false sense of living life in the now. The unresolved early emotional experiences are unconsciously expressed in the fixation and obsession. The hurt, rejection or neglect may, through fantasy, be projected onto current or future relationships, thereby avoiding being present and connected in her own life – a kind of being half in and half out.
Attunement to the need for security involved me as the therapist conducting myself emotionally and behaviourally in a way that provides security in the relationship. It involved paying attention to Heather’s unconscious communication of the need for protection as revealed in her simultaneous idealisation and devaluation of Anna. Idealisation is the expression of a search for protection -the emotional attachment to the bigger people. Devaluation is the need for Heather to make Anna into a bad object; a kind of repository for all the bad feelings that Heather felt about herself but could not tolerate and from which she disassociated. Heather needed to make Anna “bad” in order to manage her own feelings of worthlessness. When manifested in psychotherapy, idealisation and devaluation represent the unconscious search for protection from and the destruction of a controlling and humiliating introjected Parent ego state. It may also represent the search for containment and control; of an escalation, of affect or a secure setting of limits. Just as young children look to grown-ups for guidance and protection, so too, Heather was searching for someone better who she could base her sense of self and identity upon. She struggled with identity and making any meaningful contact with the world on her own, without her primitive need to fight those who she found threatening to her fragile sense of self. She most likely searched for the kind of acknowledgement and vitality with Anna that she failed to get from her primary caregivers. Daniel Stern (1985) writes of the importance of the mother’s affect of vitality to the baby’s emerging sense of self. If such maternal vitality is absent, the result is an emotional abandonment, a lack of security and protection. Heather turned to fantasy to receive a sense of vitality and protection through her struggle with Anna.
Whilst working with Heather, it was essential that I held in mind that Heather’s obsession of Anna was symptomatic of her fixated relational needs as a traumatised child. The fixated archaic needs are either acted out in the transference or are expressed in fantasy. The unconscious behaviour and/or fantasised appropriation of these needs demands an appropriate therapeutic response, one that may focus on providing either security and validation, while also responding to the need to feel confirmed by the personal experience of another.
Certainly Heather had the need to make an impact on Anna. Any child who has been stung by rejection will have an intense need, later in life, to make an impact , to demand in some form or another “attend to me,” or “love me”. Often this need is acted out in the form of entitlement and/or takes subverted forms that overshadow other equally important needs (e.g., security, protection, self-definition).
Heather’s need for attention and validation was evident in her obsession for Anna; the Anna who in fantasy provided not only attention and validation, but protection of Heather from her very real sense of being not being enough on her own. The work continues…
“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness“