January Buzzword of the Month: OBSESSED
Buzzwords Uncovered: Clarifying Original Definitions…Because For Some Reason We Need To Do That Nowadays.
By Caroline Anderson, MMFT
As she holds the new dress up and wraps it around her body Jenna gasps in amazement, “Ohhh.. I am obsessed!”
Now, if you are truly this gal’s friend, then you probably shouldn’t congratulate her. Why? Because you might instead consider expressing your most sincere condolences. How tragic that while harmlessly shopping the racks of the local clothing store she was—BOOM!—struck down with pervasively recurring and intrusive thoughts (about a dress) and now meets criteria for a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Yes, you CAN meet criteria for OCD with obsessions alone.
But returning to the story of Jenna…
These thoughts (about the dress) are so haunting and cause her such distress that she will struggle with daily tasks and interacting with the world effectively. Her obsession (with the dress) will go on to drastically alter her mental, and possibly, her physical wellbeing.
If we consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), 5th edition (the go-to diagnostic instrument for such matters), we can expect Jenna to experience “recurrent, intrusive, inappropriate thought(s), impulse(s),or image(s) [i.e. dress, DrEsS, dress, dress, dRess, DRESS, dReSS] leading to significant distress from the dress (anyone catch that?) or disturbance in her social and/or occupational functioning.” Whew!
Ok, so— is she truly obsessed? While it is technically possible-(ISH), it is pretty damn unlikely.
Check out the usage of the word over time in the graph below. Are we truly becoming a society that experiences more obsessions? Is it that we are successfully getting the word out about OCD (#erasethestigma) and that’s what leading to the word “Obsessed” rising to a viral level of popularity? Perhaps. But in the spirit of Buzzwords Uncovered and my general skeptical view, yours truly is here to propose the usual hypothesis:
We have forgotten (or never knew) what the word “obsessed” actually means.
As a therapist, I have had my fair share of clients who sought out assistance for true obsessions-yet interestingly, these obsessions weren’t TV shows, YouTube videos, pairs of shoes, new music releases, or makeup. At the end of the day you can experience heightened emotions about a thing and even allow that thing to occupy an inordinate amount of mental space, but 99.9% of the time (not an actual statistic) these things are not true obsessions.
Graph via Ngram Viewer: https://books.google.com/ngrams
So Caroline, at what point can I truly call my (love, preoccupation, fondness, interest, etc.) for lattes an obsession?
Warning: While my hope is that you aren’t truly obsessed with puppy compilation videos or lattes, to reiterate the message I come back to time and time again: It’s not up to me to judge your individual situation, however, as a therapist, I’m happy to provide some semi-intelligent info on the difference between a diagnosable obsession versus maybe just spending too
much time with your phone in your hand.
Now, sit back, relax (latte in hand) and let’s unpack this buzzword.
Obsessions (as defined by the handy-dandy DSM-V mentioned above) are as follows:
(1): Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance as intrusive and inappropriate, and that cause marked anxiety and distress.
Soooo..I’m just spitballing here, but I’d venture to say that although your “obsession” with a vanilla latte might occur regularly (yep, it does!), it certainly doesn’t feel unwanted (you’re alllll about it!), and the thought itself doesn’t cause subsequent anxiety and distress (it’s LATTE TIME!!!!). It’s quite possible that latte “obsession” is an addiction (hope not!). But while fighting off the urge is hard, and the aftermath of caving into an addiction might feel blech, that first teensy, whispery thought of *latte** was lovely, not horrific… in fact, it was trés trés desirablé, and absolutely does NOT cause “marked distress.” SO- it’s not an obsession…more along the lines of that you need your “fix.” But you knew that already. Just remember that if you swore them off for New Year’s you might struggle with some serious caffeine and maybe sugar withdrawal for 24-48 hours, but then you’re golden.
Just in case all of that wasn’t enough, in addition, in order to qualify as being a true obsession, the following would also have to apply:
(2)The individual attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a compulsion).
Yeah, you’re probably not feeling compelled to count, wash, blink, say a prayer, or do some other obligatory thing in the service of making those DANGEROUS LATTE thoughts go away. Unless you are? In that case, please schedule an appointment with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and/or a good psychiatrist ASAP and skip the rest of this article.
Finally, if those aren’t enough to convince you that you aren’t obsessed, try looking at it from another angle:
If the gold standard psychotherapy treatment for OCD is what is called Exposure and Response Prevention (and it is), that would mean if you accidentally treated your love for lattes as an obsession instead of an addiction, the “treatment" (EX/RP) would be straight out of coffee lover heaven…You would get to drink and drink and think about lattes as much as possible. Sound like the treatment for you? Then you probably don’t have obsessions about lattes.
Not to get on a soapbox, but the clinician in me gets the shivers sometimes thinking about all of the misdiagnosing that goes on, yes, even by professionals. That could seriously screw up someone’s life. Once I heard about Children’s Services being called on a poor woman who had intrusive thoughts that she was going to hurt her kid. Educated professionals would know that, because the thoughts were super upsetting, unwanted, and she wasn’t psychotic, she had OCD and thus, there was NO WAY she was going to actually hurt her kid. She really just needed EX/RP, not her kid taken away! Sad. See what I mean?
Anyway, to recap: If you are slightly irritated or find yourself repeatedly having distracting “I can’t wait” type thoughts about a podcast or coffee, do us all a favor and consider changing out the word obsession to something more fitting to your actual experience…like “stoked” (maybe?).
If after reading all of this you can see that in fact, you do NOT have obsessions BUT you are absolutely convinced that you do, stay tuned. You may be (insert CLIFF HANGER for February Buzzword) *drumroll* ….delusional.
***Just an extra FYI asterisk clarification: Duration, intensity of symptoms of obsessions, coping mechanisms, context of problem area all need to be factored in when diagnosing… So please be sure to take this post as exactly what it is. An exposé on bullshit vocabulary.