Obsession- an unwanted thought viewed as meaningful, important, and dangerous


Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A. (Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India


An obsession is the inability of a person to stop thinking about a particular topic or feeling a certain emotion without a high amount of anxiety. It is the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.

There is a lot of confusion about what the  obsessions includes, actually it include thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over again and feel out of the person’s control.The person does not want to have these ideas, he or she finds them disturbing as they come with uncomfortable feelings, such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is “just right.”

Obsessions is a persistent idea or impulse that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety and mental illness. Morton Prince has discussed the obsessions in a very instructive manner.  He distinguishes the following four types:

(A)Those cases in which the patient manifests some more or less obscure sign of emotional disturbance (such as tremor or sweating or vasomotor changes) without, however, experiencing any recognizable emotion. He regards true hysterical laughter and weeping as belonging in this class.  “These phenomena are well known to be purely automatic; that is to say, they are emotional manifestations unaccompanied in consciousness by thoughts or even emotions corresponding to them.”  Prince adduces very strong evidence in support of the view that, in such cases, the bodily changes express an emotional train of thinking or recollection that goes on concurrently or co-consciously with the conscious activity of the subject.  It is significant that he finds the clearest instances of this type of obsession without expression in consciousness in well-marked cases of divided personality; and the evidence of the co-conscious thinking and emotion expressed by the bodily changes is found by getting in touch, generally by the aid of hypnosis, with the submerged or dissociated phase of the personality and obtaining from it a retrospective account of its experience at the moment of the bodily signs.

(B)The second class of obsessions are those in which the patient not only displays bodily signs of emotion but also experiences the emotion, but without any awareness of the object or situation that occasions the emotion, that is to say, without consciously perceiving or otherwise thinking of any such object or situation. Cases in which the obsessing fear recurs again and again he regards as constituting the class properly designated as “anxiety neurosis. ”Prince interprets these cases in the same way as those of class A; that is to say, he shows good reason to think that, in them also, the bodily signs and the experience of emotion are accompanied by co-conscious thinking of the emotional object or situation.  And here again he finds the evidence for this interpretation in case of deeply divided, dissociated, or disintegrated personality.  I would suggest that the difference between cases of type A and those of type B is a matter of the level of the dissociative barrier.  In the common cases of hysterical disabilities, the dissociative barrier would seem to lie wholly in the cerebral cortex, and at a comparatively high level in the cortex; in the obsessions of type B, we may assume that it lies at a deeper level in the cortex, or at the level of the connections between cortex and thalamus; this would fit with the fact that in these cases the emotional experience of the dissociated system is shared by the dominant phase of the personality.  In the cases of type A we must suppose, I suggest, that the dissociative barrier runs still deeper and passing through the thalamic level, isolates on or more of the affective nuclei from the rest.  The activities of such a nucleus then obtain bodily expression without the waking personality experiencing the corresponding emotion.

(C) Prince’s third class of obsessions are the true phobias and other similar emotional disorders.  Say “ other emotional disorders “ because other affects than fear are capable of playing a similar disordered role. This is especially true of sex and of disgust.  The disorders to be discussed in the following chapter under the head of “fetichism” seem to be essentially similar to the phobias, the sex-affect taking the place and role of the fear due to incidents that cannot be recollected, are by no means rare.  In pure cases of this type, I suggest, there is no dissociation, but only continued repression of the memory of the particular circumstances to which the particular object or situation owes its affective tone or emotion-exciting power.

Prince has studied in great detail a case of this type which, although he classes it with the phobias, would seem to have been rather one of strong aversion rooted in painful complex emotions of grief and despair rather than in the fear instinct.  Prince writes that his patient “dreaded and tried in consequence to avoid the sight of “ any bell-tower.  “When she passed by such a tower she was very strongly affected emotionally, experiencing always a feeling of terror or anguish accompanied by the usual marked physical symptoms.  Sometimes even speaking of a tower would at once awaken this emotional complex…  Before the mystery was unraveled she was unable to give any explanation of the origin or meaning of this phobia, and could not connect it with any episode in her life, or even state how far back in her life it had existed.”

Exploration revealed (through the aid of automatic writing in hypnosis) that the condition took its origin in an incident that had occurred twenty-five years ago, when the patient was a girl of fifteen.  At that time she waited in a room adjoining a tower (whose bells chimed the quarter-hours) while her mother underwent an operation that proved fatal.  The anguish natural to that occasion was the emotion which later, throughout some twenty-five years, was liable to recur at the sound or thought of bells in a tower.

The patient’s susceptibility to this painful affect naturally rendered here consciously averse from all such towers, although she was not aware of the connection of this susceptibility with the originating incident.  We are not told whether she was completely amnesic for this incident up to the time at which exploration revealed its significance.  But Dr. Prince’s account reveals evidence of a continuing active repression, and therefore justifies the view that, in this case as in the typical phobia, we have to do with a  repressed and active complex, rather than with a completely dissociated system.  We are told of “a determination to put out of mind an unbearable episode associated with so much anguish.  There had been for years a more or less constant mental conflict with her phobia.  The subject had striven not to think of or look at belfries, a churches, schoolhouses, or any towers, or to hear the ringing of their bells, or to talk about them.  She had endeavored to protect herself by keeping such ideas out of her mind.

Now, we have seen reason to believe that, though fear or other violent affects may produce dissociation, they do not in themselves lead to repression, no matter how painful the emotional experience may have been.  We have learned to look for the repressing force in the sentiment of self-regard (or, as the Freudians say, in the Ego-complex) and this case conforms beautifully to the rule.  Dr. Prince was able to show that a principal role in the genesis of the condition had been played by self-reproach, occasioned by the patient’s belief (itself generated by a long history of somewhat perverted religious and moral training and a succession of circumstances) that she was responsible for her mother’s death.  It was this sense of guilt, never coolly faced and critically examined, which induced the continued repression.  And the cure consisted in leading the patient to undertake such cool and critical examination and thus to cease the repression which represented, not a regression, but a continuing childish attitude.

The same patient presented a second obsessive emotion of the type of the true phobia.  Prince writes of it as a phobia, but makes it clear that the affect concerned was not fear, but rather “an intense feeling of unhappiness and loneliness” which she was liable to upon hearing the sound of running water.  The origin of this susceptibility also was unknown to the patient.  It also was revealed in hypnosis, when she recovered the memory of an incident of her eighth year.  She had gone into the woods with a party of children.  She was left standing beside a noisy brook with a single companion, a boy, who presently ran off to join the others, leaving her alone.  “I thought that was the way it would always be in life: that I was ugly, and that they would never stay with me.  I felt lonely and unhappy.  During that summer I would not join parties of the same kind, fearing or feeling that the same thing would happen.”  Here again, then in respect of another affect, we have repression of the memory of the specific incident occasioning the affect, and susceptibility to the recurrence of the affect upon the recurrence of the dominant sense-impression of the moment, without revival of the repressed memory.  And here also the repressing force is self-reproach coming from the sentiment of self-regard; not, in this case, owing to belief in guilt, but rather to a belief in inferiority of another kind, namely, ugliness.

(D)Prince’s fourth class of obsessive emotion is distinguished by the fact that, during the attach of morbid emotion, the patient is aware of the nature of the fear-inspiring possibility, namely that she may become insane. Prince traces this fear to a number of unfortunate family circumstances which in his view had rendered the patient liable to fear on thinking of herself, because she had learned to think of herself as one destined to become insane, or as Prince puts it, “fear was incorporated with the self-regarding sentiment.”

Obsession Management

It is normal to have unwanted or unpleasant thoughts sometimes; everyone has them.  While some people are very bothered by these thoughts, others are not. Being bothered  depends on the meaning or interpretation that is given to the thought. People with  obsession  tend to view an unwanted thought as meaningful, important, and dangerous,  whereas people without  obsession  tend not to interpret their unwanted thoughts in these  unhelpful ways.

An important strategy for managing  obsession  is to challenge the unhelpful interpretations of the obsession and replace them with more helpful ones.

This strategy will  helps you to be more realistic about the likelihood of your worst fear actually happening.

Know what you are thinking-In order to challenge some of the unhelpful interpretations, it is helpful to first know what they are. The best way to do this is to start tracking two things: (1) your obsessions, and (2) the meanings or interpretations you have given to those obsessions.

Once you know what your obsessions are, and how you are interpreting them, you can  start to manage them.for it  know the facts.It is normal to have unpleasant or unwanted thoughts. Just because you have a  particular thought doesn’t make it true or make you a bad person. These thoughts are  annoying but harmless.

Adults with  obsession, like those with other anxiety disorders, tend to fall into thinking traps, which are unhelpful and negative ways of looking at things. Use the Thinking Traps Form to help you identify the traps into which you might have fallen, and use the Challenging Negative Thinking handout to help you with more realistic thinking

Finally challenge unhelpful interpretations of obsessions. Here are some questions to help you to come up with a more helpful and balanced way of looking at your obsessions:

o What is the evidence for and against a particular interpretation?  Is my judgment based on the way I feel instead of facts?

o Have I confused a thought with a fact?  Am I using black-and-white thinking. Am I confusing certainties with possibilities?

o Is there a more rational way of looking at this situation? Are my interpretations of the situation accurate or realistic?










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