In the project of becoming a healthier compulsive, I’m down for an all-of-the-above approach. Psychotherapy? Go for it. Meditation? Immerse yourself. Journaling? Write your heart out.
Another element of change, though far more elusive, is inspiration; the intangible experience that gives you the strength to persevere with existing challenges, or to get out of your comfort zone and reach for bigger ones. This could mean letting go of perfection and moving ahead with that project you’ve been procrastinating on, trying not to control things by haranguing others with the right way to do things, or shifting your mind from its safe, persistent emphasis on what’s wrong to something a little more appreciative of what the Universe has set before you.
Inspiration is an important issue for people with obsessive compulsive personality because it’s the very thing we need, and the very thing we don’t allow ourselves. We become set in our ways, and we build up resistance to experiences that might move us and motivate us to change.
Some of you may be thinking, “Right, this is the soft stuff that sounds nice but doesn’t really work.” It may feel like it isn’t disciplined, stringent, or difficult enough to be effective. But I’m going to urge you to consider that that very attitude may be part of what holds you down.
I get it. There are reasons that inspiration doesn’t fit neatly into the routine strategy of people with obsessive-compulsive personalities. I’ll get to those. And since I know that this kind of thing may be a reach for some of you, I’ll try to connect the dots practically, between our common struggles and how inspiration can help us rise above them. I’ll also share two stories about when I was, and was not, open to inspiration.
The Seed, The Freeze, and the Sunlight
The irony is that at the root of the compulsive personality there is a compelling urge, an inspiration to greater things, that gets hijacked for survival.
Think of it this way: it’s as if you have a seed of potential inside of you, and the sunlight hasn’t been able to reach it so that it can germinate. The ground around that seed is frozen with rules and rigid ideas about how things are supposed to be. Inspiration can melt the frozen ground and shine light on the seed. Inspiration opens you up emotionally so that your potential can come to fruition.
Now, does that metaphor inspire you, or does it make you roll your eyes? I’m not a great poet, and this might not be the best metaphor ever. But if it doesn’t work for you, I offer it as an opportunity to investigate whether and how you block inspiration, and what’s happened to that compelling seed deep within.
What is Inspiration?
What do I mean by inspiration? Inspiration occurs when we allow something outside of ourselves to influence us enough to carry on with a challenge, or to carry out something new and courageous. It’s a two-part process: we’re both inspired by and inspired to.
Here are some examples: We could be inspired by
Other humans: Michael Jordan for his jumps or Mawmaw Jean for her generosity
Music: Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger; What Doesn’t Kill You, or Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony
Film: Schindler’s List or The Pursuit of Happiness
Nature: a germinating seed or a giant sequoia
These all inspire us to live out a quality of the person or thing we are inspired by, however humbly we might accomplish that. It might be a concrete inspiration, like, “I want to cook like Julia Child.” Or it could be much more abstract:
Inspired by Jordan or Mawmaw to rise above limitations, stubbornness or selfishness
Inspired by Stronger or the Eroica to heroically handle challenges without resentment
Inspired by Schindler or Will Smith to become less frugal and more daring
Inspired by the germinating seed we commit to a new approach to life. The giant sequoia gives us the confidence to stand our ground emphatically, majestically, and say “No.”
Why Inspiration Is So Elusive for Compulsives; The Frozen Parts
People with obsessive-compulsive personality have characteristics and tendencies which can become frozen and block inspiration. Here are a few of them:
Righteousness that Misses the Point. OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) is a disorder of priorities. People at this unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum have lost track of what’s most important in life. Rules and perfection become more important than the people they supposedly serve. They go to see Les Miserables and focus on the prop snafus, missing the whole point about forgiving people who’ve made mistakes. No inspiration happening there! Unless they’re inspired by Inspector Javert, patron saint of unhealthy compulsives, who combs the streets of Paris hunting for Jean Valjean so that he can send him back to jail, ignoring all the good Valjean accomplished after spending 18 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.
Over-Emphasis on Efficiency. Inspiration may not seem like it will be efficient, so we’re unlikely to invest the time that allows it to happen. Rather than read a novel that might loosen us up or a biography that pumps us up, we’ll research “most effective food processor” long after we know what we need to know to make a reasonable decision about which one to buy. So much for efficiency.
Control. In order to be inspired, we need to be willing to allow ourselves to be at least moved, if not awed, by things we have no control over. This is why we have a tough time delegating. Forget going camping. Too many unknowns. Might not be good. Besides, there are cupboards to organize that are far more obedient.
Immediate and Concrete vs. Valuable and Intangible. The default for most compulsives is to focus on the tangibles, the concrete necessities of life that seem to require our immediate attention, rather than the things that are essential for fulfillment. We do it with the assumption that someday all will be well and then we’ll go to concerts, go camping, and read that book of poetry we’ve been carrying around for decades but just can’t seem to find time for.
Perfectionism and High Standards. Our standards may be so high that the sunlight can’t surmount our high bar for wonder. I often hear other people speak of how amazing this is or that is. Rarely am I as amazed as they are. But sometimes I wish I were.
Why Inspiration Is So Important for Compulsives; Melting Rigidity
These characteristics all have positive potential but have been frozen into rigid states. The feelings that inspiration supplies are often needed to melt these capacities so they can be used in a more fluid and satisfying way. Reason alone is rarely enough to change us.
Openness and Remembering the Point. Inspiration can bring us back to the “What For” that’s so important; it highlights what’s most meaningful and fulfilling to us. Artists recall their motivation when they take the time to go to a museum and really savor the work of artists they admire, rather than slogging away at a painting where they’ve gotten stuck because they’re afraid it won’t sell.
Redefining Efficiency. If you imagine that rigorous efficiency is the most direct route to happiness or fulfillment, you might want to check that out on Google Maps. Emotional experiences can be far more effective in getting us where we want to go. Listening to an interview with your favorite athlete might seem time-consuming, but it will probably give you more momentum than that quick-fix energy bar.
Letting Go of Control. Compulsives assume that anything out of their control will be end up leading them to the land of disordered dishwashers, bungled business projects, and gross moral instability. Inspiration is out of our control yet beneficial. You might not have intended to cry at that movie, but it sure did make you more receptive to your partner afterward.
Valuing the Intangibles. Inspiration helps us to transcend the mundane; to rise above rulebound states to new possibilities. Compulsives tend to cling to what they have, including their time, money, ideas and old copies of The Atlantic magazine they’ll never take the time to read. For some of you, transcendence may have a spiritual connotation. For others, it may just mean being moved enough to try something out of your comfort zone. Inspiration says, “You can have better.”
Transcending High Standards. Inspiration also helps us to melt the unrealistic standards we’ve frozen into place and to live more flexibly. The inspiring entity doesn’t have to come straight off the racks of Louis Vuitton. A good joke, nothing profound, may inspire me to take myself less seriously. And that’s serious progress.
With a compulsive mindset it might be hard to believe that this shift to valuing inspiration is really essential. And maybe it isn’t. People get by without inspiration all the time. Yes, that’s right—they get by. As in passing by, with the implication of missing the entire experience. That little phrase “get by” is spoken like a true compulsive—all function and no form. All practical preparation and no savoring of beauty. All getting by and no getting why.
Carl Jung: The Inspiration of Numinosity
Carl Jung believed that the experience of the numinous was an essential aspect of psychological healing. By numinous he meant an experience of power, awe, and reverence that leads us to surrender to something greater than our personal ego. By ego I mean the executive function, not the ego of conceit. But the problem is that the executive ego has become a conceited ego.
Without a sense of something greater that it can trust, the ego feels the need to resort to the sort of out-of-control control so typical of the obsessive-compulsive personality. Modern people, Jung believed, developed psychological problems because they no longer had room for the numinous in their lives. But this need for the numinous has not disappeared, it has only gone unconscious, stuck in obsessions and compulsions–very poor substitutes for the more enriching experiences that nature, spirituality and art offer us.
Jung was onto compulsives. He saw that their pride in their ability to maintain control made them reluctant to allow themselves the healing benefits of numinous experiences, and that this pride is “often only a reaction covering up a secret fear.” (CW 11, Par 275)
The Inspiration of Small Things
As much as I love these numinous experiences when they happen (and they don’t happen often for me), I am in danger of setting myself up for disappointment and blocking more modest inspirations if I need to have my socks knocked off to be inspired.
Inspirations come in small packages as well. If we’re open.
I remember being alone on a beautiful beach at night, waiting expectantly to be visited by one of these numinous events, hoping for a peak experience that I could carry with me once I left the beach and went back to reality. But, like Godot, it never arrived. Perhaps that was because I already had in mind some more “perfect” mind-blowing experience.
Instead, if I had been open to the feel of the soft, squishy sand beneath my feet and the warm, caressing breeze on my face, I might have come away with something more moving. I’ve been learning to welcome the inspiration of small things, especially when the more overwhelming and dramatic encounter with the Numinous is not on tap.
I realize that I’ve cited lots of figures that are inspiring because of their high-minded achievements, when what many people who are obsessive-compulsive need are heroes and heroines who inspire us with their acceptance, simpler ambitions, and capacity to let go. For this, fellow go-getters, I offer you Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”
Inviting Inspiration: Time and Receptivity
You can’t manufacture or control inspiration. But you can make time and space for the possibility. To-do-lists, spreadsheets, and long hours at the office rarely invite inspiration. Time in nature, time consuming art, and time away from obsessing and compulsing do.
But it’s not just time, it’s receptivity as well. As psychologist and inspiration researcher Todd Thrash at William and Mary College points out, the degree to which we have “Openness to Experience” (yes, that’s a thing), we are more likely to experience inspiration. Sometimes we’re lucky and inspiration manages to smash its way through our defenses. But rather than waiting for luck, we do better to recognize how our frozen tendencies may keep the good things out as well as the bad things, and set intentions to take more chances and let more in. This is no short-term project, but it’s a potent start to get some sunlight on that seed.
Rocky Dennis and the Decisive Mardi Gras Dance Party of 1992
In February, 1992 I watched the movie Mask—the one about Rocky Dennis, the disfigured teenager with Cher as a mother. (Not the one starring Jim Carey.) The film is based on a true story about a boy who had a genetic condition which led to a misshapen head and an early death. But he was quick, witty and courageous. Despite his condition he was loved by his peers.
I was inspired by how Rocky overcame prejudice and brought people together. I was inspired to make the most of my life, to celebrate it, however short or long it was going to be. I was inspired to throw a fairly large Mardi Gras dance party at my modest Brooklyn apartment.
I had my fears. I’m introverted, after all, and my comfort zone is alone practicing the trumpet, reading and writing. What if no one comes? What if the gumbo sucks? What if I get called to play That-Breakthrough-Gig-That-Changes-Everything that night and I either have to cancel the party or turn down that mythically life-changing concert?
I let Rocky move me anyway. He helped me get over my fears enough to call and invite anyone that was close to being a friend, and a good time was had by all.
A friend brought my future wife to that party. That was life-changing. I hate to imagine what would have happened if I had not welcomed Rocky’s inspiration.