In my last post I harped about the importance of people with obsessive-compulsive personality consciously choosing their priorities. Today I’ll harp about one aspect of life that you may need to put near the top of that priority list: mastery, the experience of succeeding at rewarding challenges.
Well, that’s dorky.
You were hoping I’d say a steamy sex life?
Maybe in another post, but for now I want to call your attention to a part of you that you might not think about a lot. But I’ll bet that it still has it’s grip on you–for better or worse.
Overcoming challenges, solving problems, completing projects and otherwise bringing order to chaos are compelling needs for compulsives. I’ll go so far as to call it an instinct, and one that you’ve gotten more than your fair share of.
When this instinct is not consciously integrated, its energy flows into the kind of unhealthy, controlling behavior that gives the term “compulsion” its nasty reputation.
But when mastery is consciously integrated as an important part of your life, it’s very fulfilling.
I just referred to mastery as an instinct. I’m not sure that’s technically correct, but I have seen many people who have a primal need to engage in it. Especially compulsives. This need to fix, perfect and complete is one reason we get adamant, controlling and insistent to the point of harming ourselves and pushing others away.
Yet its role is not always respected in the clinical world. I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, to help you understand what I mean by mastery motivation, I’ll describe it from a few different angles.
Psychological Research: Mastery Motivation
Psychologists refer to this underlying urge as mastery motivation. According to childhood researcher George A. Morgan, mastery motivation is “a psychological force that stimulates an individual to attempt independently, in a focused and persistent manner, to solve a problem or master a skill or task which is at least moderately challenging for him or her.”
I suspect that most of you have experienced this at some point in your life. Like when you put together two sections of a jigsaw puzzle, and you get that ahh feeling. But much deeper.
Some people have more of this motivation than others. How much mastery motivation we have is determined both genetically and environmentally. Genetics factors accounted for 40% of the motivation to learn in one large study with twins. Another study concluded that when parents work with young children to develop persistence despite failure, their mastery motivation increases.
There are additional factors such not having had any control, or having been humiliated, as a child. These factors can lead to overcompensations, trying to overcome in the present what had happened in the past by enlisting the natural desire for mastery.
So both nature and nurture contribute.
The Archetypes of the Hero and Heroine
Another way that mastery motivation manifests is in the archetypes of the hero and heroine. Heroes and heroines feel compelled to go out and slay dragons and whatnot in order to realize their capabilities and identity. Challenges are like catnip to them, an inexorable attraction that fuels them more effectively than a whole case of Red Bull. Their stories inspire us to take on challenges, and to make mastery a priority in our lives.
Remember how you felt when you watched The Pursuit of Happiness, Rocky, Wild, or Hidden Figures?
But, as I pointed out in a previous post, we can be heroically compulsive, using our energies wisely, or compulsively heroic–driven to prove ourselves, rather than driving consciously toward that which has the most meaning for us.
Carl Jung and the Urge to Individuate
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung brought our attention to the urge to individuate, to cultivate as much of our unique personality as possible, and to bring some order to our chaotic psyche. This too is motivated by mastery.
I’d say that the urge to master ourselves, rather than the external world, is the ultimate motivation.
The now ubiquitous phrase, “Be your best self,” capitalizes on this urge, though it’s so overused it’s become superficial.
Individuation moves us to recognize and honor the many different parts of ourselves, and to get them working in harmony. It’s a challenge because it requires that we resolve conflicts within ourselves, and because we often have to push against social disapproval to “grow” there. A puzzle of existential proportions.
Inspired by a lecture that Jung gave in Switzerland, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi went on to become one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, and to research the conditions for happiness. Surprisingly, he did not conclude that eating ice cream while binging Simpsons episodes from the comfort of a Lazy Boy massage chair was the answer.
Happiness is not so easily achieved.
Rather he concluded that “flow,” the experience of being challenged at the right level for optimal satisfaction, is an essential element in achieving happiness.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990). You’re very aware of your goal, and there’s a balance of challenge and capacity.
But the thing is, Csikszentmihalyi did not interview Bart Simpson for his research. He interviewed athletes, musicians, and artists. You know. People who are compulsive about what they do. So, perhaps he had a skewed sample. Not everyone seeks out flow.
I think that Csikszentmihalyi confused things by saying that flow is essential for happiness. I suspect that what he was describing is more essential to fulfillment than what most people think of as happiness. The process of achieving mastery doesn’t always make you “happy” in that “Yipee!” sense.
In all fairness, he was describing those moments when we’re in the Zone. But as anyone who’s ever gotten to the Zone knows, it wasn’t all fun and games that got them there. It was a determination to master challenges.
Sigmund Freud Versus The Clinical Undervaluing of Work
Unfortunately, the essential role that mastery plays in the psychology of people with obsessive-compulsive personality isn’t always honored. These days psychotherapists prioritize the value of relationships above all.
There is no doubt that good relationships are essential to well-being. And often in my work I need to help people give proper priority to their relationships.
But for many, relationships are necessary but not sufficient.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis who helped us to understand the role of unconscious motivation, said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. That work part is downplayed now, and that can make therapeutic work less effective for compulsives.
We don’t need to interpret “work” as just career or whatever you do to make your rent. Lots of different challenges can satisfy it. Writing and producing a new play. Organizing the basement so you can finally find that Hello Kitty toaster you almost threw out years ago. Or learning how to quit being defensive when people tease you about your need for order. It’s all very gratifying. In fact, I’d say these can be some of the most fulfilling things we do.
Mastery Gone Awry
Despite all the potential benefits of mastery motivation, it can go awry. If it isn’t recognized and channeled into appropriate projects, the energy may instead flow into unhealthy perfectionism, criticism of self and others, and repetitive compulsive behavior that’s looking madly for its purpose but can’t find it.
This need for mastery is certainly one of the sources of behavioral addictions, addictions to things such as gambling, video games, and sexual addictions (especially the conquering variety).
Work addictions take hold for various reasons, but one is that the need for a satisfying sense of mastery has not been consciously differentiated and has been hijacked by the need to prove oneself. The value of work itself is either not met by the actual job, or its possible value has been eclipsed.
When mastery motivation isn’t honored as a priority, depression can also ensue. You’ve probably heard of people who retired and felt empty and bereft because they no longer had a project. It seems they hadn’t known how important it was for them.
When particular mastery goals take on too much priority and become compulsive in the worst sense, we need to reach back to see what we had wanted to achieve in the first place. We need to identify the need for mastery and find a healthy, meaningful outlet for it. Then we can rescue the goal that fell to the bottom of the list, when dealing with insecurity muscled its way up the list.
Consciously Prioritizing Challenging Projects
When we consciously prioritize challenging projects, we cultivate them intentionally, and place them alongside other priorities, such as relationships, financial security, and well-being. This might be learning how to play bridge, or how to create a bridge with a difficult sibling. To strike out on your own in business so you can do things your way, or lead your union to go on strike and get better benefits. To weed the garden, or to weed out prejudices.
To do so, we extract the beneficial aspects of challenge and separate them from unnecessary financial goals and unhealthy ego needs. We also stop using them to avoid aspects of our lives that we might not feel comfortable with, such as relationships and leisure.
And we mindfully savor the satisfaction of a project well-completed.
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For a guide to optimizing the obsessive-compulsive personality, read my book: The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality.
“Compulsive behavior that’s looking madly for its purpose but can’t find it”
I’m a 32 year old recovering unhealthy compulsive. I have really struggled to find my purpose despite feeling extremely driven.
When I started grade 1 my mom told me I would learn to read, I was very upset coming home the first day because I couldn’t read yet.
In highschool I obsessed over perfect grades, in order to receive admiration from teachers/family/friends. I also obsessed over being seen as the most supportive and kind friend/daughter/sister/girlfriend, often putting my needs aside, but feeling resentful and anxious while doing so.
My parents filed bankruptcy and divorce when I was 18. After that I never really developed or focused on what brought me joy or satisfaction. I desperately wanted to succeed in life despite this set back. I wanted to master something and be admired for it.
I took time off after highschool and tried my hand at many things at once. I took courses and bought all the gear for photography and baking, did some freelance work but perfectionism and fear of it not being lucrative killed these prospects. I loved fashion and tried blogging but felt inadequate and gave up. I tried to learn Italian and apply to Italian art schools, but financial fear held me back. I did travel for a short while “to find myself” but it was over planned and felt forced. I didn’t realize what I was doing.. trying to control everything was taking the joy out of everything.
I went to business school, aiming for a stable corporate career. I got one, but soon found I despised capitalism and wished I could do something that helped the world or me rather than drive profits for a retailer. My anxiety and depression got worse and worse. I felt this feeling of time running out and desperation.
I dove deep into yoga/mediation and suddenly decided that had to be my passion, taking multiple training courses etc. I was trying to learn more about myself and heal while building a new purpose and it wasn’t working. My go to behaviour now was to obsess over cleaning and redecorating my home to feel satisfaction of a project well completed. But my depression got worse, I was burntout and I still couldn’t understand why.
I’m starting to understand the why now. I have a lot of feelings coming up as I move through this education process and I’m grasping for control. I’m sitting here on my day off trying to muster the energy to go paint in my sketchbook without a compulsive need for perfection and to gain some admirable goal with the expectation of external validation, but I just can’t seem to shake it, which leaves me paralyzed to act despite this rush of driven energy inside.
I’m trying to reset and learn more about my compulsive tendencies. I want to figure out what brings me most fulfillment and redirect my priorities.
Thanks for sharing your challenges, Alyssa. Finding you passion can be really daunting, especially if control and perfectionism infect or hijack that passion. I hope you can reclaim your energy, and that your drive finds its path.