Obsessing occurs when the capacity to focus and solve a problem by thinking runs into an emotional obstacle, a feeling we don’t want to face. The thinking process gets derailed and stuck in recurring loops. Here’s an example of this happening to me and how I handled it.
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It’s four a.m. on the first morning of my winter vacation. I’ve been looking forward to this for ten months. I’m sleeping in the cottage we’ve rented, and just outside my window the roosters go off. Or on. Whatever. Lots of them making lots of racket, and I begin to make my own racket in my own head. I’m obsessing.
Already my vacation is imperfect. I should have known there would be roosters. I wasn’t compulsive enough in my research. Now it’s out of my control. And now I’m failing to be a healthy compulsive. Shame.
Ideally, I’d focus on how lucky I am to be here and welcome the rooster chorus as local color. But that’s not always how my mind works. When I can, I like to fix things. But there’s no way to fix this. That would take getting out of bed and confronting a possibly aggressive animal. My chances of success would be slim, at best. I don’t think roosters speak English. At least not here.
My best hope is to find a different way of thinking about it.
The Battle Between the Roosters, Mr. Smith and My Obsessive Self
Which won’t be a cakewalk, but rather a battle. It’s like a martial arts scene from The Matrix; just when I think I’ve finished off the arch-enemy Mr. Smith by promising myself vehemently that I’m not going to obsess anymore, dozens more Mr. Smiths come charging back at me, obsessively resurrecting and geometrically multiplying.
Why do there have to be roosters outside my window anyway? It’s not fair. They said nothing about this charming alarm in the Air B&B description. Worse, I shouldn’t be obsessing about something so trivial. It’s in bad taste.
But the Mr. Smith-like thoughts keep coming at me, attacking both the roosters and my psychology, all the time maintaining their cool, reasonable, uber-confident demeanor.
By way of contrast, my wife finds the crowing comforting. Reminds her of her pet rooster George. I have no such memories to rescue me.
Yet, I decide to persist. I can’t afford to lose this battle. It’s not just that I don’t want to ruin my vacation obsessing about all the different metaphorical roosters that will pop up when I’m supposed to be restoring myself. It’s a bigger, more existential battle.
The fact that the whole rooster debacle should be trivial is not lost on me. The fact that I don’t experience it as trivial is just what keeps it from being trivial. My reactions to the roosters are just one example of my well-intentioned, but well-off-course obsessing self. This is a battle not just for my peace of mind, but my entire mind, and I decide to devote myself, again, to protecting my territory by any means necessary.
Mindfulness: Listening to the Music of the Roosters
First, I aim mindfulness straight at the roosters. I make their roosterly intrusions an object of my curiosity. Exactly what are those sounds they’re making?
Can you notate the rhythm? Doop Be Doop Be DOO–OO! Dotted eight note, sixteenth note, dotted eight note, another sixteenth, following these percussive shrieks with two lyrical quarter notes. Most of the roosters rest silently after each call, but one of them, himself clearly compulsive, only rests for one beat, and thereby chants in 5/4 time, which doesn’t come as easily to most of us as 4/4 time. I feel a blend of admiration and empathy.
What are the pitches? Very roughly, since I don’t have an instrument here with me to check, I think it’s G-Bb-C-Bb-D-C, with the last two notes connected by a delicious, descending glissando.
Is it the same each squawk? Yes and no. Does each rooster have the same “song”? No, there are differences. One of them doesn’t bother with the first note, as if omitting the word “I” at the beginning of a declarative sentence, which is strange since they speak a lot of French here and the French would never do that. He seems to assume that everyone knows exactly who he is. In any case, he’s got a right to sing his own song.
Noticing and Accepting the Feelings We’d Rather Avoid
Now that I’ve changed my relationship to the rooster from aversion to curiosity, I can pay attention to what feeling I keep running into and trying to avoid by obsessing. Key to dealing with obsessions is to see what feeling we’re trying to think our way out of, and face it down; not to run from feelings that make us uncomfortable, but to get close enough to experience them without drowning in them.
In this case it’s not a big surprise. It’s my dear, dear old friend, anxiety about imperfection and lack of control. (Especially lack of control on vacation, as I’ve described in this previous post). But even though I had some idea that this was the underlying feeling, it didn’t mean I had accepted that I have less control than I’d like to. Mindfully studying the song of the roosters settled me down enough so that I could accept my limitations rather than fight them.
Letting Go: Smile, Release
Then, I had to let go of the roosters and my wish to control them. I’ve practiced this enough times to have memorized what it feels like: “Smile, Release, ” the fourth of five prompts in Thich Nhat Hahn’s suggested meditation routine. For me, releasing is like melting. All the muscles that had been frozen stiff return to a more natural state, discharging their supposedly sacred duty of being on guard against dangerous rooster noise intrusions.
Substitutions: Putting Something Finer in Place of Obsessing
Next I needed to focus on something other than roosters and my failure to be a perfect vacation planner and perfect vacation taker. Ideally this substitution is simple and in the present. Today I use the the faint, warm breeze, the comfortable mattress, and the sound of the ocean waves breaking on the shore.
Giving Meaning to the Little Battles
I give meaning to the rooster “disaster” by placing it in the context of my ongoing and existential war against obsessing. It’s an opportunity to exercise all these skills and take a small step forward. Fighting each battle and achieving a little progress is much more satisfying than letting obsessiveness win. (See my post on the importance of mastery for people with obsessive-compulsive personality.)
One way to improve our mental health is to practice in less dire situations first, cultivating skills and developing resilience to handle the more serious trials that will inevitably confront us.
I decide to take action. Writing out this story solidifies my insight and serves as an example of what I’ve been encouraging readers to do in this blog and in my book; turn the obsessive-compulsive “problem” on its head.
Actually, I would argue that it’s more like putting those tendencies back on their feet where they can do some good, rather than having them flail around disturbingly, upside down. Harness the natural tendency to bring order to chaos, and use it against any disorderliness it might have unwittingly created.
Focused problem solving is not a problem; enlisting it to avoid unwanted feeling is.
If this really is a battle, it’s not the slash and burn variety. As I suggest in my book, it’s more like a campaign to take back the wheel of the obsessive-compulsive personality.
The Diagnosis and Symbolism of Roosters
We could debate whether roosters crow because they’re proud or whether they’re insecure. Apparently they crow to announce their presence to the world in the morning, and thereafter to ward off threats to their food, hens or territory. This could indicate genuine cockiness or a neurotic need for control. In either case, it’s their way of keeping order in their world.
I suspect that like humans, some roosters are more neurotic than others, and just how neurotic they are depends on whether their behavior derives from security or insecurity.
Symbolically their significance runs the gamut from virility to the illumination of new beginnings. If we extract the essence of these symbols we might come up with a new way of seeing power and strength; not the capacity to dominate with control, but the capacity to bring order to chaos in a constructive, meaningful, and fulfilling way.
Post Meridian Postlude
The roosters continue to croon the rest of the day, albeit not with as much frenzy as in the early morning. I’m learning to hear them both as a call to battle and a cue to mindfulness.
After all, there will always be roosters.* * *
If you are more inclined to obsessing than compulsing, you might find this post about the different types of obsessive-compulsive personality interesting: Understanding the Four Types of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality to Achieve Balance.
And if you’re wondering what the difference between obsessing and compulsing is, this post might be helpful: Are You Obsessive, or Compulsive? And What Difference Does it Make?
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