Carla sat across from me in my office, looking miserable. Her dark hair hung limp over her eyes, which were fixed on the floor between us. She looked nothing like the radiant, confident woman I’d seen on camera a few weeks before. She’d sent me her audition reel, because what she wanted, she said, was an acting coach. Now, meeting her in person, I could tell she needed more than acting tips.
“Tell me about yourself,” I said, and after a minute or so, she began to open up.
Carla told me about how she’d gone into acting because she loved performing in her high school musicals. She just lived for that feeling of getting into character, rehearsing with her fellow actors, and stepping out onto the stage. From the first rehearsal until closing night, she was in “flow.”
That’s what she wanted to feel when she moved to New York to pursue acting. But now, five years in, she was depressed, out of work, and starting to lose hope.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “I work so freaking hard. I do everything I’m supposed to – I network, I suck up to casting directors, I find ways to meet producers. I rehearse myself to death. But nothing’s working. It’s been two full years since I’ve been hired. I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. I need help.”
The more we talked, the more I began to understand: Carla had become obsessed with getting the attention of casting directors, of pleasing her teachers, of winning the admiration of other actors. She’d put herself into compromising situations – once even dating a producer in hopes of getting a part. She’d completely stopped focused on her craft and relying on her own talent, and now focused entirely on getting attention and accolades.
Carla had a classic case of obsessive passion.
“Passion can be a gift or a curse,” writes the New York Times. What makes the difference is whether it’s harmonious or obsessive.
In Carla’s case, what had once been a source of joy and energy for her had turned into a curse. Where she once leapt into acting like a kid cannon-balling into a pool, now she set about it with a grim sense of duty, forcing herself through every minute, desperately seeking success that was always juuust out of reach.
Obsessive passion carries with it a whole system of dark beliefs. I’m not good enough. If I were talented or pretty or funny enough, I’d be working more now. I should be further along. It creates a destructive mindset that ultimately brings you down.
Contrast that with harmonious passion.
A person with harmonious passion doesn’t attach their personal worth to the outcome of their actions. They pursue their passion (whether that’s acting, running a business, running a family, writing, studying, whatever) out of love.
They soak in the intrinsic joy that their passion gives them. They don’t hang their self-worth on other people’s approval or awards. They seek internal validation.
They take pleasure not in the awards they might receive from the finished product of what they do, but in the act of doing it.
Their inner beliefs sound something like I am good enough. I am talented. I am enough.
Harmonious passion creates a positive, empowered mindset.
The problem is, what starts off as harmonious passion can turn obsessive. Often, people start out loving what they do, like Carla starring in her school musicals. You find something you love, and you do it for the sheer joy and satisfaction of it.
But over time, it might become obsessive. This happens especially often after an external success. I saw it just the other day in my son Ty, who hit a game-winning homerun at his baseball game. He felt amazing; he walked on sunshine for days after. But then came the next game, and he was terrified. He felt like he had to live up to his past success; now everyone was expecting that from him. His focus shifted from his love of baseball to other people’s expectations and the belief that he had to hit a homerun, or else he wasn’t “good enough.”
We win an award, or we get some external validation, we start to crave more of it – and soon, our passion stops being a source of energy and light to us. It starts to darken our beliefs and damage our well-being. It turns obsessive.
Research has shown that obsessive passion is associated with burnout, anxiety, depression and unethical conduct like cheating, lying, and backstabbing (because it makes you desperate, and desperate people will do anything – even go against their values – to get their needs met). It can also lead to addiction, eating disorders, and depression.
Has this ever happened to you?
Let me be clear that harmonious passion doesn’t mean you never win awards or make money. In fact, it’s the opposite. Obsessive passion, ironically, keeps us from performing at our best, and makes it extremely difficult to get more external validation. I’ve seen this happen with actors a hundred times, including Carla. She’d stopped getting acting work right about the time her passion began to turn obsessive. That’s not a coincidence.
Let’s take a look at how to guard against obsessiveness, and how to keep our passions harmonious.
1. Notice your feelings. Emotions are your guide. Extreme stress, relentless self-criticism, crushing feelings of disappointment and self-beating – those are all signs that your passion may be waxing obsessive. (Of course, some disappointment and stress are normal. Watch for when they linger or escalate instead of pass.) If working on your passion makes you feel terrible, get curious. Are you falling into the pit of obsessive passion?
2. Don’t judge or compare yourself. “Compare and despair,” some wise person once said. Especially with today’s prevalence of social media, it’s far too easy to see others’ successes, and weigh them against our current state of floundering or failure. The problem with that is, social media lies. It doesn’t tell the story of how that person came to achieve that success, and so it reinforces our beliefs that we’re not good enough, that we should be further along by now, etc. Focus on your own journey, not someone else’s.
3. Focus on your core purpose. Why did you get into this activity in the first place? Chances are, it came from a love of the craft, not a need for recognition. Tap back into that original love. See what happens when you dive into your activity to enjoy the process, not to wow everyone with the results. What does that feel like? What would you do differently if your passion were harmonious, if you weren’t obsessed with external validation?
Where in life has this pattern shown up for you?
Are you experiencing obsessive passion right now?
I mentioned up above that obsessive passion will drive people to unethical behavior, among other things, because people will do anything to get their needs met – even go against their values.
That’s a strong claim with a lot of unpack, and it’s closely linked to obsessive versus harmonious passion. Next week, we’ll delve into the six cores needs that drive human behavior, as outlined by the great Tony Robbins. This is a fascinating topic that never fails to induce “a-ha!” moments in my clients, because it shines a light on deep, hidden factors that have been driving our moods and actions for years – without us even knowing about them.
Stay tuned for more on that! Until then, go out, stay harmonious, and shine.
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