Passion or Obsession: Find Out



“Love is passion. Obsession. Someone you can’t live without. Someone you fall head over heels for. Find Brooke-1-jan-joe-blacksomeone you can love like crazy, and will love you the same way back. Listen to your heart. No sense in life without this. To make the journey without falling deeply in love, you haven’t lived a life at all. You have to try, because if you haven’t tried, then you haven’t lived.”


From the 1998 fantasy-romance Hollywood movie: Meet Joe Black



To be cherished, head over heels crazy in love with someone and have it returned in the same manner – who wouldn’t want that – right?


What is this energy called passion that Hollywood glamorizes, psychologists study, and we (the people) are in the middle – not sure what to believe – but we know it sure does feel good when we feel passionate about someone or something – we feel uplifted, high, energetic, feel like we can “climb a mountain” or “swim the seven seas.”


“Passion is the energy that can fuel a project, or a task. It has a similar role to inspiration. When we engage in something we are passionate about, we feel free from external constraints and in control. Time recedes into the background, and we feel allowed to engage in flow. Research has shown that flow correlates directly with passion” (1), cites cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. The activity could be work, hobby or relationship.


Passion. Got to love it!


Yes and no.


Since passion is an energy, it can wax and wane according to our emotional well-being. And the energy can be clear and balanced or become distorted. There are different flavors of passion, some being more conducive to a balanced life style and others not. The energy of passion leads to involvement, obsession is quite another and I feel obsession is not the healthiest path to choose.


Robert J. Vallerand’s and his team  deduced that there are two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive  which he calls the Dualistic Model of Passion. Results from four studies involving more than 900 participants from different populations supported the proposed conceptualization.


“Harmonious passion (HP) is more balanced and refers to an autonomous internalization that leads individuals to choose to engage in the activity that they like.


Obsessive passion (OP) is more distorted and refers to a controlled internalization of an activity in one’s identity that creates an internal pressure to engage in the activity that the person likes. HP promotes healthy adaptation whereas OP thwarts it by causing negative affect and rigid persistence.” (2)


The difference between the two seems to be a matter of free will and presence of joy while engaging in the activity. With Harmonious Passion, “… individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any contingencies attached to it. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.” This passion energy is more balanced and lends itself to a more self loving path.


With Obsessive passion (OP) – “ although individuals like the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it because of these internal contingencies that come to control them. They cannot help but to engage in the passionate activity. The passion must run its course as it controls the person. Because activity engagement is out of the person’s control, it eventually takes disproportionate space in the person’s identity and causes conflict with other activities in the person’ s life.”(3) This type of passion energy is more chaotic and is more of a self destructive path.


Is harmonious passion better than obsessive passion? Is a balanced life more correct to lead than one of chaos?


Judith Simmer-Brown expresses her thoughts on passion and obsession through yoga, “When purified of self-centeredness, passion is expressed as devotion to others, as caring skillfully and utterly about their welfare. It is also expressed as zest in living and appreciation of the unique beauty of each moment. Experiences of realization naturally carry with them the burning heart of joy and compassion, otherwise they are not genuine realization experiences.


However, this is also a dangerous path, for if passion seeks to serve the ego, the explosive result creates havoc for both partners and for others.” (4)


Passion purified of self centeredness would be a more balanced, spontaneous passion based in reality. This type of passion feeds the spirit, replenishes energy and is a pleasure to live with and be with. This energy feels expansive.


Passion that serves the ego is self centered, not entirely reality based, contractive, and is a roller coaster to be host to and to live with. And as Judith Simmer-Brown states, the self centered path of passion can be dangerous. This is the path that can lead to “aholics” or addiction.




Belgian writer and editor Paul Carvel seems to think, “Passion is a positive obsession. Obsession is a negative passion”.


I say one path is not better than the other. They are simply choices made and paths followed. Perhaps we could say the harmonious passion path is more self-loving and balanced whereas the obsessive passion path is more self-destructive and chaotic. However, the choice is ours.


Vincent Van Gogh struggled his whole life with his passion energies. “I want to make drawings that touch (some) people. . . . I want to reach so far that people will say of my work: he feels deeply, he feels tenderly — notwithstanding my so-called roughness, perhaps even because of this.”

brooke 2 jan Van gogh


Perhaps the roughness he was alluding to was his obsessive passion, with which he created extraordinary works of art. However, he led a life of chaos. He rarely had his life in balance. He goes on to say, “… whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, . . . one must never let the fire go out in one’s soul, but keep it burning.”


The fire, I believe, is passion.


Van Gogh continues, “I am a man of passions, capable of and subject to doing more or less foolish things, of which I happen to repent, more or less, afterwards. . . . Must I consider myself a dangerous man, incapable of anything? I do not think so. But the question is to try by all possible means to put those selfsame passions to good use.” (5)


In Buddhism, happiness can not be without suffering, they “inter-are.” Happiness is actually made from suffering. How interesting that the word passion comes from the Greek word –  paskho_-  which means to suffer.  I believe that we cannot feel or know harmonious passion without feeling or knowing obsessive passion.


I have this thought that passion begins at Source. It bifurcates into the two paths – harmonious and obsessive. The harmonious path continues toward artistry and genius. The obsessive path continues toward addiction. Yet it does reach genius also. How many great artists, actors, writers, thinkers, you name it have been geniuses and also obsessive or addicts? Many!


brooke 3 jan DNA double helix1


Both paths lead to genius. What is genius? Could it be that genius is the ultimate merging with our divine nature, with God, with Oneness, where upon we unfold the supreme understanding of ourselves, our nature, and of Grace?


 And we do so along a chosen path that takes twists and turns along the way, which I believe is natural.  In fact, I think that the entwined kundalini energy, Ida and Pingala, which snakes up our spines when awakened, is passion, one side being harmonious and the other obsessive. I will go as far to posit that the energy signature of the double stranded helix of our DNA is one in the same - passion, the divine energy which courses through all beings, one strand harmonious and the other, obsessive.



So, if it is natural that we contain within us both harmonious and obsessive passion energy, how do we walk our paths being more harmonious rather than obsessive? Further, how do we be in relationship with another who might be different than ourselves?


I was in relationship with someone who chose to engage in an activity which he had a harmonious passion for. However, that passion soon turned into obsession. He felt compelled to do it, and the joy for it as well as overall inner peace seemed to diminish the more he delved into the activity.


It was challenging many times to be with my partner as his universe orbited around the activity. There was little room for us in his life. His obsession was well on its’ way to addiction. It was hard for him to disengage. He and I were on the same journey, toward self realization, however, we had chosen different paths. Ultimately it proved too difficult for us to be together and we went our separate ways.


Scott Barry Kaufman describes his self-test for obsessive passion with these questions, “Do you feel capable of disengaging when you want to? This ability is associated with self-esteem, and correlates with harmonious passion. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, correlates with negative self-esteem. You may have obsessive passion if you have a constant interior monologue of thoughts of “I must do this. I have to do this, because my whole self is dependent on this one task.” 6. This suggests an unstable ego.”


But I ask myself now – were our chosen paths really that different? Could they have been the flip sides of the same coin? Mine being the more harmonious path of passion and his being the path of obsessive passion.  Could they have been the balance of yin and yang? Could one not be without the other?


I did not have answers then and I don’t have any of these answers now. I can only call upon the spiritual teachings that we are all divine, all perfect and one way is no better than another. I think it simply comes down to what resonates and works for someone and what doesn’t, with no judgment or shame. It ultimately didn’t work for me. I needed something more than he was able to give due to his obsession which took much of his time.


No one was right or wrong, just different needs. “It seems to me that these experiences (which are always fleeting, though the commitments and consequences that flow from them can last a lifetime) are flashes of enlightenment, or, more exactly, of what is called in Buddhism bodhicitta, the oceanic impulse toward enlightenment not only for ourselves but for all beings.”7


Scott Barry Kaufman  writes: “Passion is one of our most important vehicles for performance, creativity, imagination, and ingenuity. By no means do I want to discourage passion. But we rarely realize how other important areas of life feed into our main passion. When one’s life isn’t in balance, passion can become obsessive and counterproductive. When a person feels good about their self and the work they are doing, and is capable of disengaging, passion becomes a wellspring of long-term success.” (8)


Passion is none other than the divine energy that runs through all things. We ride this wave of divine energy whether it be obsessive or harmonious; and ultimately it will land us on the shore of grace, divinity, enlightenment and perhaps, genius. Thus in the beginning, passion seems to be dualistic with its’ paths differentiating into harmony and obsession. However, in the end, oneness is reached with non-separation and non-duality into genius.


As Georg Wilhelm Hegel said, “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”



© Brooke Becker, 2013



1. Scott Barry Kaufman, “The Paradox of Passion”, The Design Mind.

2. Robert Vallerand, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, vol 85, no..4

3. Robert Vallerand, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, vol 85, no.4

4. Judith Simmer-Brown, Shamballa Sun, July 1999

5. Vincent Van Gogh, article written by Jan Johnson, “Van Gogh’s War with Passion:When a journalist Learns from an Impressionist”, Inklings, Winter, 1995

6. Scott Barry Kaufman,”The Paradox of Passion”, Design MInd.

7.  Norman Fischer ,“Falling in Love”,   Shamballa Sun 1999

8. Scott Barry Kaufman,  HBR Blog Network, Sept 21, 2011.


Image references:

Meet Joe Black:

Van Gogh:

Double Helix Image:

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