When obsessing over others is avoidance

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

person hiding in dark box peeking through hole into light 

“When we find ourselves obsessing over what someone else is doing, it is probably because there is an action we are avoiding taking ourselves.” ~Julia Cameron

I am a pro at obsessing over what other people are doing. In particular, I have an amazing ability to use enormous amounts of energy obsessing over whether or not they should be doing whatever it is they are doing and developing lists of ideas about how they could do it better or what else they should be doing instead of the thing they are doing.

It doesn’t even matter whether I know the person in question. I can obsess over the actions of total strangers: other drivers (are they trying to get themselves killed?), people I encounter in stores (can’t they count the number of items in their cart?), people I read about in the news (what were they thinking?!).

Part of this intense journey of transformation I've been going through the past few years has been realizing that this is not the best use of my time since my obsessions about other people’s behavior don’t actually have any impact on anyone’s life but mine. It sucks up my energy and time, leaving nothing (positive) to show for it.

So I’ve been weaning myself off of this habit for some time now, and I’ve been delightfully surprised at how much more time and energy it leaves me to do the things I enjoy doing. In fact, I have become increasingly productive and happier with life the more I have curtailed this habit.

But I didn't consider that avoiding taking action myself might have been the reason that I started the habit originally until I saw Julia Cameron’s quote on Facebook.

It makes sense, of course, as is shown by my realization of how much time and energy was freed up as I let go of obsessing over others’ actions. And it really is an ingenious way to keep myself from taking action myself if I can keep my attention pointed elsewhere on what other people should or shouldn’t be doing with their lives.

It’s made me stop and really look at how avoiding taking action myself might have served me in the past so I can develop better patterns to deal with this tendency in the future. I may have radically reduced the amount of time and energy I spend obsessing about others’ lives, but I’d like to see that tendency eliminated altogether, so I’m willing to dig deep to get out the roots that could feed this pattern in the future.

For me, almost any avoidance of something comes down to fear. The action that I have been avoiding the most for the longest time is writing—in the sense of writing for more than just my own enjoyment. What scares me about the idea of taking this action?

There’s the fear of failure, of course. That’s the obvious one that springs to mind. What if I discover that I can’t write? Or that no one wants to read what I’ve written? Or that I have no good ideas? Or that the critics (or the general public) criticize me and my work? It’s less scary not to try, but not trying also ensures that I’ll never reach my dreams.

Ironically, there’s also the fear of success, even though that one is not quite so obvious to see. If I manage to become a professional writer, there are people who may react badly (out of jealousy or competitiveness) if I succeed. I have a paralyzing fear of causing anyone else to potentially feel bad by doing something well myself. The slightest hint of competition can make me freeze.

That leaves me in a classic Catch-22 situation, doesn’t it? I feel guilty if I do well or succeed, and the thought of failure is crushing. No wonder I would create ways to keep myself stuck! Not taking action is the only way to avoid both success and failure at the same time.

So this tells me two things: First, I am most likely to start obsessing over other people’s lives when I am worried about my stories of possible success or failure and the fear of those causes me to default to avoidance of writing (or taking risks with my writing to stretch my abilities). Second, when I notice myself starting to creep back into that habit of obsessing, I’ll know that I’ve got some unacknowledged fear to deal with.

There does seem to be a clear inverse correlation for me between how much I obsess over other people’s lives and how much progress I make toward my own goals. I’ve seen distinct evidence of this over the recent months. The more I can keep myself busy with my own actions, the less likely I am to have any energy left to pay attention to what others are doing—and that is a good thing!

Having seen how much better life works for me when I keep myself focused on my own business gives me the motivation I need to keep bringing my focus back when I notice it straying, even if that means looking my fears right in the eye and continuing to march forward. In the meantime, I think it’s about time I dealt with this fear of success, so it doesn’t have the power to keep holding me back.

What about you? Does this quote ring true for your experience? Do you ever obsess over other people’s lives? If so, is there an action you are avoiding taking in your own life?

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