In psychoanalysis, obsession is a neurosis where one dwells on an issue, situation or another person to an extent that could be unhealthy and potentially destructive. In mainstream psychology, obsessive thoughts are usually regarded as irrational.
At best, obsessive people are a pain in the neck. But it can be far worse than that.
Obsession should not be confused with compulsion, the latter involving behavior. However, obsessive thinking is often accompanied with compulsive behavior—for example, a lonely, jealous and hateful internet stalker.
Psychologists see obsessive thought and compulsive behavior as flawed mechanisms where a person tries to avoid unconscious feelings of pain, guilt or inadequacy.
Contemporary psychology calls this unhealthy merging of thought, feeling and behavior Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
A classic literary example of obsessive-compulsive behavior is found in Shakespeare’s character Lady Macbeth, whose repeated hand washing bespeaks a crime and her related feelings of guilt and defilement.
In Catholic theology, obsession refers to a person unduly influenced or harassed by evil spiritual powers or beings. This differs from possession, the belief that a person loses control over the body – but not the soul – as the devil seems to control them.¹
Psychological and theological perspectives on obsession could be combined to mutual advantage.
For instance, unresolved psychological complexes could be weak spots in a person’s psychological armor (usually called “sense of self” or “boundaries”), allowing demonic influences to actually cause or exacerbate conditions and behaviors which manifest as obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Put simply, evil might like to prey on psychological vulnerabilities. And I think it probably does. Or, rather, tries to.
¹ I say “seems to control” not to bracket the truth claim from a secular point of view but rather, to emphasize that Catholic theology believes the devil can never really control another person. These are two very different ideas.
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