How Do People Develop Obsessive Passion?

Becoming overly focused on external feedback diminishes decision-making capabilities due to the individual’s lack of awareness of their inner values. Obsession with achieving external goals to gain approval from others can become such a powerful force that people lose touch with their intrinsic motivators. As their harmonious passion declines, so does their performance. Maureen’s story in Chapter 5 illustrates obsessive passion in action and demonstrates how it led to tragic consequences for everyone involved.

Obsessive passion arises when a person overplays his or her best qualities to prove themselves. Many people are driven by a need to overcome an underlying sense of vulnerability that developed due to childhood deprivations, disruptions in relationships, parental divorce, or early failures in school. When things go wrong in the lives of young people, they often blame themselves, even when they had little or no control over the situation.

All young people make mistakes, but some are subjected to overly harsh criticism by authoritarian adults and/or ridiculed by bullying peers. These interactions can leave the young person feeling vulnerable and reacting defensively, a pattern that continues into adulthood.

For many people these experiences leave a lasting impact, creating an unconscious mind-set of uncertainty and insecurity in relationships with other people. A sense of helplessness in childhood often undermines one’s confidence to handle challenges as an adult, resulting in a reluctance to fully engage, or overcompensation to prove oneself.20

For example, studies show that it’s commonplace for leaders who experienced early struggles academically to overcompensate, hoping to prove their worth to themselves and others but resulting in the recurring deployment of their worst traits.21 Their inner script might sound something like this: “I’m painfully aware that I didn’t do well in school. I fear that people may have been right when they told me I was stupid. I’ve been lucky to get this far in my career so I must constantly show people how smart I am before they have a chance to see my lack of intelligence.”

This negative narrative generates a subconscious fear that produces a need to create impressive strategies, but also to obsessively use overwhelming intellect to prove even minor points. Other people in their workgroup frequently become scarred when this type of leader is unable to let go of small issues, overlook minor mistakes, or be forgiving to colleagues who are unable to match their keen analytic ability. This pattern is particularly common in self-made leaders who, long after having proven their capability to succeed, continue to be haunted by a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.22

When it comes to receiving and assimilating positive feedback, three dynamics work against individuals who have a compelling need to prove themselves. First, their style frequently alienates and even antagonizes people who could mentor them. Second, coworkers don’t offer affirmations because they assume that talented individuals already know how good they are in certain areas. Third, even when a person with this background does receive positive feedback, they discount it because they underestimate their unowned strengths.

People who suffered childhood wounds are typically hypersensitive to criticism as it stirs deep-seated hurts from past rejection, humiliation, ridicule, and failure.

The impact of a vulnerable mind-set creates a constellation of effects that can deal a devastating blow to talented people because it creates inaccurate self-perceptions23:

  • ? Underrating themselves
  • ? Unfavorable comparisons to others
  • ? Lack of awareness of their strengths
  • ? Oblivious to their fatal flaws
  • ? Critical of others’ shortcomings
  • ? Defensive when receiving critical feedback
  • ? Discounting positive feedback

These misperceptions perpetuate a pattern in which people must constantly prove themselves but, ultimately, are handicapped by overplaying strengths to the point that they become fatal flaws. These individuals compound their problems by being puzzled and disheartened when others don’t live up to their expectations. And their difficulty in receiving constructive feedback prevents them from learning how to break free from their dysfunctional pattern.

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