Righteous Obsession: Can You Go Too Far in Recovery?

woman tapping fingers on table

Coming out of rehab and filled with ideas about how to embark on a life that is clean and sober is an ideal situation. For many newcomers to sobriety, however, the reality is something a bit less clear-cut. For one thing, there is bound to be a lot of doubt and confusion, uncertainty over what to do and when to do it – or even if it should be done.

There may also be a tendency to go so far in one direction, trying to right all the wrongs that have been committed in as short a time as possible, that what seems to be a commitment may actually be bordering on righteous obsession. In such a case, the newly sober individual may be doing harm to his or her fragile recovery by going a little too far.

What does righteous obsession look like? How can you tell if you’re heading off in that direction? What are the signs that you might be veering off-track? Most important, if you believe you’re already in this state of mind, you probably want to know what you can do about it. Here are some answers.

Characteristics of Righteous Obsession

Think about a stern paternal figure in the Victorian era or even during Puritan times in early America. The single-most defining characteristic of those individuals seemed to be their rigidity. According to their beliefs, things had to go a certain way and that way only. Nothing else was good enough or even to be tolerated.

Zealots, whether in religion or politics or life in general, tend to hold the same rigid stance on how things should be done.

In recovery, righteous obsession tends to have a lot more in the way of rigidity than in flexibility. Someone who believes that there is only one way to get things done is likely to be sorely and often disappointed. Why is this? The fact is that recovery is not a straight-line process. It isn’t going simply from point A to point B in as short a time as possible.

It isn’t even that there is a single approach that works for every person. A righteously-obsessed person in recovery, however, will look at what others do and tell them that they’re doing it the wrong way or try to convince them to do it their way instead. And no amount of discussion or argument will convince them otherwise.

But there are other characteristics that someone with righteous obsession may display. One of these is impatience. When someone believes that others aren’t paying attention to what they have to say or listening to their (often misguided) point of view, they have a natural tendency to be abrupt, to interrupt, to engage in an argument or walk off in a huff. They display no patience or seem in any way open to listening to another point of view.

In line with impatience is an inability to compromise. When only one solution is deemed the “right” one, it’s nearly impossible to see the value in trying to work in other possible approaches. Why bother, when just continuing down this particular chosen course of action should suffice? But here’s the thing: obsessively going after a result that continues to prove elusive may signal something is amiss in the decision-making process. An obsessively righteous individual may need some help to be able to see this – and, given their tendency toward rigidity and impatience, they are less likely to seek or accept the help to do so.

People who have a hard time believing in themselves may often seize upon a single approach or solution as if it is the only lifeline available to them. They are filled with fear, yet cover up their anxiety and doubt with a false sense of security and bravado.

The righteously obsessed may also be quick to temper, have a hard time with forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, be a loner, and find little in life that is worthwhile.

Watch for the Signs

After reading about the characteristics of righteous obsession, you might be worried that you’re already headed down that road. Stop right there. It is important to recognize that having occasional rigidity, impatience, inability to compromise, wanting to be alone, being a little hard on yourself and so on does not mean that you are guilty of or prone to righteous obsession.

Perhaps it is sufficient to be aware of the negative aspects of righteous obsession so that you can steer yourself in a different direction should you find yourself drifting toward those types of behavior.

Still, what are some signs that you might, indeed, be approaching the point where you might have a problem with righteous obsession? Here are some possible scenarios:

  • You shut off all contact with friends, even most family members, believing that contact with others is bad for your sobriety. You may be afraid to show yourself to others, fearful that they’ll make negative comments about your sobriety or somehow “tempt” you back into your additive ways. This does not include former friends with whom you used to use, however. Those are individuals that recovery experts say all newly sober individuals should steer clear of.
  • In a group discussion, you talk over others or tune out all other points of view that aren’t in lockstep with your own. Your hold on your beliefs may be so tenuous and shaky that you can’t bear any discussion that seems to indicate there is anything else that might prove more effective than what you’ve committed to and believe to be the only way forward.
  • With your spouse, partner or loved ones, you may become aloof, reserved, and even cold. You may believe that sexual intimacy is not allowed for you at this time, that it may somehow taint your recovery or make you less effective in your drive to achieve certain goals. What is likely to follow is that you hold off showing any kind of affection, fearful that it may be misinterpreted or lead to something that you’re depriving yourself of.
  • The whole concept of having fun is likely out of the question for you, since you equate that with being tempted to do something that will harm your recovery or take you away from your everyday duties with respect to your recovery.  As a result, you schedule your days so that they are filled with one duty or task after another, never taking time out for a breather. What may result is that you become so fed up with this routine that you eventually ditch it altogether, retreating back to what you knew before. In other words, you may relapse.
  • If you think or know that you are having a problem in a certain area, or need help with your emotions, finances, relationship, your job, or some other part of your life in recovery, if you secretly wish you could somehow extricate yourself from this quandary but are afraid or unwilling to ask for and seek help, you might be in trouble with righteous obsession. That is, if you also are showing some of the other signs previously listed. Just being afraid to ask for help does not mean you are obsessed, righteously or otherwise. It just means you are fearful.
  • Harping on others, calling out their faults, and picking apart solutions as unworkable and inappropriate – these are other signs that you might be leaning toward being righteously obsessive. Of course, it is good to express your point of view, but not to the extent that you tell everyone around you that their opinions and judgments are irrelevant and unimportant.

How to Cope

Keep in mind that having occasional thoughts or behaving in ways that may seem out of character doesn’t mean that you are going off the deep end. Everyone has their good days and bad days. Sometimes, the mounting pressure of a series of things that go wrong or turn out to be less than the desired outcome is enough to make you feel like you’ve made no headway.

The truth is something other than that. For most individuals in recovery, progress is not linear. There may be some successes and some minor setbacks, and even major setbacks now and then. It isn’t what happens that matters most, however. It is always what you decide to do about what happens that really counts.

What can you do to either turn off your righteous obsession or steer yourself away from going down that road? See if the following suggestions resonate with you. There might be something here that you may find useful and helpful.

  • Include variety in your day. Boredom can quickly set in when you rigidly adhere to a schedule – any schedule, but especially tasks and duties that are recovery-oriented. Instead of always going to the same 12-step meeting, for example, vary your meeting location attendance so that you visit one new meeting group a month. Another suggestion in this regard is to alternate the times of day and/or days of the week that you go to such meetings. You will meet different people and be exposed to different points of view and hear many stories and accounts of how others were able to deal with common problems and frustrations in recovery.
  • Strive to learn something new each day. It doesn’t have to be anything big to qualify. Every day, there are literally dozens of opportunities – and maybe more – for you to learn something new. It could be that you try a different route to work or school or the mall and it proves to be more scenic, less hectic, saves you time and aggravation and gas. It could be that you make it a point to read a book on a subject you’ve always been interested in but never took the time to pursue. Maybe you enroll in a class or take up a hobby or get out and join a group devoted to your favorite recreational activity. Do crossword puzzles and test your skills that way. The point is that there are ample opportunities to discover knowledge all around you, every day.
  • Make it a point to say something nice to others. Perhaps your conversation skills have deteriorated or maybe you never really developed them as you should. There’s no better time than the present to get started. Instead of lashing out with a predictable (for you) and harsh comment to another person, force yourself to come up with something nice to say. Comment about the weather, how good they look, that it’s good to see them again, whatever. Just the act of reaching out to say something positive will likely garner a more positive reaction from the other person. This opens the way for, if not an engrossing conversation, at least the beginning of a casual exchange. This is a good start to softening your more rigid side and beginning to interact more with others as a reasonable and caring person.
  • Work with your sponsor to come up with new approaches. Admitting to yourself that you’ve been a little too hard-headed in certain areas, not willing to give an inch and certain that you know what’s best isn’t the easiest thing to do. But once you have made the decision to turn this part of your life around, one of your best and most readily-available resources and allies is your 12-step sponsor. What you are going through with all the frustrations and difficulties in recovery is something that your sponsor knows quite a bit about. He or she has been there before and also has witnessed and assisted other newcomers to recovery who may have experienced similar issues. In this regard, you have someone with whom you can confide and bounce ideas off in an overall goal of coming up with new approaches to solve recurring and new problems or issues.
  • Figure out what it is that you really want for your life in recovery. It could very well be that you lack a distinct goal that you really want to work for. This needs to be something that you want for yourself more than anything else. It could be called your dream goal or something that you would like to accomplish. If you have been so righteously obsessed over your recovery, it is very likely that you haven’t taken the time or actually allowed yourself to think about what you want for yourself in recovery, let alone make plans for how to achieve it. Now is the time to sit down and put together a list of what you really want. Allow yourself to dream a little, to see yourself in this new life in the way that you want it to be. This is the first step toward determining an action plan for how to get there. It also helps open up your mind to the possibilities that life, as you know it, can change as a result of the action and effort you put into it. This is not obsessive effort, but concerted, reasonable and realistic effort to achieve desired goals.
  • Learn how to forgive yourself. Above all, it is incredibly important that you cut yourself some slack. You need to be able to forgive yourself for all the nasty things you’ve said and the negative things you have done – both in your past in addiction and in your present in recovery. Maybe you haven’t been the easiest person to be around or to live with or work next to, but this doesn’t mean you can’t change. This change has to start with you forgiving yourself. You don’t need to be that mean, driven, obsessive, sure-you-are-right individual. You can change your ways, just as surely as you made the decision to go into rehab and get clean and sober. It may take some time, but you can do it – with a little help from your loved ones and family members, your 12-step sponsor and fellow group members.
  • Accept that you deserve to be happy. Part of the reason why some people become righteously obsessive in recovery is that they feel, deep down inside, that they do not deserve to be happy. As a result, no matter how hard and how far they push themselves, they constantly run into more disappointment and unhappiness. If this sounds like what you have been going through, maybe the best approach is to tell yourself that you do, indeed, deserve the opportunity to be happy. Whether this means learning how to be happy with little things each day, like the feel of sunshine on your face during a walk, or the taste of food prepared by you or your loved one, the smile on your children’s faces when you come home and greet them, or the realization of long-held hopes and dreams, accepting happiness is something that can enrich your life and make it all seem worthwhile.

Not every person in recovery will find themselves being righteously obsessive. In fact, few probably will, even if they already display many of the characteristics. But it is good to know that going too far in any direction in recovery is not a good thing. Balance is the key, keeping a moderate approach, maintaining a steady and forward-looking pace. Learning how to be flexible is part of the process. So is the ability to see beyond current difficulties and envision possibilities for tomorrow – and then working toward achieving those goals, not in an obsessive fashion, but with commitment, dedication, patience and hope.


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