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How to Stop Obsessing Over Things You Want

“You only lose what you cling to.” ~Buddha

I want to be famous. I want to earn lots of money. I want boxes of expensive chocolates. I want people to like me. I want you to think that this article the most amazing thing you’ve ever read.

Enough about me. Back to the Buddha’s quote. “You only lose what you cling to.” This doesn’t make any sense, does it? Surely you only lose what you don’t cling to?

I think there are two ways of making sense of this idea.

First, what we cling to slips away from us.

Think about soap in the bath. If you grip it very tightly, it pops right out of your hand.

If we’re really desperate for something, we’re less likely to receive it. This happens in lots of different ways.

A couple of years ago, I came out of a long-term relationship and started dating. I joined an online dating agency and started getting in touch with different prospective dates.

I very quickly realized how insecure I felt. As soon as I started a conversation with anyone, I was desperate for them to like me, whether or not I actually liked them!

One man in particular seemed “perfect” for me from his description. He was an artist, he lived in a beautiful and remote part of the world, and he had a cute dog.

I imagined all the things that we’d have in common and all the sparkling conversations we’d have. I imagined visiting him and meeting his dog. I got a little carried away.

He could hear this desperation in my emails, and he soon drifted away before we ever began a proper conversation. I wanted a date with him so badly (or I thought I wanted it badly) that I scared him off. Like soap from your too-tight grip. Whoops!

The second way of making sense of the Buddha’s quote is that we can only be deeply affected by loss when we are clinging on too tightly to something.

Think about losing a “lucky stone,” which you’ve kept in our pocket for the last three years. You haven’t really lost your luck. You’ve just lost a pebble from the beach. But if you cling to the idea that the stone was lucky, you might feel really terrible that you lost it.

When I first started writing, I had ideas about what kind of author I wanted to be. I wanted to be seen as literary. I wanted to be recognized by my high-brow literary peers. I was very attached to this idea!

When I found my first publisher, my novels were branded as “women’s fiction.” All the covers had women on them, looking a bit sappy. I felt deeply disappointed when I saw these book covers, as they didn’t represent the kind of author I thought I wanted to be.

As time went on, I grew to appreciate that these covers meant that more people were buying and reading my books. I realized that I didn’t care about being high-brow. I just cared about people enjoying my stories and getting something from them. The loss and disappointment that I’d felt when I’d seen those covers was unnecessary.

What we cling to slips away from us. And we can only be deeply affected by loss when we are clinging too tightly to something. If this is true, then how can we stop wanting money, fame, and in my case, expensive chocolate?

I don’t think we need to stop wanting these things.  We just need to stop clinging to them. Clinging is holding on to something too tightly.

There is a story about a monkey who comes across a trap in the forest. He can see a coconut inside. He’s hungry and so he puts his hand through a small hole to get at it. He grips onto the coconut, which he really wants to eat, but while he’s holding the coconut he can’t pull his hand free. If he only opened his hand again, he could escape, but clinging to what he wants keeps him trapped.

So how can we can loosen our grip, and escape the trap?

1. Recognize when you are clinging.

Notice whenever you feel desperate for something to turn out a particular way. Why is it so important? What are you afraid might happen if you don’t get it? Would it really be the end of the world?

2. Be open to the idea that you might get what you need, not what you want.

I thought I wanted a date with the man who had a cute dog. In retrospect, he wasn’t ideal at all. And three months later I did meet the ideal man (we’re getting married in June). We don’t always know what is best for us.

3. Take a step back.

Breathe. If you’re feeling overwhelmed because you want something too much, then do something else to distract yourself. Get involved in other things that are also important to you.

4. Get support.

If you’re obsessed with something and you can’t get it out of your mind, be kind to yourself and speak to your friends and family as much as you can. If you still can’t let go of your obsession, think about seeking professional help.

We are all human. Most of us want fame, money, and expensive chocolate. But if we can gradually stop clinging, then we won’t be so upset when we get a huge unexpected bill, or when someone eats our last expensive chocolate.

The more we can loosen our tight grip on what we expect, and what we think we need, the easier our lives will be.

We’ll be a little upset, of course. Especially about the chocolate.

Photo by Kara Allyson

Avatar of Fiona Robyn

About Fiona Robyn

Fiona Robyn is also on a mission to help other people to connect with the world through writing. Read about Lorrie in her free e-book, How to Write Your Way Home, or visit her free community where all are welcome.

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  • http://lookingtobusiness.com Daniel Wood

    I think we need to focus on the long term.
    As long as we keep our eyes on the horizon it is okay with temporary setbacks, it is the long term goal that matters.

    When we do that we don’t notice how we lose things in the short term.

  • Beauge

    Always enjoy your words of wisdom …thank you! 

  • Me

    Loved it!  Just what I needed to hear :)  Thanks!

  • http://zeroto60andbeyond.com Hammondartbiz

    During my years in sales there was a saying that rang true, “When you’re desperate for the money it gets in the way.”

    I just had to stop and think about that when things weren’t going according to MY plan.  It always helped.
    Thanks.

  • Kate

    Anyway, if you cling to chocolate, it melts all over your hands, right? ;) Enjoyed your post, Fiona. Even more excited about finding your website! (I’m fairly new to TinyBuddha so haven’t read you before.) I’m going over there now for a really long visit. Grateful to TinyBuddha for this non-coincidence of hooking like minds together, among many other things.

  • Dante Johnson

    Great article and very important for me to hear today as I have a tendency to cling a little too tightly to prospective joys. Especially in the dating area, and since I’m currently thinking of asking out. My mind has been overrun with thoughts of an ideal future, things that could be amazing and have to constantly bring myself back to the mindset that none of this could be true and is pure desire. Seeing this post has helped me to do that from a different perspective. As always, this site is a blessing, and a service. Thank you. :) 

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  • Sarah

    This article posted at the right time.I was feeling down at my work today.I wanted the recognition from my superior so much that i overstressed myself.I want to be somebody in the company,i even feel threathen by my juniors!Im afraid i will lose the thing that i wanted so badly all these while.After reading this article,i finally realize its not the end of the world even if i dont get recognition from my superior and boss,there’s always a future waiting for me!thx Lori!

  • Sarah

    Oops!thanks Fiona!

  • http://twitter.com/wendymiyake wendy miyake

    I loved your article! As an author who’s trying to sell her books, I felt a little discouraged this morning. But your post really reminded me to remind myself why I write in the first place. Yes, selling books is a good thing but just the act of getting to write something that I am so in love with is really the essence of it all. And just getting to follow my passion every day is the biggest gift. Thanks!

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you all so much for reading and sharing. I’m so glad my words have helped a little bit. Kate (and maybe others) – see you at WOWH!

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you all so much for reading and sharing. I’m so glad my words have helped a little bit. Kate (and maybe others) – see you at WOWH!

  • kathleen

    Great article, Fiona – I love that soap in the bath analogy!
    Last year I spent a lot of time clinging to a particular outcome (we were selling a property and the market was in a slump so it took a loooooooong time – I got really stressed). When the outcome finally came I realised that it happened at the Perfect Time – all that stress and clinging and worrying was unnecessary (and had absolutely no positive effect).  Thanks for your wisdom.

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

     Thank you Kathleen!

  • http://profiles.google.com/ormoto OR Moto

    “What you Chase, won’t set you free”
    Life… is permanently temporary 

  • anon

    What if in addition to not being able to have the thing you want you have no support system?

  • Tim Do

    Thanks for this great article. I like it. I am experiencing  something similar right now, I am desperately for love, but late on I realised the chemistry that I thought we had was just in my mind.  The love is not reciprocated. It is only an admiration. After reading your article, it makes me realised that it is time to let this feeling go. Give myself some peace.

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

     OR Moto – yes.
    anon – You’re right, life can be hard. There’s no escape from dukkha. I suppose this is why taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is so important – then we can all be in it together. Sending you good wishes.
    Tim Do – thank you. It is so hard to let go, isn’t it? Even (especially) when we know we should. Noticing the desperate need can help. Do look after yourself. 

  • Lisa

     Thank you for sharing this quote and all the insight in your article.  I wish I had read it years ago…but I look forward to sharing it with many people!

    When my son turned 16 he moved out.  He couldn’t live by our rules.  It really should not have come as a surprise…he had been saying he was going to leave for some time…especially after every heated argument that we seemed to have on a daily basis.  This was one of the most difficult times in my life…losing him.  I worried about him constantly…was he eating, was he warm and dry, was he doing drugs or other harmful things to his body?  My other two children and husband were placed “on hold.”  And I remember feeling no joy at all.  Then a person came into my life briefly who showed me how beneficial prayer and giving things over to a higher power can be.  Around the same time I was invited to a gathering where there was going to be music and speakers and I convinced my son to come with me.  I thought that if I could get him to accept a higher power into his life, then he would be able to see things more clearly.  There was this very inspirational speaker who shared his story with us about becoming lost in life.  I prayed my son would identify with what we were hearing.  Toward the end of the evening we had the chance to meet the speaker face to face.  After introducing him to myself and my son, the man said something very interesting to me.  He took me aside and he said, “You are holding on to him so tightly that the Lord cannot even touch him.  Let him go.”  I will never forget that moment in time.  I knew I had to release my grip on my boy…not stop loving him, not stop praying for him, but I had to let go of all my doubts, disappointments, and worry.  It wasn’t easy…as everything in life is…it was a process.  My son is 23 now and he has come back to me in a sense.  He is still a wild spirit…he always will. That is who he is. However, I say that with a smile now…instead of with a heavy heart.  

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Lisa – thank you for sharing your story, I’m really there with you! What wise words from the speaker. I’m glad you’re in a better relationship with your son now and I’m sure he appreciates the space and your smile!

  • wonderer

    How about an open position that you want to have really badly? How do you handle feeling ready and excited without starting to feel too obsessed about it? How to distract yourself without losing the objective? What to do while waiting for this reply?

    Answers are seriously appreciated. :)

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

     ; ) 
    It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? How we can manage to remain motivated and engage with the excitement of something without getting pulled into obsession… I know the difference when something obsessing me – it starts getting in the way of other things, and that’s a sign to myself that I need to find some space or investigate what might be underneath the compulsion. Trying to remember that we never really know what’s ‘best’ for us – that something we desperately want and then don’t get might leave the opportunity open for something better… But also forgiving ourselves when we do get caught up, as human beings will. Finding the middle way… 
    But, really, I struggle with this stuff too! Good luck with it!

  • Criola

    Wonderful post that comforted me these days in finding some mental distance to a past relationship which I have been dwelling over for many months. Thanks so much for your kind words Fiona! You describe wonderfully how clinging to something makes us feel vulnerable and low, and how to let go. 

    However, I sometimes wonder how we can find the right balance between avoiding clinging/being desperate fighting real hard for something that lies close to your heart/in what we see true happiness to our life so that our instinct tends to tell us not to let go of it..? Do you have a tiny advice for bridging this tricky mental step? Thanks again and much peace, C.

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  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you Criola. Sorry to hear about your break-up.
    I’m not sure if this will help, but for me it’s partly about outcome. If we are doing something because we know it is right, we can try to keep doing it regardless of whether we get the results we want. An example might be offering help to someone who is refusing it. But if we get caught up in wanting something very particular to happen, then this is where the clinging comes in… and maybe this is also where our own ego gets most in the way. If we need the person to accept our help to make US feel better then this might not be for the other person’s benefit at all. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to be very determined and keep going whilst accepting that we’re doing it because it’s the ‘right thing’, not because we’ll get what we want. 
    Hope that makes a bit of sense!

  • Peter

    Hi. Couple of days ago I was talking with my friend and telling him I really need an article about how to get rid of the feeling when you want something so badly and it’s unrealistic. And this morning I’ve found your article. Thank you so much! I think it helps a lot.

  • Noriange

    feeling the same, sending you my best wishes.

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Peter – it’s such a hard place to be, isn’t it? When I think about being in that place, I feel so powerless. Good luck with your situation. 

  • Lowws Xiu

    Good write out :) sometimes we just have to take a step back to truly know what we, humans need. Thanks for the article. Cheers!

  • Mavime

    This is the first time I read one of your articiles and it gave me the feeling of “liking you”. I mean I loved your train of thought :) Congrats on the wedding!!
    greetings from Mexico 

  • Simona_a317

    Congratulations on getting married next month. I really needed this article in this particular moment. Thanks :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1389144764 Khaliph Moto Moto Young

    this is spot on. let go and let god. 

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you all for reading, and for the wedding congrats… we’ve been writing the final lists this afternoon – things to buy, arrange etc… hope we’ve remembered everything!!

  • dude

    a friend posted this on twitter and i wondered, “why would u want to stop obsessing over anything you want?”  I see now that this more relationship-oriented, so I agree in this sphere that it’s foolish to obsess here.  However, a healthy obsession with success is the roadmap to great achievement.  My “obsessions” have led me to very big returns.

  • Anonymous

     “Be open to the idea that you might get what you need, not what you want.”

    This has been one of the most enriching truths I’ve ever explored. Choose happiness, relax on the hows, and let the universe show you.

  • Sorrycant

    I enjoyed this, it’s applicable to lots of different situations, even friendships! At the moment I can feel a good friendship of mine falling apart. I’ve been so upset over the fact that it’s not working out, desperately trying to fix it, or figure out how the situation is going to end up (clinging to it!). I’ll try to step back and move on :)

    Thank you!

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Dude – I wonder if this is linguistic – that there is a difference between ‘obsession’ and ‘determination’ – obsessions start interfering with other parts of our lives, and they don’t make us happy… but it is interesting. 
    Arielle – me too! Hard to let go sometimes, and to trust…
    Sorrycant – thank you, yes exactly! Sorry to hear about your friendship – maybe sometimes if we can give people space they might find their way back to us… but as you say sometimes things just fade away and there’s nothing we can do. Good luck. 

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  • http://twitter.com/Macro_Girl Aziza Al-Mou’ala

    Wonderful! So true!

  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you Aziza!

  • Alexis

    Great article. Really makes me evaluate my life, my ideas, and what it means to live it.

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  • http://www.writingourwayhome.com Fiona Robyn

    Thank you Alexis. Surprised that people are still finding my article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/aliona.show Aliona Show

    Thanks a lot… Great article. But… It seems like I can’t let go of my obsession (which is about 8 yrs old), and the most awful that I can’t make it real without losing my love (which longs about 4 yrs). I’m in between, and I’m falling apart. it really hurts. And I don’t know what to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aliona.show Aliona Show

    That’s good if your long term goal isn’t your obsession =) Like it is in my case… An endless  nightmare.

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  • Sunflower429

    I very much liked this article. I read it yesterday..felt better immediatly, and then read it again this morning. I have lost many things due to clinging so strongly to them.. relationships, promotions and jobs. I know that when I have “relaxed” in the past, things just seem to come to me. If I take a step back and look at what I do have and stop obsessing about what I don’t..I have so much to be exquisitely grateful for. I am blessed..and this article was very timely. I was about to let go of a wonderful man, because I couldn’t stop obsessing about how he wasn’t meeting 100% of my expectations, and because I held on to pain from my past..to protect myeslf from being hurt.. but… as soon as I “just let go”.. i felt better.. I have to let the pain go, and the hurt.. and open myself to happiness…and however the universe wants to give it to me.. thank you Fiona

  • BLight

    I love the image of the monkey with coconut!  Thank you!

  • Lisamarie

    Thank you for sharing Fiona. You have suddenly made sense of much of what my entire life has been.

    I try to live simply-this one simple quote is from now on my mantra, words to live by, every moment.

    Thanks again, and have a wonderful, peaceful, blissful day.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-G-Hibberd/781495261 David G Hibberd

    A good few parts of that made me smile, a lot of home truths there for me. Things are so obvious when you let go, step back and take a deep breath!!.. ;-) x

  • Joseph

    After making lots of mistakes I lost the woman I love. Simply doesn’t want me now. It hurts very bad. Thought long and hard about the “clinging thing” and how it robs us of saving relationships or the opportunity to move on.

    I don’t know why it works but I find that helping other people who are suffering does make a difference. In that way there is a point to feeling hurt because it can enable us to tap into universal compassion. Maybe that will make me more of an attractive person that will attract a loving relationship? not exactly the person I’m still chasing. It could mean being on my own until it works itself out.

    I guess the fear is of rejection but as I reach out to help others that becomes an impossibility.

    Love from Joe

  • Blatsby

    This article is dangerously confused. You talk of I so much when the Buddha taught us that there is no I. Your desire for a relationship is another type of clinging that you have now extended. This new relationship can only ultimately bring you suffering. If you were truly mindful you would not want a relationship with someone, the act of getting into a relationship is simply delusional, will it bring you happiness as you obviously think it will? Thinking of ones future happiness is totally crazy, if you are not happy now you will never be happy. Thoughts come and go as the tides come and go. Just don’t let them cloud your true awareness and cling to the fallacies they bring. Please don’t get me wrong here, it is good you are trying to spread the word of the Buddha but you must be careful not to spread pseudo Buddhist philosophy that only serves to confuse.

  • Jillian_joss

    I loved this article. Sometimes an obsession over what we want just takes away from what we already have. I have been in a wonderful relationship for a few years now. My boyfriend and I take care of each other and are planning a future together. However, I have been hassling him to take the next step and it makes our loving carefree relationship feel stressful. I appear more needy and the thing that I want, to be engaged, gets farther away the more I allow myself to obsess over it. This article has helped me understand happiness already exists in my life and seeking more is counterproductive.

  • Starsmagicdo

    Buddha’s quote translates to “you can lose only what  matters to you”… that which doesn’t matter cannot be seen as loss. The thing is, nothing matters.

  • Jerry_spurlock

    This is very simple, you can’t lose something you don’t desire.

  • Gradie (pronounced GRAY-dee)

    I agree with most of the comments posted here – this is an excellent article. I am already aware of my obsessive behavior, which also occurs in realms outside of love and relationships. But recently, I’ve been dealing with a man and I’ve been handling it well. I’ve been great at sharing my time/space (with him) in a non-sacrificial manner. But now (after several months) I feel that we are getting closer. My confusion is this… When is it alright to be all in? Is that idea even healthy? If so, what does being all in, in a healthy manner looks like?

    What’s been keeping me level-headed is the lack of an actual commitment. Before dealing with him, I told myself that I would not be eager to put my heart on the table. Instead I will be forthright and comfortable with who I am. He will either love me or not. But now, we’re having discussions about ‘our’ future… Kids. Belief-systems. Plans. And finance.

    I am nerrrrrrvous, because I feel my obsessive bunny re-surfacing, wishing to hop all over this moment, and potentially ruin everything. On the other hand, I worry that my reservations (that lack of hasty interest) may come off as caviler and game. I don’t want that. I truly wish to be able to share my heart in a healthy and valuable style. Does anyone have any suggestions on opening up to love (as a recovering obsessive type) while not giving into obsession?

  • R.H.

    Thank you for this! I keep obsessing over an ideal life that isn’t mine, I’ve clinged to this idea, and I feel grief and loss because I don’t have it. I need to let these things go and cling to what is real and what truly matters.

  • Gina

    When the people mean so much to us and their silence hurts so much it’s difficult not to want kindness and love from them instead.

  • Ravi

    Are you guys Still “Functioning”?

  • JohnMiller2013

    I like your take on Buddha’s idea. It seems practical.

    Although I truly have no desire for fame or chocolate, money would be nice. My obsessions are usually over high tech gadgets. I found your post here as I was obsessing over one in particular.

    Thank you for resetting my brain! I am more available to help others now :-)

  • Kaylen

    Hey lady i love your £Π©√#@& story. This may have really helped my fate. I just hope i can actually stick to what you are telling me

  • Mathetes

    Good stuff. This is very much in line with Christian beliefs which stress that we are “not our own” and therefore ought to entrust our lives to our Maker and Redeemer, letting go of things for ourselves and letting Him take care. When we do not, when we cling to things, as stated above, we lose our ability to be grateful for anything from above. Everything else could be going well in our lives, but we would be bitter and worried because we cannot have the one thing we cling onto and demand. The Bible would call these things “idols” -we turn good things into ultimate things, things we cling to, idols. Life is miserable like that. Absolutely miserable. That is not how it should be.

  • Rodrigo Cáceres

    Love it! Thank you Fiona. Something you could add to this is identifying how what we are obsessed with is beneficial (or not) to upgrading our lives and that of the rest. Obsessions can be truly positive and lead to great achievements. I have been studying this and trying to help people with obsessive personalities and tendencies (like ourselves) to concentrate on the positive aspects of each obsession to bring out awesome results. Anything you could add to this? It would be of great help. Let me know if you would be interested in posting something on my blog. Thank you so much! I’d love to hear back from you.
    Cheers.
    Rod Caceres – Creator and editor of Obsessives in Action
    http://www.fastlikeflow.com
    Be obsessive, be fast, be smooth,
    be FLF!

  • John P.

    Christian rubbish. Maker?Redeemer?Why are you infiltrating a Buddhist site? We do not try to convert you why do you need to convert others .Why not trying to get to heaven by helping people with no strings attached?

  • Kelly

    This really helps me a lot. I’ve been wanting a dog of any sort for so long and the rescue centres have been useless for months and I’ve been getting so worked up about it. Now I can hopefully focus on what I need to instead of having these fantasies of having a dog constantly.

    Maybe one day I could have one but I really need to stop obsessing like a child who doesn’t get their ice cream.
    :)

  • NeverNotSad

    I’ve been struggling with being desperate about wanting everything from a relationship, friendship, love (including self), respect, my mothers acceptance, as well as so many thing that I could easily just continue listing. I want to just have it not bother me, but it just seems like everything I do get’s me further away from what I want, and the more that happens the more I want that thing. I understand I’m crazy and in need of therapy, as I’ve started the process of seeing someone to talk to, but sometimes it just seems like life really treats certain people very badly, and the chemical imbalance they suffer from makes it almost impossible for a normal healthy life. I definitely feel like this incorporates me as well as some of my family. It feels like anything you want in life, you have to not care about. Why does this not sound right? I don’t get it, what’s the point of having things you don’t care about? Granted the way I “Care,” about things is definitely on the obsessive anxiety level, but I have never cared about anything differently, so I can’t see how you would “casually,” care about something. I don’t agree that my way of caring thing is right, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never been able to care any other way, and it has destroyed everything I have ever loved.

  • Guest

    This was the perfect article…I needed to hear this. Thank you!!

  • Dodo

    Thank you. Your words bring peace to my world.

  • chick

    Thats so true