Don't Let Obsessive Passion Control Your College Experience

Posted September 9, 2015

By Benjamin Hardy


Jeremy Piven, the actor famous for his roles in Entourage and Mr Selfridge, was recently interviewed by Success Magazine. During the interview, he mentioned that the only way to get work is to go out and audition for specific roles. Easier said than done.

One underappreciated challenge actors face is that they can get in their own way. They can work tirelessly to prepare for an audition. No matter how much homework they’ve done if they end up too tired or too over-rehearsed, things go badly. Their obsessive passion makes their performance come off as desperate.

Piven said that when he quit worrying about a specific result, he was able to audition more spontaneously. He quit trying to be what he thought others wanted him to be and relaxed into his roles. His passion for acting became more healthy and harmonious. This shift in approach allows him to get the jobs he believes he is supposed to have.

Two Types of Passion

Can you identify the type of passion that's driving you? Is it harmonious and helping you be your best self? Or is it the obsessive type that can be a threat to both your physical and emotional well-being? [Image: Parker Knight]
Psychological research can shed light on Piven’s experience. Dr. Robert Vallerand, a leading expert on the psychology of passion, has distinguished two primary forms of passion: one healthy and the other unhealthy.

Harmonious passion is something you’ve chosen on your own accord. You view the activity as important in itself and feel no social pressure to do it. You are in control of your passion and can easily concentrate while you do it, often entering a state of flow—a mental state sometimes referred to as “The Zone.” Here, a person is fully immersed, focused and enjoying the process of the activity.

Other outcomes of harmonious passion are:

  • healthy interpersonal relationships
  • improved physical and emotional well-being
  • improved performance and creativity

Conversely, obsessive passion originates from social pressure with certain contingencies attached—such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem. Thus, obsessive passion is tied to a particular outcome, which may detract a person from being present in the moment.

When obsessively passionate about something, people:

  • are controlled by their passion
  • become narrow-sighted and inflexible
  • struggle to live presently in the moment
  • suffer a lack of physical and emotional well-being
  • experience difficulty in interpersonal relationships

How Passion Is Internalized

According to Vallerand, people naturally incorporate aspects of their environment into their identity. When a person is introduced to an activity they perceive as meaningful, they often evaluate themselves in relation to the activity.

During this self-evaluation, a person will focus on certain sources of information more than others. This information will be internalized into the person’s identity either autonomously or controlled by external factors, such as social pressure from other people. An autonomous internalization process leads to a predominant harmonious passion, whereas a controlled internalization process leads to predominant obsessive passion.

My Experience with Obsessive Passion

The first time I tried getting into graduate school, I become obsessed. I lost sight of what was important in my life. Everything became about getting into graduate school.

Sensing my obsessive passion, my wife arranged for us to backpack through Europe for the entire summer following our undergraduate graduation in 2013. Sadly, I was not able to enjoy much of the trip because I couldn’t get my mind off graduate school.

“I shouldn’t be here.” I thought to myself. “I should be back home doing research and preparing for graduate school.”

I wasn’t able to live in the present moment, even while seeing some of the world’s most historical and famous sites.

When you’re obsessed with something, you become dependent on that thing. You sacrifice your control to that thing and become a slave to it. This is not a happy or healthy place to be.

After two months in Europe, I was finally able to let go and detach myself from my obsession passion. This allowed me to examine my situation more objectively. I was finally able to breathe calmly and more mindfully enjoy the present moments.

In this more healthy and neutral state, I was able to ponder and reflect upon my motivations for wanting to go to graduate school in the first place. I discovered that, throughout my undergraduate education, I had gotten mixed-up somewhere along the way.

I had lost track of my own goals and had adopted my professor’s goals for me. I had stopped doing the work I naturally loved and instead worked to please my professors. My work became shallow and inauthentic. Throughout the course of my undergraduate education, I lost sight of why I was studying psychology in the first place. I came to realize that I was attempting to get into the wrong graduate programs entirely and was able to make a radical shift in my life.


It may be difficult to discover that you are obsessively passionate. Maybe you’re studying what your parents want you to study. Or you’re getting your degree solely for extrinsic motivations.

If you find yourself feeling pressured to do what you’re doing in college, it may take courage to be authentic. Try laying your passion aside for a weekend and simply spending time by yourself. Does the passion tug at you like an addiction—does it leave you feeling guilty? Or does it call to you with the promise of fun? Try to get perspective on which type of passion you have and how it aligns with your values.


Benjamin Hardy is the foster parent of three children. He’s pursuing his Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology at Clemson University. He researches how people build the courage to become entrepreneurs. To learn more about Ben, visit or connect with him on Twitter.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Vallerand, R. J. (2010). Chapter 3 – On Passion for Life Activities: The Dualistic Model of Passion. Experimental Social Psychology Volume 42, 97–193.

Vallerand, R. J. (2015). The psychology of passion: A dualistic model. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Woodard, C. R. (2010). The courage to be authentic: Empirical and existential perspectives. In C. S. Pury, S. J. Lopez (Eds.), The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue (pp. 109-123). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.