What’s the Difference Between Obsession and Compulsion?

It’s very common to hear the term “obsession” in casual conversation.

  • “K-pop is my new obsession.”
  • “I’m obsessed with that new Indian restaurant down the street. I could eat there every single day.”

But an obsession isn’t something you like or enjoy.

An obsession is an intrusive and unwanted thought or image that keeps coming back and causes you great distress.

When you live with conditions that involve obsessions, these obsessive thoughts happen spontaneously. While you may control your response, you might find it challenging to control the thoughts.

Describing positive things as obsessions diminishes the emotional turmoil experienced by people who live with obsessions.

It may be that you find obsessions can leave you feeling anxious, guilty, or even disgusted. You might try to block them out, suppress them, or distract yourself from them.

If you’ve experienced an intrusive thought, you have some understanding of obsessive thoughts. Yet, these are usually more intense and persistent than intrusive thoughts.

Like intrusive thoughts, obsessions might center on taboo, disturbing, or socially unacceptable ideas. They could be violent or sexual in nature.

You don’t want to think them, but you find yourself fixating on them, unable to stop — though compulsive behaviors might offer some temporary relief.

For example:

  • During a work meeting, you imagine yourself standing up and insulting your boss. You don’t have any reason to do this, but you can’t seem to shake the fear that you will. To banish your anxiety and avoid the thought, you mentally count to 100 over and over until you relieve some of the distress.
  • While doing dishes, you worry, “What if I take this knife and drop it on my foot?” You don’t actually want to hurt yourself. Still, the thought keeps returning whenever you see a knife or even enter the kitchen, and you worry you won’t be able to control it.

Types of obsessions

Obsessions tend to fall into the following main categories:


You might worry about touching or encountering something that contains germs, hazardous materials, bodily fluids, or unpleasant but not necessarily harmful substances, like mud.


You might worry about hurting someone else by accidentally putting something toxic in their food, for example. But harm obsessions can also involve fears that your locks don’t work or you left the stove on.

Religious thoughts

You might fixate on the idea that your behavior has offended God, or that you’ll be punished for what you feel are your sins.

Sexual obsessions

These are of a sexual nature and often involve images or thoughts that you feel uncomfortable having, even if you wouldn’t act on them.


You might experience obsessions related to violence or aggression that might include hurting yourself or others.

Illness or physical and bodily changes

You might worry about being exposed to illness and fixate on physical symptoms, like head pain or stomach distress. You could also be hyperaware of body processes and sensations.

Perfectionism, order, and symmetry

You might fear something bad will happen unless all of your belongings are placed “just right” or your work isn’t completed to exact specifications.

Consider taking our OCD screening quiz