The word amateur comes from the Latin word amātor - one who loves, devotes, or admires. It requires passion; it becomes an identity.
We have moved away from this definition for amateur but the idea has stuck around, implying that we can have a meaningful pursuit apart from a professional one. When one defines oneself as an amateur at something, the pursuit has taken space in our psychology, as we try to understand how we can love something and how, sometimes, it can love us back.
A passion is a strong inclination towards a specific activity — one that becomes integrated as a part of our identity. Someone who enjoys reading could consider themselves a reader, someone who enjoys playing the piano is a pianist. It is this internalization of the activity that defines passion. But there are two types of passion, spread across a spectrum: harmonious and obsessive. Unfortunately, this broad definition is where the similarities between harmonious and obsessive passion end.
Harmonious passion refers to the passion for an activity that is integrated into our “authentic self,” an identity that is internalized freely without any strings attached to it. It doesn’t cause us any distress to engage in it or to identify with it, because it exists in harmony with the other aspects of ourselves. By contrast, obsessive passion is when an activity is internalized in our identity because it controls something else within us. We do not control the activity, it controls us. As the label “obsessive” implies, it can be an all-consuming and unrelenting pursuit to engage in the activity.
Definitions aside, it can be easier to differentiate between the two by looking at what happens when you engage in the passion. In harmonious passion, there is an internal motivation to engage in the activity because it brings us peace, or happiness, or contentment. When you are engaged with it, you feel present in your mind and body, and it can be easy to concentrate on. Taking breaks doesn’t feel like a chore — it feels productive. Harmonious passion means it is not contingent on our self-esteem. But in obsessive passion, feelings of guilt, shame and pressure can come up when engaging in the activity. How confident you feel in your identity, in your place in the world, can be defined by how you perform the activity. And so, you can feel negative when doing the activity, but even worse when you can’t. The passion becomes a double-edged sword.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the outcomes for these different types of passion. In harmonious passion, we see that it can increase resilience, bring a greater sense of belonging to a community and within your own identity, and fosters a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. In obsessive passion, it can decrease self-esteem, set up perfectionistic ideals, and harbor dissatisfaction with one’s engagement with the activity.
So you might be reading this, an amātor, and see some resemblances that may not be comfortable. And that’s okay. It’s a spectrum, and we all sit somewhere on it. We can even be at each end at different times in our lives. Sometimes you may notice it shifts daily. That’s okay, too.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a musician or a listener. You could be a passionate student, enchanted by your instrument and the music it has the potential to create. Or you enjoy the community that comes with listening to a piece, and the connection to others who are similarly moved by the same melody as you are.
In a field such as classical music, which has unrelenting standards and appears to award perfectionism, it’s worthwhile to ask what community are we fostering here and what are its values? What is it about Tonic that people keep coming back for? It’s likely that they have an overarching harmonious passion for music; and Tonic provides a platform for community-building and engagement. What we know about harmonious passion is that it fosters greater connection to our own identities, as well as our space in the larger picture. So to answer why some people spend countless hours listening to other people practice, or why people provide such productive feedback to others, can all be explained by harmonious passion!
Sure, you’re part of a community that fosters harmonious passion, but you still notice yourself falling down the obsessive rabbit hole. What then?
Self-compassion is the key to overcoming the negative effects of obsessive passion. Like music, self-compassion is a thing we need to practice to get better at doing. And sometimes, like with music, we need to know when it’s time to take a rest. If you’re noticing that you’re losing pleasure, feeling guilt or shame when you’re not practicing but feeling dejected when you are, it may be time to work on the following:
- Re-evaluating one’s values and sense of identity: Take time to think about what is important to you and why.
- Ask yourself how you are going to act in a way that makes you fulfilled.
- Communicating with others about the difficulties you’re facing. It’s likely other people also feel the way you are. By communicating, you can help break down the perfectionistic stigma and foster a more helpful community.
- Avoid ruminating on what you cannot do. There’s plenty of research out there that tells us that focusing on the negatives does not create improvement, but rather leads to further burnout and lower productivity.
- Focus on other interests as well. Balance is a key part of harmonious passion, and by focusing on other aspects of one’s identity, we can learn to create healthy boundaries for ourselves.
It may be possible that through reading this, you notice similarities between obsessive passion traits and someone you know. If we want to help, as with many things in our lives, we can start by asking a friend how they’re doing. Take note of how they speak about what’s important to them. Are they feeling enriched or fulfilled, or do they feel dread, doubt, or shame? If it’s the latter, consider talking to them about balance in their lives or their values. What matters to them?
Our identities are made up of things that are important to us and how we choose to engage in these things are entirely up to us. Like the amātor, we consider ourselves lovers, devotees, and admirers of music. The passion is undeniably there, so what’s the harm in thinking of oneself as an amateur of self-compassion? After all, all it needs is a little bit of practice.