Putting Passion Into Practice

Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.”  Shakespeare

Find Your Passion - Note Pad With TextWe need to put passion back in our practice and our lives.

Spinoza thoughtfully said that we can never be free from passion. And yet this term and its incredible power is rarely mentioned, although its cousin obsession is often used. An author recently noted in his article,  “Why Science Needs Passion.”

 “The term and concept “passion” no longer figures in contemporary scientific efforts to understand emotion or other related phenomena in the affective domain. “Emotion” now is the keyword and paradigm theoretical posit of the affective sciences, although “feeling,” “mood,” and “affect” also play a significant role.

Interest in long term affective states and processes diminished as the study of short-term affective states and processes increased. The development of new experimental methods and paradigms in the sciences probably played a major role in this change. In any case, by the 19th century, “emotion” was firmly in place and “passion” had largely disappeared from the theoretical vocabulary of science and philosophy.”

The verdict appears to be that “passion” is now a matter of historical interest only, and can otherwise be ignored. The vital questions are: what is passion and why do we need to passion as vitally important in our client’s and our own lives?

Ask yourself if you have experienced an exciting, compelling almost overwhelming surge of energy that is directed towards something (an issue, a project) or someone? It may make your heart race, your face flush and your attention to other things waver.  It is difficult to define and explain this strong force in terms of a feeling or an emotion. Consider “passion” as it is described below.

A Definition

Passion is defined  “a strong barely controllable emotion…A strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something” (Merriam-Webster). Passion is affective energy stronger and more lasting than the feelings that ebb, flow and surge in our consciousness.

Passions are dynamic and may include several emotions as they develop. They may follow a course that is positive and ego synctonic or negative and detrimental. They may, indeed, lead to unhealthy obsessions, to depression and possibly psychosis. The evolution of a passion includes an incubation stage during which pressure builds, thoughts and feelings coalesce and there is an increasing sense of helplessness in the face of this powerful driving force in our lives.

There is a strong magnetic property of passions and that is that they attract and collect historical experiences in our lives. When there are past traumatic experiences these may direct and control the direction of the passion into unhealthy realms. Positive experiences may drive the passion into positive territory. The important point is that these forces need to be, to some extent, controllable and they often seem to feed upon themselves somewhere below our level of consciousness.

Here is an illustration:

A mid 30s woman client is explaining why she has come in for counseling. She states that she is terribly frustrated and depressed by the plight of animals who have been abandoned and abused. She finds that the images of these tragic pets keep her up at night and she cries often whenever she hears about a case of neglect and harm.

Her lack of sleep, her loss of appetite and her anxiety have escalated and she hopes for treatment for these symptoms.

When asked to describe her daily life, she states that she has given up full time work and taken a part time job so that she can focus upon her rescue work with more than 15 animal shelters. She has taken four dogs and eight cats into her home and she cannot refuse to house a helpless animal.

As she talks, the tension in  her body is evident and her face is flushed. She has developed a passion for caring for these animals and her life has become completely ensnared by this powerful force. When she does not respond to the needs of a helpless animal, this woman becomes guilt ridden and miserable without the means to soothe herself. Her passion for rescuing animals has developed into an obsession.


Obsession – “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.” (Google definition).

A persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.” (Merriam-Webster).

Basically obsession means the person is “powerless” and cannot control themselves (they actually compare it to compulsion). Usually obsession is fear or phobia driven and becomes the ruling center of a person’s life.

Returning to the client. after several meetings, she began to disclose a childhood history of neglect and emotional abuse.  Both parents were alcohol abusers and her mother was the more damaging one shaming her and frightening her with threats of putting her in a foster home.

She recalls the buildup of her passion for rescue began significantly with her seeing a starving, stray dog in the street and driving past without stopping. She experienced strong feelings of anger, of shame of being an unworthy person after this incident. After a sleepless night in which the eyes of this pet tormented her, she returned and tried to find him.

At the local shelter, she was inundated with the howls and cries of caged pets and adopted two impulsively although her job’s travel requirements became a problem. At this point,  she found part time work and began her rescue/collection practice.

Currently, she discloses that she is pretty socially isolated and time is spent on her passion. However she feels helpless, ashamed and miserable in the face of any animal that she cannot help and her physical and emotional health has deteriorated.

Many of us have experienced passion without fully understanding its power, its significance or how it develops.

This driving force cannot be explained by one or two feelings or behaviors.  Some authors have compared the strong sensations of passion to the sexual experience; the buildup of pressure, the crescendo of excitement and then the subsiding of emotional and physical tension.

Passions are, however, longer lasting, they collect and organize other feelings and experiences and may, as noted, be directed into positive channels and controlled.

Powerful Connections

As an example of the positive is  the  passion that a parent has for a child One writer describes both romantic and parental passion as powerful inclinations to be close to a loved one, the strong attraction to, infatuation with and desire to be with him or her. It is the force that compels you to be near your partner and the motivational pull responsible for the feeling of missing that comes from being away from him or her.

It involves a longing for someone, which can be inclusive of sexual desire, but can also describe the emotions involved in the powerful connection between a parent and a child.

Passions can be conceptualized as complex long term affective states and processes that differ from “emotions,” which are affective states and processes of shorter duration and lesser complexity. As one last example, consider jealousy over time, perhaps months or years. The jealous individual in the throes of such a passion will respond with very specific emotions – suspicion, anger, rage and revenge or maybe forgiveness – during the course of that passion.

They will also experience very specific associated feelings – despair, resentment, and maybe, eventually relief. Eliminate the passion, and you eliminate the specific, rule-governed, course of emotional dispositions and responses that typically accompany and issue from that passion.

In contrast, an individual who is not in the throes of such a passion will not respond or be disposed to it in the same way.

Some clinicians believe that recognizing the complex and progressive nature of the passions, cognitive, or thinking-based, therapies are unlikely to vanquish such powerful affective syndromes once they gain a hold.  They might be of limited help in preventing or slowing them  only new, alternate passions can reverse, block or divert pathological passions.

Bursts of shorter affective interventions that employ the elicitation of short-term feelings and emotions can also be helpful in weakening the hold of an unhealthy passion on an individual’s thinking and behavior.

Recent research on Anorexia Nervosa undertaken by Cherese Archers (author of article above)  in association with clinical collaborators in psychiatry, has shown that the concept of passion contributes to  contemporary psychiatry in this area  Passions connect the emotional dots that are typically associated with the different passions at various stages of their development. You need the construct passion to properly connect the dots.

We must therefore reinstate passion into science, into clinical practice and into our lives in order to understand and potentially direct or treat conditions that have posed significant problems people’s functioning. Awareness of the strength of this force and its developmental course may improve both clinical interventions and create a more empathic relationship with our clients.

Putting Passion Into Practice

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2016). Putting Passion Into Practice. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Oct 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Oct 2016
Published on All rights reserved.