“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”
How many have you fallen prey to superstitions or general thoughts that are similar to the well-known idiom above? For instance, have you thought to yourself “if I make this traffic light, I will get the job I am interviewing for.” Or, “If I didn’t cut my hair, then he wouldn’t have broken up with me.” Or the all too well known, “If only I had worn my lucky underwear, we would have won the game!”
In the professional psychology world, this type of faulty thinking is called magical thinking.
By definition, magical thinking is a type of cognitive distortion, or inaccurate thought pattern, in which individuals believe that their thoughts or actions will directly influence and produce a specific outcome, either positive or negative. Magical thinking can be a source of comfort. It can also provide a false sense of control when individuals feel distressed and out of control.
There are several cognitive distortions that people become trapped by that are usually used to reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. These thought patterns keep us stuck and lead us to have lower self-esteem and be overall more dissatisfied with our lives. Cognitive distortions are at the core of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and magical thinking is one of the common types of distortions.
Let’s Consider an Example
A woman tells her friend, “When I lose a few pounds, I’ll feel pretty and I know I’ll meet my next boyfriend.” In other words, my new body will bring me the happiness and life I am waiting for. This is an example of classic magical thinking.
The friend who’s supportive says “Definitely go for it! Start that diet we talked about.”
This woman begins dieting and eliminating certain foods from her daily routine and begins to lose a few pounds. A few weeks go by and she hasn’t met anyone yet that she wants to date. She is confused as she is socializing a lot, flaunting her new body, and yet she still doesn’t have a boyfriend.
Next, she decides to lose even more weight and begins excessively exercising. Soon thereafter, the woman becomes increasingly rigid with her diet and exercise routine, believing that this regimen will bring her a romantic relationship. Because she’s vigilant to not ruin her diet, she begins to avoid social gatherings. She loses a lot of weight. She feels anxious when she is around food and has less energy than she used to have. Depression and feelings of defeat set in since she has not yet met the man of her dreams.
While you may be thinking this is an extreme example, this is actually a scenario taken from a previous client of mine that I treated at an eating disorder treatment center. And while all magical thinking does not lead to an eating disorder, it can certainly lead a person down a rabbit hole of thoughts and behaviors that make someone feel less worthy and less content with their lives.
Coping With Magical Thinking
If we can learn to identify this type of thinking, we can work on challenging these thoughts and improve overall life satisfaction. Here are some tips on how to challenge your magical thinking:
- Name it! Now that you know what magical thinking is, start to notice and even name it when you are engaging in it. This will help make you more aware and give you more opportunities to challenge it.
- Say it out loud! Sometimes we need to hear our thoughts aloud to realize how ridiculous/false they really are. “An arbitrary number on a small machine will find me love?!?!”
- Become a detective! Look for evidence for and against the thought to take away its credibility and power (i.e. the more I focus on my appearance, the unhappier I become; I am more irritable and less able to socialize; a number on a scale can’t “fix” anything in my life).
- Replace it! If you’ve found enough evidence against the thought to prove it is faulty, find a neutral or positive thought to replace it with (i.e. the number on the scale cannot bring me happiness; I am okay just the way I am; the best partner is one who values me for me; I am going to focus on overall healthy habits like sleep, mindfulness, moderate exercise, spending time with friends/family).
- Repeat yourself! Start to refute the thought with the evidence and new thought you created over and over again; repetition leads to familiarity and will help convince you that this thought truly is inaccurate.
- Be kind to yourself! Always practice self-compassion and give yourself a break; you are human and you may continue to have these thoughts; however, they don’t have to have as much power over your decisions and your life anymore.
The Harmless Side of Magical Thinking
Sometimes these thoughts can be comforting and/or harmless to us and our mental health. For instance, when we are grieving and we see something that reminds us of those we’ve lost, this often leads us to think they are with us in that moment – that is a comforting/harmless thought that may not need to be challenged.
Magical thinking in its milder form is not an issue and does not need to be corrected. It is important to evaluate if the faulty thought pattern is leading you to be distressed or causing you to engage in harmful/unproductive behaviors. It is then, that we determine that the thought needs to be challenged and no longer remain part of our daily schema.
Dr. Tali Berliner is a psychologist and is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy. Dr. Tali owns her own practice and is a tenant at The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-488-2933 x 6 or email today if this post resonated with you to discuss how her services can help you.
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