I started to suspect I had a problem when I found myself in the basement one night moving laundry detergent jugs from shelf to shelf, certain that the right detergent placement would keep my partner from leaving me. This wasn’t because my partner would be upset about my organizational skills, but because I was convinced that this tiny, insignificant action could be a spell with wide-reaching consequences. Part of me knew I was being ridiculous, but that didn’t stop the panic in my body from driving me to frantically reorganize.
This is an example of magical thinking, which therapist Alegra Kastens, LMFT, says is “a belief that thoughts or behaviors have the ability to make things happen or not happen, when the thoughts or behaviors are not connected with the thing that could happen in any realistic way.” The most basic example of magical thinking is the childhood rhyme: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” It’s often experienced as part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and can also happen in generalized anxiety disorder.
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However, magical thinking is also a mainstay in New Age spirituality, an umbrella term for eclectic mystical practices including manifestation, astrology, crystals, and more. On Instagram, in spiritual spaces, and from practitioners and coaches sharing Law of Attraction-style manifestation like what you’d find in The Secret, I learned that everything is a spell, that my thoughts create my reality, that thinking or speaking something aloud can make it come true.
“Superstition, when taken too far, can become the tools having control over you.” —Sarah Faith Gottesdiener, artist, tarot reader, author
For a while, magical thinking felt great. I started out meditating on what I wanted to have happen in my life and imbuing intention into small moments, and I was supported in doing so by spiritual spaces I was part of: a sprinkle of cinnamon in my morning smoothie for abundance, a rose quartz in my pocket for love, a black candle on my altar for protection.
But I quickly discovered the lines between “If I manifest on the full moon, what I want will happen,” and “If I touch this stone every day, everyone I love will be safe,” or “If I think a bad thought or say it out loud, it will come true,” are blurry. My anxiety took the concepts I learned in spirituality, took them to negative extremes, and ran with them. And I’m not the only one.
The surprising intersection of magical thinking, OCD, and anxiety
While magical thinking can impact anyone, it’s something therapists like Kastens often see with their clients, because it’s pervasive in those living with OCD and anxiety disorders. OCD is a type of anxiety disorder marked by patterns of unwanted thoughts and fears, called obsessions, that lead to repetitive behaviors, known as compulsions. Kastens says a common fear among people with OCD is that just having those unwanted thoughts will make them come true, even if those thoughts are the last thing they would ever want to happen.
Enter magical thinking, which in anxiety disorders, is often focused on preventing a negative outcome. “[Magical thinking] rarely worries about something wonderful happening to you,” says anxiety and OCD-focused therapist Natalie Henry, LCSW. Take my detergent bottle experience, which was driven by a fear that my partner would leave me.
Magical thinking is a common symptom of OCD and other anxiety disorders, says Henry. There is also a specific subtype of OCD, called magical thinking OCD (or mtOCD), where magical thinking is the main feature of the condition.
I spoke to a few other people who experience OCD or generalized anxiety disorder, and they shared their own examples of magical thinking: fearing that every scary thought was going to come true, believing bad things happening was the universe punishing them, thinking their cat died because they’d broken a mirror, deciding that using a certain mug would dictate the outcome of their day, and more.
When Gia W.*, an astrologer with anxiety, is struggling with magical thinking, it usually comes down to her belief that she’s simultaneously helpless and all-powerful: that a small decision to not pick up a lucky penny or knock on wood could bring her whole day down, and at the same time that she wouldn’t be able to handle difficulty without these rituals and compulsions.
Nisha Kuyvenhoven, MSW, a therapist who treats OCD (and has it herself) sees magical thinking as a way to create certainty. The relief provided by acting on magical thinking—like touching the stone or putting the sock on your right foot first—is what keeps people engaged in these types of rituals and can keep them trapped in cycles of magical thinking. “Certainty gives us the perception of control,” she adds.
When magical thinking goes too far, it makes you overtake responsibility—as if everything that happens in life is exclusively because of what we have or haven’t done. But this overlooks the real role that systems of oppression, the randomness of life, and other factors outside of our control have on our lives.
“It feels a lot safer to believe that if you do a particular action or say a particular phrase, that you have some control over a negative outcome,” Henry says. But ultimately, it’s a false sense of safety and control.
How New Age thinking can contribute to OCD and anxiety
For those of us with OCD or anxiety who have also been immersed in a spiritual practice that includes any aspect of manifestation, spellwork, ritual, or thought work, things can get confusing. (It certainly did for me.)
Kastens worries that magical thinking can inadvertently be fueled by spirituality practices like the Law of Attraction, which teaches that positive thoughts produce positive outcomes while negative thoughts produce negative outcomes.
“While I do believe our thoughts can impact us—for example, telling yourself you’re a horrible person all day will make life more difficult—I don’t believe that we can think things into existence,” says Kastens. “Not only is it magical thinking, but an incredibly privileged perspective. People devastated by poverty, in war-torn countries, etc. cannot just manifest a better life.”
There’s some research backing up Kastens’s concerns. In a small 2020 study published in the journal European Psychiatry, researchers found a positive correlation between religiosity/spirituality and magical thinking in people with anxiety disorders, suggesting that for some people, religion and spirituality could contribute to magical thinking. But further studies are needed to understand this potential connection.
“My own OCD was definitely at its peak when I fell into New Age spirituality,” says Kuyvenhoven. Relying on feelings and thoughts as absolute truth—for example, pulling certain cards in a tarot reading or looking at a horoscope and relying on that information as fact—was a particularly harmful concept promoted in spiritual spaces that she encountered. “In OCD we seek certainty, and there are many concepts in New Age spirituality that can be made into ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ when they are often not. This way of thinking can really prey on vulnerable OCD minds and make them feel more reliant on unreliable feelings and thoughts they’re having,” she says.
Kuyvenhoven worries that many spiritual concepts teach people to do the opposite of what therapists do in OCD treatment: help people get more comfortable with uncertainty, understand that their feelings and thoughts aren’t necessarily truth, and learn that they don’t have to act on feelings and thoughts as such. “It makes the cycle of OCD thoughts-anxiety-compulsion stronger,” Kuyvenhoven says. For her, the intertwining of New Age and OCD was all-consuming.
“Taking magic and spirituality into the messiness, obligation, and boredom of life can help some folks, and for others, it’s a way to enact control, disassociate, or fall into traps of perfectionism,” says Sarah Faith Gottesdiener, an artist, tarot reader, and author. “Superstition, when taken too far, can become the tools having control over you.” Think: not being able to apply for a job or do something hard because a certain tarot card came up, Mercury Retrograde fear-mongering, and blaming planets for your problems as a way to avoid deeper opportunities for growth, change, and accountability.
How to know when magical thinking is doing more harm than good
Because of my spiritual practice, it took me quite awhile to see how magical thinking was fueling my anxiety. And it can be really hard to suss that out, especially when you’re surrounded by people or practices that encourage magical thinking.
Thinking about your values, a practice that’s part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), can provide helpful clues. In ACT (which is often used to help people with OCD and other anxiety disorders), values refer to activities that give our lives meaning, and can be thought of as a compass helping us make choices about our lives. “If magical thinking goes against your values, causes you distress, and prevents you from doing things you value and enjoy, that could indicate more of an unhelpful part of anxiety or OCD,” Henry explains.
With that in mind, ask yourself: How does magical thinking feel, and is the practice and how it makes you feel aligned with who you want to be and what you want your life to be like?
“I get to choose what I believe in. A belief doesn’t just happen to me without my will.” —Ash S.
For Ash S.*, who has struggled with magical thinking, the difference between whether she’s just being spiritual or experiencing harmful magical thinking is whether she feels like she has a choice in that thinking or not.
“I get to choose what I believe in,” she explains. “A belief doesn’t just happen to me without my will. I have choices about how I observe my thinking, how much energy I supply it with, and what actions I take or don’t because of it.” She checks in with herself to see if she’s feeling like she doesn’t have a choice in what she’s thinking magically about, and if she doesn’t, that’s a red flag that magical thinking is showing up in a harmful way.
Another red flag is if magical thinking feels constricting, fear-mongering, or like it’s repeating an old pattern instead of being expansive and empowering.
For Gottesdiener, it’s all in how you use the tools. Practices like tarot, meditation, and ritual affirm her intuition, help her gain another perspective, and feel grounding and centering; they don’t enforce fear or self-doubt.
Shifting your relationship with magical thinking
As much as my own magical thinking spiraled into a difficult place, I still connect with spirituality and think some form of magical thinking can have a place in my life. So did many of the people I spoke to. They shared how magical thinking supports their creativity, keeps hope alive, breaks them out of negative thought spirals, and helps them trust that they’re supported.
Some people with OCD or anxiety may need to step away from magical thinking altogether. With some guidelines in place, others may be able to use magical thinking supportively. Whether you’re looking to cope with harmful magical thinking or just use it in a more supportive way in your spiritual practice, here are some tips on shifting your relationship with magical thinking.
1. Use discernment when seeking out spiritual practices
If a practice or teacher invites you into victim-blaming (like coaches who suggest that you manifested a chronic illness, spiritual practitioners who preach that if you’re broke you’re just not vibrating high enough, and Abraham-Hicks style spirituality that says if you think negative thoughts, hard things in your life are your fault), it’s a red flag.
2. Work on your relationship with control and certainty
Kastens recommends trying mindfulness techniques and working to stay in the present moment to get more comfortable with uncertainty. “Ruminating about future possibilities tends to make us more anxious and doesn’t give us the answer we’re looking for,” she explains.
If a client is afraid of a particular outcome, she likes to tell them: “If it happens, I will cope with it then.” Otherwise, we’re living out the feared scenario twice: once in our minds, and again in real life if it does happen.
There are always going to be things within and outside of our control, and that’s why Gottesdiener teaches the sphere of influence in her classes: a concept that can help us ground into what’s within our control and what’s not, as well as see where we have access to support and resources.
3. Hold spiritual practices loosely
Gottesdiener finds it helpful to lean into surrender and add the classic witchcraft adage “this or better” to spells, wishes, and intentions. “Hold it lightly, like a bird,” she says. In this way, you can still connect to your spiritual practices while grounding into a more right-sized sense of your power, and not conflating your actions with direct and specific outcomes.
“No matter how many angel numbers you see or candles you light, bad things will happen. It’s called life!” she says. “A spiritual practice doesn’t stop bad, unwanted, or challenging things from happening; it helps us navigate them, get through them, and often, spin trash into treasure.”
4. Focus on the impact of actions rather than thoughts
Thoughts, while powerful, can only go so far on their own. “Manifesting entails purposefully moving toward one’s desires with concrete action and energy,” Kastens says. “Envisioning a dream job can be a helpful motivator, but a person still has to take action of some kind, like networking and applying, for that to come to fruition.”
This can be reassuring for people with anxiety or OCD who are afraid they’re manifesting their unwanted thoughts. “Thoughts don’t create things. When people are manifesting, they’re thinking about what they desire and intending to move toward. People with OCD don’t desire their unwanted thoughts. They perform compulsions to prevent the feared outcome from occurring,” she adds.
5. Try noting
Coleen*, who has anxiety, says noting is a supportive tool in helping her identify when magical thinking is showing up in a harmful way. Noting is a mindfulness practice, which in this context, could look like identifying that you’re having an unhelpful thought and remembering that you don’t have to act on it. Similarly, I often try to find acceptance through telling myself “this thought is allowed to be here and that doesn’t mean it’s true or is going to happen.” (Thinking critically and analyzing magical thoughts, according to a small 2010 study, can be a helpful antidote.)
6. Set up an experiment
Henry likes to encourage her clients to set up an experiment. She’ll have them purchase a lottery ticket, really focus on winning, and see what happens. “Once you do this with something positive or neutral, try to challenge your own magical thinking that’s causing distress,” she suggests. “If your anxiety and OCD are saying you need to say goodbye three times before you end a call with someone otherwise something bad will happen to them, you could try saying goodbye only once and seeing what happens.”
7. See a mental health professional
If magical thinking is causing significant distress in your life, you may want to reach out to a therapist, particularly one who practices Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP is currently the gold standard for OCD treatment as it helps folks practice confronting anxiety-inducing thoughts and learn to choose not to do related compulsive behaviors.
I still believe in magic and have a loose and gentle spiritual practice—but I’ve let go of spiritual spaces that don’t feel supportive and I’m careful to check my magical thinking. Sometimes that’s as simple as saying to my partner, “I’m feeling scared that just talking about this bad thing is going to make it happen. But it’s not, right?” And instead of telling myself I need to do something like touch a stone or tap something twice so an unwanted thing won’t happen, I’m learning to tell myself I can handle whatever happens.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not anxiously moving the laundry jugs anymore, but when my partner and I drive by a special spot at sunset, we still pull over and kiss for a love spell. I’m finding a balance with the magic that works for me.
“Spirituality is neutral and it’s a tool. It’s up to you to decide how to use it,” Gottesdiener says.
* Name changed or withheld for privacy
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Source: Well and Good