Magical thinking is a normal phase in childhood in which we think that our thoughts- or totally random, unrelated events- can change the future. Lots of us hang onto just a bit of magical thinking into adulthood and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (confession: I’m calling myself out a bit on coffee mug magic!).
As long as the thoughts aren’t
1. causing distress (like intense guilt for thinking a thought that “caused” people to be harmed)
2. prompting self-harm (like OCD-forms, in which repeated behavior-even to the point of pain- may be part of preventing the expected outcome),
3. expanding into delusions/psychosis (where an actual disconnect with reality occurs),
or 4. having a negative impact on relationships
then magical thinking is generally harmless.
In fact, if we get very technical, many categories of religious belief are- structurally, at least- “magical thinking”. Since we know that religious belief and religious practices can bring purpose and meaning, improve well being, and even improve physical health. It’s a great example of how not all magical thinking is bad.
On the flipside, thoughts structured as “Magical Thinking” often contribute to painful or unpleasant OCD behaviors (for example, a belief that unclean hands might cause the death of a beloved pet- leading to a compulsive need to wash hands until the skin is chapped and bleeding).
For many of us, magical thinking is casual- we might be disappointed when our “lucky shirt” isn’t clean for our big interview, but we don’t seriously believe that wearing another shirt will mean we won’t be hired. If these thoughts become unquestioned facts, and other thought-distortions also appear, it may indicate a more serious disturbance in our ability to reality-test. In these instances, a visit to a therapist or even primary care doctor may be needed ASAP to get appropriate screening and treatment to prevent worsening of symptoms.
The mental health field can be quick to pathologize certain behaviors or thinking patterns, but if magical thinking isn’t causing suffering for you or to the people who love you, and the ability to reality-test is intact, there’s no reason to assume magical thinking style thoughts are a “problem”.
Available for download below: resources on Magical Thinking. This bundle includes a full color, full-page print of my art on Magical Thinking thought patterns plus a black and white coloring-book-style worksheet designed to help a user recognize, journal, and reality test their own patterns of magical thinking.
[image description for visually impaired viewers: Image header: “examples of magical thinking” in black all-capital text. Image background: stylized rolling hills and purple mountains. Six yellow diamonds contain the following text: 1. if I use this mug all have a good day! 2. I caused a thing to happen by thinking about it! 3. if I ignore my symptoms they’ll go away! 4. if I want something bad enough it will come to me! 5. if I don’t talk about my past, it won’t impact my life now! 6. if I avoid the thought the bad thing won’t happen! ]