You’re a magical thinker.
That’s not a criticism or a flaw. It’s the reality of the human brain. Magical thinking is a part of our wiring and it is also a key component of many of the most enjoyable parts of our culture and entertainment. It’s a great way to release tension and stress. And it’s called magical thinking because it is not based in reality or on the facts of the situation as they truly exist.
It’s the reason kids so readily believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and monsters under the bed. Magical thinking is the equivalent of clicking your ruby heels together, saying ‘there’s no place like home’ 3 times and expecting yourself to be transported from the gridlock you’re stuck in on the freeway to your front door. It’s also why, since the dawn of humanity, each distinct culture has had their own spiritual or religious belief system, often with similarities that can only be seen as direct plagiarism, and yet still, each group of believers believes, with absolute certainty, that theirs is the only “real” one.
And, perhaps, closer to home, magical thinking is the reason that, despite the many times your partner has not followed through on doing what he said he would, or has treated you disrespectfully, you still think that you’re going to get what you need from that relationship. In reality, it makes no sense to hang around, expecting someone to change a behavior that is hurting you unless they admit they need to change and get help to do so. Anything else is pure magical thinking on your part, and will keep you stuck in a relationship that will never truly provide the love and security you seek.
Essentially, magical thinking is an instinctual thought process, designed to make us feel happy and hopeful in the face of the many hardships in the reality of life. The daydream that I’m going to win the lottery helps me, if I’m struggling financially, to not worry so much about my financial future and winding up on skid row with my home in a shopping cart. The magical thinking I engage in at that moment really does make me feel happy, and plants a little seed in my brain — creates some neurons firing in a certain way — that may lead me, the next time I get stressed about my bank account, to revisit that lottery win fantasy and get a break from the stress of my reality.
It’s all well and good if I don’t get stressed too often about money, and if I remember that my imagined lottery winnings are a fantasy, and not some psychic indicator of what my future holds. If I quit my job and wait for the winning ticket, or I don’t save for my future because I expect my windfall, that’s taking my magical thinking too far. It means I’m forgetting to include a healthy dose of reality in my planning.
Addictions are a prime example of magical thinking. Imagining that drinking or taking drugs or binging is really going to make things better, beyond the immediate chemical release of feel good hormones into my blood stream, is complete magical thinking and yet, it is because it makes us feel good in the moment and because we don’t know what else to do to solve our problems in a big picture way, that we keep reaching for those magical solutions.
Relationships are often approached the same way. I know I’m not happy and that I’m not getting what I need in this relationship and yet… on occasion things feel good and it’s familiar and so I stick around, allowing my magical thinking to transport me to a time in the future when things will change. And in the meantime, I stay put in an unfulfilling relationship, rather than leave and create the space for the love I really want.
Magical thinking works in two ways: it can tell us fantasy stories of the lovely things that will come, if for no other reason than because we desire them, and it can tell us horror stories of the terrible fates that will befall us if we take a certain action, particularly if we change the current familiar setting of our life such as change our job, move towns, end a relationship or stand up for ourselves. It is natural for the human brain to lean towards belief systems and explanations of events that make us feel happy. This has been proven beyond a doubt in many solid scientific studies and is spoken of with great, easy reading detail and wit by Daniel Gilbert in his fantastic blend of science and human interest, Stumbling on Happiness.
So we come by this magical thinking thing honestly and it serves a purpose in our lives at any age. But it has a serious downside. You miss out on the reality of life, and on many opportunities it provides you to create what you really want, or to build self-esteem and healthy relationships. You need to be aware of when you are in magical thinking and when you are in reality. This allows you to make a conscious choice and to be in control of where your mind takes you — and of the actions you choose in your efforts to make yourself happy.
If you are not trained to think rationally and clearly; if you haven’t been shown how to assess a situation for the actual facts versus your fantasies, your brain will naturally default into magical thinking; you’ll focus on what you wish were true.
This leads you to see the world in a way that isn’t based on facts, and therefore limits you to repeating old patterns. It prevents you from taking advantage of the real opportunities that do present themselves.
If you haven’t had solid role models who taught you the basics of functional relationship:
1. What good communication looks like — how to ask effectively and reasonably for what you need and want;
2. What is reasonable to expect of others and them to expect of you; and
3. What you are responsible for in any situation versus what others are responsible for.
You, and anyone else lacking that training, will struggle with knowing how to feel confident and secure in yourself and in your relationships. This will lead your brain to lean more on the fantasy/magical thinking to make you happy, rather than looking for solutions to the actual problems at hand. Unfortunately, sometimes the magical thinking part of your brain believes that telling yourself that you’re stupid or fat or ugly or useless or unlovable or unworthy or just plain “not good enough” is going to help you to be happier.
The “logic” behind this irrational thought process is that if you are not getting what you need in the way of caring, support and reassurance, it is easier for you handle — i.e. you’ll be happier —if you think there’s something you could do about an impossible situation to make it better.
Thus, lacking functional relationship skills, and lacking the ability to think beyond the immediate moment and explore long-term solutions to our present-day stress, our magical thinking brain makes everything that isn’t going well into something that is bad or wrong or unacceptable in us.
Our rational brain can see that this is irrational. How can I possibly be responsible for my partner losing his job or having a bad day? And even if I did or said something that upset him, how does it make sense that it’s okay for him to yell or to threaten or to withdraw his affection for me? How is that rational, reasonable or at all loving?
There are lots of appropriate and loving ways to express frustration and hurt in a relationship. You may not have experienced them as a child, and as such you’ve got a magical thinking idea that, even though it didn’t feel good, and you were often anxious and insecure, the way that your parents or teachers or “friends” expressed “love” is normal. In reality, if it isn’t feeling good and respectful and safe to you, it isn’t right. End of story.
If you’re settling for a relationship in which you are being told you’re at fault for how someone feels behaves, your partner may say something like ‘it’s just how I am’, and refuse to explore ways that they could meet your needs for respect and consideration and trust; your brain is stuck in magical thinking mode, and your relationship will not improve until you learn how to master your thinking, and to see when others are thinking irrationally vs. reasonably. Instead you’ll stay stuck, trying to talk yourself into situations that don’t feel good, believing that something is wrong with you, and that you need to figure out what it is and change it.
In reality, anytime you compromise yourself for a relationship (partner, parent, friendship, or job) you are in magical thinking. You’re telling yourself a story that the only way for you to get what you need (love, support, acceptance) is to agree to something that really doesn’t feel right to you.
Dieting, as it exists in our 21st Century culture, is, for many North Americans (and Europeans and Africans and Asians, too, as statistics show) a form of magical thinking that has been cultivated by the multi-billion dollar per year diet industry, to such epic proportions of fame and notoriety that the likes of Santa Claus and Justin Beiber could only dream of.
The “Diet Mentality” magical thinking goes something like this:
I am not getting the love, acceptance, job, validation and support that I desire. I am feeling anxious and depressed, stuck and insignificant as a result. If I were thin I would a) feel better about myself and b) others would find me more desirable as a partner, friend or employee. So, I’d better get thin, fast!
Forget that I’ve felt this insecurity and self-doubt as long as I can remember. Forget that there are people who do love and care about me and even some that have professed, or currently do profess to find me desirable. Forget even that I’ve tried a bunch of diets before with no lasting success.
The diet-centered people (or the commercial, the magazine cover or the fitness trainer at the gym) said that this diet really works! And if I can lose X pounds per week for X weeks all my problems will be over! I’ll be feeling so much better about myself, that I’ll finally be able to figure out all the other bits — no problem. All I have to do is just stick to this plan for X weeks!
Forget that I’ve never been successful with sticking to the plan for that long (like most North American women, you may find that sticking to a diet beyond 2 weeks is highly unlikely) or that some inner part of you is tugging at you, niggling at you, and saying “we tried this before and if nothing has changed it doesn’t make sense to assume it’s going to go any better this time!” You don’t know what to do to make yourself feel more confident and to solve those issues of money, relationship, career etc. so, even if it makes no sense, and some part of you is pretty sure you’re wasting your time, you’re going to try the latest diet and hope for the best!
The diet industry sells a great fairy tale. It’s a lovely story of a brief journey of deprivation which will ultimately provide you the happiness and self-confidence and love and security you seek in the world. How long have you been feeling crappy about yourself or your body? How many times have you tried to feel better by dieting or rigorous exercise programs?
The reality is, if you have extra weight on your body because of anything other than an illness or injury, you use food to cope. No diet will fix that. If people around you say you look fine, even sexy or great, and you still think you need to lose weight, the truth is, no diet will fix that either.
You don’t need to look a certain way or eat certain foods in order to be lovable or to feel confident in yourself.
You need to trust that you’re seeing the world and the people in it clearly, and that you are capable of communicating efficiently about what you feel and need, and of setting reasonable expectations for yourself and others. That’s what self-esteem is. That is what makes you feel confident and secure in yourself.
No amount of advice from the outside world about what, when, or how much you should eat is going to provide that for you. No amount of ignoring your body’s cues of hunger is going to build the confidence and security you seek. If it was going to work, it would have worked long before now. Look at the reality of your experience — not the magical thinking of what you wish were true, or of what the people selling you those diet dreams say. Look at the truth of the results you and hundreds of millions of people experience. And then, don’t get stuck thinking nothing will work; try something you haven’t tried before: figuring out why you eat the way you do; why you feel so anxious and insecure; and what to do about that. Then you won’t need a diet. That’s reality.
Learning the basics of relationships and self-esteem is the key and then, as if by magic, your relationship with food will change. You will lose weight and feel great without dieting or being preoccupied with exercise or with what you’re eating. That’s reality. But that doesn’t make any money for the diet industry so you won’t hear them telling you that.
Next time you start to think negatively about yourself or your body or what you’re eating, instead of starting to think about diets and weight loss, try this instead. Ask yourself: “Separate from food and body image, what was I just thinking about… or what just happened that might have triggered the magical thinking part of my brain to make me think of dieting and weight loss as a way of making me feel better?”
You’ll quickly uncover the true stressor in that moment, which will always have a solution that is much simpler and faster than the diet mentality you’ve been trying for years without success. You can train your brain to stay in reality and use the magical thinking consciously for fun and play. Right now, if you’re stuck in the Diet Mentality approach to problem solving, your magical thinking is running the show. The path to real happiness lies in learning to master your brain and be in control of how much time you spend in magical thinking versus reality. This is actually a pretty simple fix. Some basic life skills and self-awareness tools is all it takes to master your brain and stop the magical thinking in your brain from running your life.
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