Why do your relationships, diets & happiness always fall short? It might be your way of thinking.
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 behaviour 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 neurones 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.
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