Magical thinking is when you imagine a rainbow colored world with leprechauns riding on unicorns through a candy-filled field a la Willy Wonka. Magical thinking is basically set in the Big Rock Candy Mountain from the Wee Sing videos of my youth:
Magical thinking is a counseling technique to utilize when you’re feeling discouraged, disappointed, hurt, or overall just stuck in a life that you’re not pleased with.
The pattern generally flows…
Person 1: I just wish that my life was different. I wish that (current life situation) was not true. I hate the way things are.
Person 2: If you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect, what would be true about your life?
I’ll give you an example from my own life and then explain how you can do the same for yourself or a friend.
Between 2012 and 2014, I moved away from my life-long residence in the state of Maryland to attend graduate school in Ohio. My degree is in Higher Education Administration and Student Personnel, which is basically a conglomerate of a business degree and a counseling degree, but specifically for a college/university context. My program emphasized practical experience alongside classroom experience so that graduates are able to jump directly into a career.
Every student was expected to hold a 20-hour/week job and a 10-hour/week internship, while taking 15 credits and completing homework. Some of the students in the program, like me, had their jobs at different universities than the one where we all took classes. In my case, this added a one-hour commute in each direction on top of the other responsibilities. Also in my case, I lived in on-campus housing and had resident life responsibilities. Needless to say, it was a very, very busy two years.
But for me, the time constraints weren’t the worst part of this setup. I’m quite good at scheduling my time and getting everything done. I’m not good at handling others’ expectations.
I am a tried-and-true People Pleaser, always wanting to do what others want from me (sometimes inventing what I think they want from me without actually hearing it from them). I had 2 bosses, 1 internship supervisor, 4 teachers, 1 advisor, 3 coworkers, and hundreds of students that I interacted with every day. That is a lot of people with a lot of expectations.
One light in all of this was my internship supervisor, Stephanie. We were able to meet once a week to discuss my work with the campus ministry organization that she led. She ended up being a spiritual and emotional mentor for me. One time Stephanie led me into some magical thinking.
Amy: I am so overwhelmed by everyone’s expectations of me. I wish that I didn’t have so many people asking for things. I can’t live up to what everyone wants from me.
Stephanie: If you woke up tomorrow and everything was perfect, what would be true about your life?
Amy: I wouldn’t try to live up to everyone’s expectations.
Stephanie: And if you woke up and didn’t live your life for other people’s expectations, how would you act differently?
Amy: (Flabbergasted) I have no idea… is that even possible?
Stephanie: Just go with it. Everything about your life is exactly the same, but you don’t live for what other people expect.
Amy: I guess that I would just make decisions based on what I think is best. I might have to tell my boss “no” when she asks me to take on an extra responsibility. I think that I wouldn’t be as stressed out and would be able to focus on my homework more.
Stephanie: Are those things that you think you should do?
Amy: Yes, they wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Stephanie: Ok, then what do you need to do in order to act on the things you want.
From there we were able to problem solve and come up with real solutions!
One key to magical thinking is that you remove yourself from the reality of the situation and focus on only the problem.
Without magical thinking, the solutions can be focused on other people or can feel completely impossible. But magical thinking allows you to enter an unrealistic space in order to work something out without strings attached and then re-enter the real world to figure how to apply that solution within the context where you exist. It generally leads to more concrete answers about how to change the situation.
You can do this for yourself or for a friend. The key is to remove yourself from any preconceived notions of what should be and just allow for the possibilities to arise. Don’t push for a specific answer, but invite the honesty of what could be if all of the other voices in our heads weren’t drowning out the truth within us.
From there, you can ask more concrete questions to help flesh out the action steps, but the hard work of getting to the heart will already be done.