Compulsion and Magical Thinking

I wrote a few days ago about the difference between dependence and compulsion. I’d like to take a few minutes to go a little deeper into an aspect of compulsion called magical thinking.

Magical thinking is a term that refers to the thoughts that run around in the head of a person who is suffering from a compulsion. If Ruby truly believed that eating sandy hot dogs while wearing a pink floaty and wishing really hard would make her a mermaid, and as a result ate only hot dogs for the rest of her life, she’d be deep in the realm of magical thinking.

I went to a conference once for counselors who treat compulsive gambling (fun times.) The keynote speaker was an attorney who had drained his escrow account (a big, bad no-no) and gambled it. And as he was gambling it, he truly believed that this was a reasonable and even responsible way out of his troubles. He’d take this half a million or so dollars, double or triple it, return the money and have enough to repay the escrow account and pay off his previous gambling debt. He wasn’t just telling himself this–there was no extra step of denial–he honestly believed it.

If you have ever tried to talk to someone about a behavior of theirs and felt like you were ramming your head into a brick wall, you’ve probably come up against magical thinking.

Nick from Nicholosophy wrote about a friend who is a fat activist who posted about her decision to not support products like a diet shake meant to simulate weight loss surgery by making you very full. So I went and read the original post and the comments. And I came across this nugget:

Until i read an article that clearly states ‘this product has not worked for me’, after that person has followed all the necessary steps, then i will continue believe that it is actually a product that works . . .

And that, my friends, is one bright and shining example of magical thinking.

In fact, if you go read that blog posting and then the comments, I can almost guarantee that you’ll feel like you’ve walked into the twilight zone. There are all of these people posting that they are going to try this product, and ideas of where to get it, and on and on–and a few people doing the written version of a double take at the spectacularly, willfully missed point.

Magical thinking is dangerous, because it keeps you separated from the real world. If you believe that purchasing a new pair of shoes with your rent money is going to drive away your demons or having a sex life that puts you at risk for all manner of dangerous things will lead to happily ever after–or that drinking a shake that expands in your stomach is going to cause all of your dreams to come true–then you have a problem.

Is it impossible to steal your escrow account and gamble it, then win enough to change your life and never get caught? Or to shop your way to a fabulous life? Or to find your soul mate in a pick-up bar? Or to try one more fad diet and end up a slender author with the life you always wanted?

No. It’s not impossible, but it’s so rare that if it happened to you someone would probably want to make a movie about it. That’s where the magical thinking comes from. There is the glimmer, however slight, of hope. Just enough possibility in the magic world to hold a person there until they end up losing their health or their license to practice law or have to move into their parent’s basement.

One reason compulsive behavior is so difficult to treat is because the magical thinking takes such a strong hold. Even when someone knows they are hurting themselves and everyone they love, they are able to convince themselves that one more toss of the dice is going to make everything okay.

These compulsive behaviors falsely promise lives beyond what the person engaged in them can hope for otherwise.

Losing weight won’t only put you in a size 4 dress for your high school reunion–it’ll give you a Romy and Michele moment where the boy in your class who became a billionaire arrives by helicopter, proclaims his love for you, does a choreographed dance with you before sweeping you away in said helicopter and then invests in the business of your heart.

Conversely, if trying to lose weight is a compulsion, you might truly believe that you can not have anything you want if you don’t lose weight. If you have to wear a size 26 dress to your high school reunion, the former cheerleaders will laugh at you, no one will dance with you, you’ll end up eating your cake in a bathroom stall with mascara streaming down your chubby cheeks and you’ll probably end up dying in your cubicle at the job you hate but will never be able to quit because you’re too fat.

If you’re stuck in this trap, it can be really hard to get out of. You have to start questioning yourself and what you believe, and why you believe it.

For many compulsions, it helps to find someone you trust and bounce your magical thinking off of them and then force yourself to really listen to what they say when they tell you that no–no, you probably will not be able to live in the real-life version of a Barbie Dream House if you purchase just the right pair of Prada pumps. And no, the guy at the end of the bar who’s had a few too many probably doesn’t want to marry you and let you have his babies. And no, if you lose weight, you are probably not going to be anything more or less than you, only temporarily smaller.

But such a huge portion of our society is caught up in the magical thinking of compulsive attempts at weight loss. You run the risk, if for instance you ask your mother whether she believes that you will never find true happiness in a size 26, of her recommending that damned weight loss shake.

I don’t know what the solution is. I’d love your thoughts and ideas.


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