I met the 12-year-old son of a friend many years ago. I tried to engage him in conversation and asked him what he liked to do when he wasn’t in school. Hang out with his younger brother. Play with his cat. Cook with his mom.
Eventually the conversation drifted to what ideas he had about things to do when he becomes an adult. He said he wanted to play basketball in the NBA.
I was surprised. He was short for his age, which made sense given the height of both parents. I asked when he had joined his first basketball team. He said he had never joined a team. Turns out he hadn’t even played playground pick-up basketball.
What is magical thinking?
One form of magical thinking is what this boy had: thinking one can get from where one is to some lofty achievement, without taking any steps along the way.
Another form is, according to Britannia.com, the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world.
A toddler’s magical thinking
As a toddler, my daughter went to nursery school a couple of blocks from home. One day when I picked her up from school, it was drizzling. My daughter held one of my hands as she swung both arms and strode down the sidewalk singing, “Oh Mister Sun” with great verve.
The rain began to fall a little harder, and my daughter sang noticeably louder. I laughed and said, “You really like singing that song, huh, Sweetie?” She said, “If I sing loud enough, the rain’ll go away, Mommy!”
I explained that she couldn’t influence the weather with her singing, no matter how energetically she sang. The idea that weather is determined by forces beyond human control took some time for her to grasp. But it was an age-appropriate misconception. The 12-year-old boy mentioned earlier should have had a better understanding of reality.
Magical thinking in young adults
But it’s not just children who struggle with magical thinking. Many new college graduates believe that they’ll be welcomed to their first adult jobs with an invitation to innovate or make substantive changes in how things are run. Instead they’re sent to pick up the team’s mid morning coffee and pastry order.
Magical thinking throughout the lifespan
And it can be hard to chart a reasonable path to your goals if you were raised in a family always looking for get-rich-quick schemes or shortcuts in life. If this has been your experience, therapy can be helpful in developing a more mature and logical orientation to life. You can learn to reality test your thoughts and goals. If your goals are realistic, you can learn to chart a feasible path to reach them. If they are not realistic—such as the goal of the 12-year-old boy who was short and had never played basketball to play in the NBA—we can work together to help you set realistic goals and chart a path to achieve them.
Contact me, and let’s work together to help you make a satisfying life—no magic involved!