2 June 2014

Could it be magic?

Imagine you're engaged in some DIY work at home; let's say, putting up a set of shelves. You've learned, from past experience, that these projects can sometimes take a disastrous turn. On this occasion, however, things are going well. 

'This is easier than I expected,' you say to your spouse/children/dog and, then, in the next, slightly anxious, breath, 'I've probably jinxed it now.' Sure enough, five minutes later, as you put a screw in the wall, the plaster around it crumbles and falls out. You can't help thinking you somehow made it happen.

Such is the illogicality of 'magical thinking'. Of course, it isn't actually possible for a comment to weaken plaster. Nor is the plaster a living entity that heard what you said and flung itself off the wall to spite you. It's just a coincidence. 

Likewise, if your boss is trying your patience beyond reason, provoking you to say 'I wish he/she would drop dead', it's not your fault if they expire the next day as the result of a ruptured aneurysm. The fact that you made the comment is still likely to trouble you, though.

This kind of thinking is quite common, but doesn't cause excessive, or enduring, concern to most of us. We know that we're not really to blame for chance incidents and don't dwell on them.

Image courtesy of luigi diamanti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
However, some people with OCD take magical thinking to an extreme and genuinely feel that they have the power to influence situations. As a result, they may be driven to carry out compulsions to cancel 'bad' thoughts, to prevent these from coming to pass.

Now, you might find it ridiculous that anyone would think in this way, so here's an experiment that, hopefully, demonstrates the point.

First, think of someone you love - husband, wife, child, best friend (=Name). Now think of a horrible circumstance leading to death, such as developing a terminal illness, being in a plane crash, or drowning (=Means of death).  

Then say out loud 'I wish Name would die of/in/by Means of death.' Better still, find a pen and paper and write it down.

Did you manage to say it, or write it? If not, why not? If you did, how did it make you feel? I suspect many of you were uncomfortable just thinking the words, let alone voicing them or committing them to paper.

When I saw that experiment being conducted at an OCD Action conference - specifically with delegates who didn't have the condition - many were literally squirming in their seats and couldn't write anything.

The fact of the matter is, most of us would have difficulty wishing ill on our loved ones, even as an experiment, and even when we know that we can't cause such ill to happen.

It's easy to see that living with such a feeling - such a fear - day in, day out, is terribly distressing.

Whether you're prone to magical thinking or not, perhaps it helps to think of it from another perspective: that of generating fortune, rather than misfortune. How many times have you said you wished you could win the lottery? And have you...?


Anonymous said...

Oh Helen, I love this post. So often, those of us without OCD cannot even begin to understand what those with the disorder go through, but this is a great exercise to give us a bit of an idea......I could not even say the words you suggested to myself, never mind out loud!
Thanks for a thought-provoking entry!

Lindsay said...

This was a very interesting post. I agreed with every word - I would find it dreadful to have to say or write these 'ill wishes' about someone I loved. I don't consider superstitious but do find myself thinking if I tell someone, for example, my car is doing me proud and has given me no problems, that the next day it will break down. I seem to see it almost as s punishment for boasting! And no, I don't think I was ever punished for boasting!

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

Great post! You chose a great way to illustrate how terrifying it can be to believe that our thoughts have so much power. I remember when that was the prevailing attitude for me, when I believed every thought had power and I had to do compulsions (usually praying compulsively) to rid myself of the sin of the thoughts. It's really terrible to feel like that.

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thanks for the great feedback. You are not the only one to tell me that they couldn't complete the experiment. I suspect that we are all vulnerable to more magical thinking than we realise.

Helen Barbour said...

Lindsay, I think we all feel this to some degree. I even saw an old episode of 'Frasier' at the weekend in which he expressed the fear that he had jinxed a new relationship by telling someone how well it was going!...and was then dumped moments later, as if to prove the power of his words.

Helen Barbour said...

Tina, thanks for your great comments. I'm sorry to hear that you went through this yourself, but glad that you are no longer in that place.