Understanding How Your Thinking Impacts Your Self-Esteem, Your Ability to Create Healthy Relationships and Prevents you From Getting a Grip on Food, Binging and Weight Loss
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 and 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 why 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’d do, or has treated you disrespectfully, you still think that you’re going to get what you need in 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 learn why they do what they do and what to do to change it. 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 overall to make us feel happy and hopeful in the face of the many hardships in the reality of life. The day dream that I’m going to win the lottery helps me, if I’m struggling financially, to not worry so much, at least for that moment, about my financial future and winding up on skid row with my home in a shopping cart.
Hence the magical thinking I engage in at that moment really does make me feel happy and that 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.
That’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 and 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 immediate moment and because we don’t know what else to do to solve our problems and feel good in a long-term, big picture way, we keep reaching for those magical solutions.
Relationships are often approach 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 a crappy relationship rather than leave and create the space for the relationship I really want.
You see magical thinking works 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 with someone.
It is natural for the human brain to lean towards belief systems and explanations of events that will 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 naturally provides you to create what it is you really want and to build self-esteem and healthy relationships.
So, you need to be able 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 therefore 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 vs. your fantasies, your brain will naturally default into magical thinking – what you wish were true, rather than reminding you that you don’t have enough facts or information to form any sort of opinion yet.
This leads you to continue to see the world in a way that isn’t based on facts and therefore limits you to repeating old patterns and prevents you from taking advantage of the real opportunities that do present themselves.
If you haven’t had solid role models who taught you the basics of functional relationship:
- What good communication looks like – how to ask effectively and reasonably for what you need and want;
- What is reasonable to expect of others and them to expect of you; and
- What you are responsible for in any situation vs. what other are responsible for,
you, and anyone else lacking that training, will naturally struggle with knowing how to feel confident and secure in yourself and in your relationships with others and this will lead your brain to lean more on the fantasy / magical thinking to make you happy rather than looking for solutions to the actual problems at hand.
Unfortunately, sometimes the magical thinking part of our brain believes that telling you that you’re stupid or fat or ugly or useless or unlovable or unworthy or just plain ‘not good enough’ is going to help you to be happier.
The ‘logic’ behind this irrational thought process is that if you are not getting what you need in the way of caring, support and reassurance it is easier for you handle –ie. you’ll be happier – if you think that it’s about you and that means there’s something you could possibly do about the situation to make it better.
Thus, lacking functional relationship skills, and lacking the ability to think beyond the immediate moment and therefore explore long-term solutions to our present day stress, our magical thinking brain will default to making pretty much everything that isn’t going well for us (and pretty much everyone else), about something that is bad or wrong or unacceptable in us.
Our rational brain can see that this is irrational. How can I possibly be responsible for my partner losing his job or having a bad day? And even if I did or said something that upset him, how does it make sense that it’s okay for him to yell or to threaten or to withdraw his affection for me? How is that rational, reasonable or at all loving?
There are lots of appropriate and loving ways to express frustration and hurt in a relationship. You may not have experienced them as a child and as such you’ve got a magical thinking idea that, even though it didn’t feel good and you felt anxious and insecure a lot, the way that your parents or teachers or ‘friends’ expressed ‘love’ is normal and how it should be. In reality, if it isn’t feeling good and respectful and safe to you it isn’t right. End of story.
If you’re settling for a relationship where you are being told you’re at fault for how someone feels or whenever you bring up a concern about the way your partner is behaving they say something like ‘it’s just how I am,’ your brain is stuck in magical thinking mode and your relationship will not improve until you learn how to master your thinking and to see when others are thinking irrationally vs. reasonably.
Instead you’ll stay stuck thinking that something is wrong with you and that you need to figure out what it is and change it and then you’ll be able to get the love and acceptance you seek.
In reality, any time you compromise yourself for a relationship (partner, parent, friendship, or job) you are in magical thinking. You’re telling yourself a story that the only way for you to get what you need (love, support, acceptance) is to agree to something that really doesn’t feel right to you.
Dieting, as it exists in our 21st Century culture, is, for many North Americans (and Europeans and Africans and Asians too as statistics show) a form of magical thinking that has been cultivated by the multi-billion dollar per year diet industry, to such epic proportions of fame and notoriety that the likes of Santa Claus and Justin Beiber could only dream of.
The Diet Mentality magical thinking goes something like this:
I am not getting the love, acceptance, job, validation and support that I desire. I am feeling anxious and depressed, stuck and insignificant as a result. If I were thin I would a. feel better about myself and b. others would find me more desirable as a partner, friend or employee. So, I’d better get thin, fast!
Forget that I’ve felt this insecurity and self-doubt as long as I can remember. Forget that there are people who do love and care about me and even some that have professed, or currently do profess to find me desirable. Forget even that I’ve tried a bunch of diets before with no lasting success.
The diet centre people (or the commercial or the magazine cover or the fitness trainer at the gym) said that this diet really works! And if I can lose X pounds per week for X weeks all my problems will be over!!! I’ll be feeling so much better about myself that I’ll be able to figure all the other bits out no problem. All I have to do is just stick to this plan for X weeks!
Forget that I’ve never been successful with sticking to the plan for that long (like most North American women, you may find that sticking to a diet beyond 2 weeks is highly unlikely) or that some inner part of you is tugging at you, niggling at you, and saying ‘we tried this before and if nothing has changed it doesn’t make sense to assume it’s going to go any better this time!’ You don’t know what to do to make yourself feel more confident and to solve those issues of money, relationship, career etc. so, even if it makes no sense and some part of you is pretty sure you’re wasting your time, you’re going to try the latest diet and hope for the best!
The diet industry sells a great fairy tale. It’s a lovely story of a brief journey of deprivation which will ultimately provide you the happiness and self-confidence and love and security you seek in the world. How long have you been feeling crappy about yourself or your body? How many times have you tried to feel better by dieting or rigorous exercise programs?
The reality is, if you have extra weight on your body because of anything other than an illness or injury, you use food to cope. No diet will fix that.
If people around you say you look fine, even sexy or great, and you still think you need to lose weight, the truth is, no diet will fix that either.
You don’t need to look a certain way or eat certain foods in order to be lovable or to feel confident in yourself.
You need to trust that you’re seeing the world and the people in it clearly and that you are capable of communicating clearly about what you feel and need and of setting reasonable expectations for yourself and others. That’s what self-esteem is. That is what makes you feel confident and secure in yourself.
No amount of listening to someone else tell you what or how to eat is going to provide that for you. No amount of ignoring your body’s cues of hunger is going to build the confidence and security you seek.
Learning the basics of relationships and self-esteem is the key and then, as if by magic, your relationship with food will change. And you will lose weight and feel great without dieting or being preoccupied with exercise or with what you’re eating. That’s reality.
But that doesn’t make any money for the diet industry so you won’t hear them telling you that.
Next time you start to think negatively about yourself or your body or what you’re eating, instead of starting to think about diets and weight loss, try this instead. Ask yourself:
‘Separate from food and body image, what was I just thinking about or what just happened that might have triggered the magical thinking part of my brain to make me think of dieting and weight loss as a way of making me feel better?’
You’ll quickly uncover the really stressor in that moment, which will always have a solution that is much simpler and faster than the diet mentality one you’ve been trying for years with no ultimate success.
You can train your brain to stay in reality and use the magical thinking consciously for fun and play. Right now, if you’re stuck in the Diet Mentality approach to problem solving, your magical thinking is running the show. The path to real happiness lies in learning to master your brain and be in control of how much time you spend in magical thinking vs. reality.
This is actually a pretty simple fix. Some basic life skills and self-awareness tools is all it takes to master your brain and stop the magical thinking in your brain from running your life.