Magical Thinking
Monday, October 26, 2015 at 11:53AM
Judith Nitchie in Denial, M.S., Multiple Sclerosis, chronic illness, depression, disability, fear, magical thinking, self management

"Do you think I'm crazy?"

D worries about money. He is living out of his savings-rent, food, caregivers, everything, and he is afraid he will run out. He has been unable to work for 8 years. He has been unable to sit up by himself or walk across a room for almost half of that time. He has advanced Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

I ask him about disability benefits. He does not want to consider this. He tells me it would mean he was 'giving in.'

D tells me that every time he acknowledges a new or changing symptom it gets worse. I ask him what happens when he doesn't acknowledge the symptom. It gets worse. He knows that his logic is faulty.

Magical Thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation....Magical thinking can cause a [person] to experience fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because of an assumed correlation between doing so and threatening calamities. (Wikipedia)

Sometimes we do this in a more or less casual way: 'I failed the test because I didn't wear my lucky socks'; 'if I don't (or do) wear my raincoat, it will rain'; 'step on a crack, break your mother's back'.

More seriously, a client refuses to learn how to use her white cane; she tells me if she did, it would mean that she failed and that she would lose the rest of her vision. I resisted getting a handicapped parking placard; my fear was that if I acknowledged the need, my ability to walk would deteriorate. At the same time, I knew this did not make sense.

Magical thinking can create an illusion that we are taking control over processes that are beyond our reach. This can be benign, as with the lucky socks, the rain, or the children's rhyme.

On the other hand it can block a healthy grief response for what has been lost. Magical thinking can mask fear. It can keep us from reaching out for the resources that might help us live with more ease. It can keep us from being here, in the present, fully living the lives that we have. 

I get it about D's resistance to apply for benefits. 

Acceptance is not so easy when what is being accepted is your own inability. 

To answer his question: I don't think D is 'crazy'. I know he is scared. He has been dealt a crappy hand of cards. But maybe when we acknowledge that we are still in the game we can engage creatively with what is possible.

Article originally appeared on chronic illness, grief and loss counseling and therapy in San Francisco, California (
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