Understanding Magical Thinking in OCD
What it is, how it starts, and what keeps it going.
Posted October 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Magical thinking involves superstitious beliefs and rituals, and it is common in the general population.
- Magical thinking OCD is maintained by a cycle of rituals that provide short-term relief, but intensify OCD fear and guilt in the long-term.
- Magical thinking OCD is often driven by an inflated sense of responsibility and a desire to prevent feared outcomes.
Superstition is a natural and common phenomenon. Consider the athlete that doesn’t change underwear on a winning streak; the gambler who blows on a set of dice at the craps table; the sports fan who sits in a lucky chair to watch a game; and the countless among us who avoid the 13th floor, knock on wood, cross their fingers, or perform any number of rituals that have no causal effect on the outcomes they hope for.
Usually, a small dose of superstition has no significant bearing on one’s life. But in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), superstition can be a driver of intolerable fear and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to prevent misfortune.
Understanding Magical Thinking
At the heart of superstitious behavior is superstitious thinking—the perception that an action or ritual (like skipping over cracks in the pavement) can prevent bad things from happening to oneself or loved ones. Mental health professionals refer to this form of thinking in OCD as “magical thinking” because it involves supernatural associations of cause and effect.
For instance, an individual might have an intrusive thought: If I use the new coffeemaker, my wife will get into a car accident. To alleviate the fear that this thought brings, they may avoid the coffeemaker and perform a series of rituals to counteract the frightening notion. They might try to think “good” thoughts, repeat lucky phrases, or conjure up perfect positive intentions in their interactions with their wife before she leaves the house. All of this is driven by the perception that such rituals could prevent the feared accident.
Although a little magical thinking can be healthy—for instance, by giving one a sense of comfort during tough times—an overreliance on magical thinking causes emotional suffering and creates needless roadblocks in one’s day-to-day life.
How Does Magical Thinking OCD Develop?
Magical thinking OCD (mtOCD) may begin with a single emotional trigger that causes a perceived association. Consider a child playing with a new toy when suddenly, their parents get into a terrible argument. The co-occurrence makes the child think this happened because I played with the toy. They are overcome with guilt, immediately drop the toy, and never play with it again.
Following a single initial association, mtOCD may begin to spread to more events and more associations. Over the natural course of time, the child’s parents will get into new arguments, and other unwanted events will transpire. Maybe someone teases the child at school or the TV breaks, and Dad gets angry. Each time, the child associates the negative occurrence with something they touched, did, or thought. Before long, avoidance spreads to more and more personal belongings, and the child may begin to find comfort in new rituals designed to prevent any unwanted event.
Retrospective and Prospective mtOCD: The Roles of Guilt and Fear
The previous scenario is an example of retrospective mtOCD, which means the association is made after the fact. The fight occurs first; the association to the toy occurs second.
Individuals experiencing mtOCD are likely to assume that if something bad happens, it’s my fault. This belief spawns self-blame for anything that goes wrong. Individuals cannot foresee unwanted events most of the time, so the self-blame is laid after the fact. Guilt is the dominant emotion that accompanies retrospective mtOCD. I’m to blame for what happened. I should have prevented it.
But not all mtOCD involves looking backward at events that already transpired. Prospective mtOCD arises when looking forward in anticipation of possible catastrophes. This may be triggered by an intrusive thought or image of harm—for instance, a loved one being assaulted, murdered, or injured in a horrible accident. It may stem from experience and an expectation that a prior unwanted outcome will recur. The prominent emotion in prospective mtOCD is fear—fear of what might occur in the future and fear of being the one to blame.
Inflated Sense of Responsibility
The belief that I am to blame for anything bad that happens is common in OCD more generally. Professionals call this an inflated sense of responsibility, and it’s a significant facet of OCD.
Inflated responsibility is often what drives checking-OCD. For instance, someone who repeatedly checks to see whether the door is locked might think firstly that someone could break in, and secondly that it would be my fault for not making sure the door was locked.
The term “inflated” implies that the sense of responsibility and self-blame in OCD is taken too far and may be triggered by something entirely out of the person’s control. In our example of the child, only the parents can truly prevent the fight from occurring, so the child’s sense of responsibility for the fight is inflated. If the child did not think the fight was their fault, they would not likely try to prevent it in the future. They would continue playing with the toy and not develop superstitious rituals to manage the parents’ conflicts. The responsibility, therefore, links the unwanted event and the mtOCD reaction to it:
parents fight ⇒ it’s my fault ⇒ drops toy
The Desire for Control
Responsibility and control go hand-in-hand. You cannot take responsibility for something you cannot control. But if you do feel responsible for something, you will likely do your best to control it.
This is a healthy instinct. In my everyday life as a therapist, for example, I am responsible for the care of my clients. I, therefore, make sure to be informed, up-to-date, and attentive. I do what I can to control the care that I provide to fulfill my duties as a professional.
Magical thinking OCD may begin with the same healthy instinct; however, due to an inflated sense of responsibility, sufferers may perceive fault in situations with little or no control. And this drives a wish to control the uncontrollable.
In the heat of the moment, mtOCD sufferers may be flooded with an overwhelming urge to perform rituals that provide a sense of control. Rituals are the behavioral spine of OCD—the compulsions, the C in the acronym. Checking, cleaning, and seeking reassurance about one’s fear are all common ways sufferers cope with intrusive thoughts.
In mtOCD, the "C" comes in the form of superstitious rituals like the ones described earlier: repeating lucky phrases, thinking “good” thoughts, attempts at setting perfect intentions while performing rituals, repeating thoughts a “lucky” number of times, avoidance of unlucky objects, waiting for the clock to strike 11:11 before initiating an activity, etc. This is performed to soothe the urge to ritualize, provide a sense of control, and cope with fear and guilt.
The mtOCD Cycle
Although mtOCD sufferers do not usually have the power to prevent feared outcomes, the rituals are sometimes capable of providing a sense of control. When this occurs, it alleviates the fear of catastrophes and fulfills the perceived obligation to prevent them. This creates an mtOCD cycle. Rituals that produce a sense of control at the moment deliver relief from anxiety.
But ritualizing is a two-sided coin. On the flip side is a growing sense of responsibility.
Why would rituals that relieve anxiety worsen an inflated sense of responsibility?
Because when nothing happens—when the wife comes home safe, or the parents don’t fight—the person sees the ritual as effective, and they walk away with a false sense of control. When an unwanted outcome inevitably recurs, the person is more likely to experience it as a failure. This reactivates the sense of responsibility and drives the person to seek out more and more means of control, perpetuating the cycle of mtOCD.
Magical thinking is a natural phenomenon that we see in everyday life. It also appears in clinical disorders like OCD. Superstition is the defining characteristic of magical thinking. In OCD, sufferers perform superstitious rituals to prevent bad things from happening. This is driven by an inflated sense of responsibility and a desire to control outcomes. In the short term, rituals soothe feelings of fear and guilt. But over time, it makes OCD worse, intensifying the sense of blame for misfortune.
In part two of this series, you'll find seven strategies for "Managing Magical Thinking OCD"
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