Magical Thinking as Self Empowerment: A Pagan Contribution to Psychotherapy and Counseling

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This contribution is my 13th article for the New Existentialists. I have now contributed one for every lunar cycle over the past year, and I find myself in a celebratory mood as I reflect back over the past year of contributions. It is also fitting that I write this at the end of the old Celtic year, just a couple days before Samhain (Summer’s End), when the old planting year ends with the final blood harvest and the new one begins.

Thirteen certainly does not feel unlucky or inauspicious for me; and at any rate I am far from being triskaidekaphobic. With that invocation of the fear and avoidance of the number 13, I now consider the poor regard my profession holds for magical thinking and the “irrational” conclusions that human beings sometimes draw about various phenomena in their lives.

“Magical thinking” is widely regarded in the mental health arena as a “heuristic error,” or a proneness to a superstitious and peculiar style of cognition characterized by a perception of unrelated events as meaningful and connected—when they are widely regarded by “experts” as not being so. Therapists often view it as a means by which clients tend to avoid responsibility for the consequences of choices and mistakes—or in an opposite fashion to blame themselves for negative or tragic life events and outcomes over which they actually have little or no control.

Magical thinking can manifest in a wide variety of contexts. For instance, one who is deeply enwrapped in anticipatory grief over the impending death of a loved one may bargain with the powers that be to prolong the life of that person in return for some personal sacrifice. A man who has worked hard for little money over a lifetime may religiously buy a lottery ticket every week, deeply convicted that the payoff will be inevitable and the reward for that lifetime of labor, coming any day now. A woman who has a series of miscarriages feels she has somehow brought them about, a punishment for an earlier abortion or for giving her first child up for adoption.

The debunking of magical thinking by a therapist can provide a client relief from guilt, shame, self-blame, and burdensome anxiety. It can also help in the setting of realistic, achievable, and measurable life goals for improvement of well-being and greater satisfaction. It can free clients from the grip of delusions that prevent them from mastering life challenges. However, is the pathologizing of magic in life always the most helpful thing we can do as therapists?

I identify as a nature-loving contemporary Pagan, honoring the earth and its seasonal, solar, and lunar cycles. As a Pagan psychologist, I find myself frequently standing in the heart of a paradox pertaining to this concept of magical thinking. Pagans are quite diverse from each other in lifestyle, values, and beliefs. We do, however, tend to agree that events, individuals, and situations are interrelated and interconnected in mysterious, subtle, and surprising ways. We believe that aspects and events of the natural world offer a mirror by which we may better understand ourselves. While the psychologist in me recognizes that magical thinking can be unreasonably oppressive, the Pagan in me embraces the beautiful, magical nature of the world. I don’t always believe that debunking a client’s magic is necessary.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a rule, Pagans are largely wary of mainstream therapists, whom they regard as too traditional or conventional to understand their values and practices. In my part time counseling practice, the majority of my caseload now consists of Pagan clients who are quite happy to have found a therapist who will not pathologize their lifestyle or views of magic while working on the psychological issues that motivated them to seek therapy. I have credibility with them. I can encourage them to occasionally reframe and reshape their magical thinking and practice into work that will empower them to achieve their goals for therapy rather than impede or encumber them.

For instance, a former client who has given me permission to discuss her work in educational and public contexts was unemployed when we began working together. She felt that magical influences from other powerful people and past losses were keeping her from moving forward. She felt stuck. Since she wanted to secure employment as a bookkeeper, we discussed magical means by which she could attract such employment. With my encouragement and support, she formed an idea that was uniquely her own. During a waxing moon, she steadily counted beans into a little cauldron—bean counter, get it? This was sympathetic, like-attracts-like magic. Within ten days of doing this personal work, she secured a job position that brought her great satisfaction.

The magic worked. Perhaps I only encouraged her to adopt a mental frame and a motivational position characterized by a stronger internal locus of control, in which she was empowered and encouraged to actively pound the pavement and secure an interview. During this interview, her background and qualifications led to the highly probable outcome that she would find a position for which she was well suited. I find I am not interested in making that distinction. It feels too much like splitting hairs and does not contribute anything meaningful to our mutual understanding of what occurred.

I have many stories like this one! At the end of the day—at the end of this lunar year of writings that have allowed my inner eyes a wider and richer view of my personal and professional life—I find I am delighted by the serendipity with which my own disparate life threads weave through each other. Surrendering the need to compartmentalize different aspects of who I am has been…well…


— Drake Spaeth

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