Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
When I was a boy there were certain prohibitions in my Grandmother’s house. We couldn’t open an umbrella while inside because it was bad luck. If something good happened, we had to knock on wood. Whistling indoors was prohibited because that, too, could bring bad luck. When my grandfather accidently broke a mirror he said with great drama, “Seven years bad luck.” He was not joking. He really believed it.
Do you think all of this is stupid? Think again. Superstitious beliefs are wide spread. We even go through a childhood stage where we are guided by superstitions. Remember the old chant while skipping along the sidewalk, “Step on a line and break your mother’s spine?” We skipped with great care to prevent the awful decree from coming true.
Most of us would agree that superstitious thinking carries with it all kinds of illusions. Perhaps the most important illusion is that we can influence what happens in life. For example, many baseball players carry lucky charms with them in the belief that it will help them hit a home run or, at the very least, get a hit. I have known college students who will use only a “lucky pen” on exams to maximize their chances of scoring an “A” grade.
Part of the reasoning, even on an unconscious level, behind superstitions, is that there is order rather than randomness in the universe. This is reflected in the often used phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” The thinking is that, be appealing to the divine force behind the orderliness of the universe, we can exert control over what happens. As a result, we convince ourselves, we can prevent bad things from happening and ensure that good things will occur.
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The fact is that superstitious, or magical thinking , when kept within limits, helps us cope with life. I have seen many people who, after having come through a tragic even in their life, conclude that everything happens for a reason. In other words, magical thinking helps us give meaning to events that would otherwise be confusing. We can comfort ourselves with the thought that life is not just a matter of meaningless events that happen to happen.
Keep in mind that, even though magical thinking can be helpful, too much of a good thing can become harmful. It can lead obsessional thinking, and even to psychosis, if taken too far. It is not that these things can cause us to become ill. Rather, that obsessional or psychotic magical thinking are symptoms of illness.
Am I superstitious? Now, I don’t know about you but I am sure that superstitions are meaningless!!? What good can they really do??? Of course, when I spilled some salt at dinner the other night, I threw some of it over my left shoulder. I did not want to give the devil or the fates any excuse to harm me or my family. Oh, by the way, I never whistle in the house! Why tempt fate?
What are your superstitions? It would be fun to collect a long list of them to share with one another and the ways they seem to have been helpful.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
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