In 1939, the New Yorker published a short story titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Written by James Thurber, the partially autobiographical story and the expanded novel that followed three years later introduced readers to a meek and unassuming man with a wild fantasy life.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story (film versions have starred Danny Kaye and Ben Stiller), you’ll find no spoilers here. But it’s enough to say that Walter has what might be best described as an incidental relationship with reality.

During rare lucid moments when reality does intrude on Walter’s overpowering fantasy life (he believes himself to be, among other things, a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a louche killer), he is confronted by a world he doesn’t understand and people he can’t cope with.

His relationships are fragile, his ability to make logical or sound decisions critically impaired. People are often well-intentioned, but the effect of their words or actions on him is almost always unkind.

At heart, we all have a bit of Walter Mitty in us. We all indulge in fantasies about how life might take a sudden right turn into riches or love or better health. We dream about a reality in which we are free of the things that currently burden us.

And that’s all okay. This is what is known as magical thinking, and having a bit of that in us is often what gets us up in the morning and motivates us to do and be the best we can each day. 

That’s especially true right now when day-to-day life puts so many obstacles in our path to happiness.

But what isn’t okay is the blurring of the line between dreams and cold reality. Not being able to recognise where one ends and the other one begins, and betting the emotional and financial farm on dreams or fantasy that aren’t grounded in at least some reality, is like building a house on sand.   

Magical thinking is not the same as magic – the beautiful, unexplainable moments in life that unfold without any clear or obvious reason. 

Against-all-odds recovery from terminal illness, winning the lottery, someone offering us a dream job out of the blue – all of these things can happen. But the point is they are, quite literally, exceptional, and they are almost always untouched by our own hand.

Believing there is more to be achieved that is good is a fundamental part of the human condition, and we should all encourage it because it fuels hope and the oomph to go and work and search for a better future.

Those gifts, so rarely bestowed, should never be underestimated when they arrive. But nor should they be relied upon as a life plan or demanded.   

And the beauty of someone’s faith, personal sacred practice and ‘hard work miracles’ are all things I have great respect for.   

But the magical thinking of the wounded Inner Child, when allowed to roam free and unchecked, is powerful, sinister and deceptive. 

All children are magical thinkers. 

They think magically to create the ‘tools’ they need to evolve socially (the imaginary friend), the metaphors that personify their fears (the monster under the bed), or the mechanisms that might deliver what they crave (wishing for, say, a pony in the hope one will magically appear).

For children, this is, more often than not, a common and transitory phase in life which fades and disappears as they begin to understand the concepts of cause and effect and learn to apply logic to their daily lives.

In adults, magical thinking is a big problem, because if it isn’t identified it can easily become both a coping mechanism and series of cognitive distortions that increasingly dictate behaviour, emotion and decision-making – and in all cases almost always for the worse.

Magical thinking is convincing yourself beyond the point of reason that something that ends up with the same result a million times over will not happen to you, or vice versa. 

I hate to break it to you, but standing in the middle of a railway track, watching a train bearing down on you and willing it to miss you is unlikely to end well. 

Chronic magical thinking is almost always ruinous in some way. 

In cases where someone is living with a wounded inner child, magical thinking can be attractive. On the surface, it provides a vital and remarkably soothing coping mechanism.   

But what is charming in children is less charming in 50 somethings who are toddlers in adult bodies hellbent on either wrecking their own lives through their delusionary behaviour or convincing others to join them on their path to ruination.

A good example of how others might be negatively impacted by magical thinking is someone who has – or appears to have – some sort of power credential: social media influence, wealth and knowledge are all power levers in mutual magical thinking.

Possibly the most recognisable of the 2021 Capitol Hill rioters, Jacob Chansley (known as QAnon) and Andrew Tate, the king of toxic masculinity, and many cult leaders are powerful examples of this.

These magical thinkers are highly influential because they are convinced to the exclusion of any other argument or narrative, that not only are they ‘right’, but also of the ‘truth’ that ‘my reality is stronger than yours’.

When we have been traumatised, magical thinking can germinate and then linger as a coping mechanism because it’s like a cloaking device that hides an otherwise unbearable reality.

This can show up as OCD, which helps the inner child to feel safe. 

All neurosis has its justification and reason rooted in legitimate suffering. Anyone growing up with an alcoholic parent, for example, can’t escape being damaged by the experience and may manifest that damage through negative behaviours in later life. 

But with the inner child at the wheel, it doesn’t take much for if I behave well enough, Mummy will stop drinking to become if I wash my hands enough times everything will be safe.

Magical thinking is the continual forgiveness and taking back of the toxic partner or friend who unfailingly repeats their betrayal, neglect or abuse of you. And you forgive and rehabilitate because you convince yourself that this time their promise to stop will hold.

Magical thinking is believing that joining the cult, whether physical or online, will provide the answer you’re looking for. It’s the denial that your childhood hurt you even though your score on the Adverse Childhood Experience List says otherwise. 

It’s avoidance of responsibility through denial by convincing yourself that the consequences of what you do right now – with money, with your health, with your habits – don’t matter because soon you’ll be rich or that hacking smoker’s cough will go away on its own.

Chronic people pleasing is also a form of magical thinking, because it essentially creates a magical life formula: be nice to everyone = no one will be mean to me = therefore I am safe

And don’t even get me started on the narcissists who use magical thinking to convince themselves that they are perfect and that spiritual forgiveness for their sins and harmful wrongdoing is therefore their divine right.  

And we see subversive magical thinking as an acceptable norm of behaviour in our day-to-day lives in the form of advertisers, as companies line up to pay big money for the right to sell their product or service as the cure all for every man and woman on earth.

The perfume that will deliver the always perfect, sexy and romantic partner. The clothes that will change your life. The car that will solve the world’s climate issues. The holiday that will make you happy forever. And so it goes on.

Magical thinking has also been at the heart of commercial meltdown. The fraudulent sham that was Fyre Festival of 2017 provided the ultimate example of the grandiosity gap of what was advertised and what was delivered.

Magical thinking and optimism are two different animals and two different ego states. The first is grounded in wounded addicted inner kid. The other is grounded in realistic but positive and healthy adult.

The issue with coming out of magical thinking is that it hurts. Like letting go of any addiction or denial, there’s a lot of grief involved, which means facing reality.

That might be the reality that your childhood did damage you, and that it needs to be faced. It might be the realisation that waiting for a return on your investment in an abusive partner or that crazy business idea isn’t going to deliver.

Or it might be that the person on the internet with a messiah complex isn’t the saviour you thought they were and they aren’t going to change your world singlehandedly for the better.

The intention of magical thinking is a desire to feel safe, but the consequence of it is a high price to pay 

When we pursue safety, we create numerous versions of what that looks like. Back in the day, we had a fighting chance of finding real safety and getting out of magical thinking before we felt its teeth sink in.

Now? Now we have the internet – the ultimate petri dish in which to grow a convincing set of arguments to justify any and all levels of self-destructive behaviour and thinking.

I want to end this where I started. 

Magical thinking is the worst drug, and as with all addiction, coming off it can be a painful cocktail of fear and uncertainty: 

So, your question might be Where do I find comfort now

If that’s you or someone close to you, know this, and cling to it: 

True comfort comes from accessing your true adult self who is rooted in reality and self-respect and doesn’t abandon themselves to the bullshit du jour (whether their own or someone else’s).  

It’s hard to let go of the magical thinking that seems to insulate you from everything your fear. But if you don’t find the strength and support to put it down, you will never get what you want.

If we can work to feel compassion for our own forms of magical thinking as the defence mechanisms we needed at a time of crisis but learn to see them for what they really are, and grieve the pain that that created the magical thinking in the first place, we can begin to move forward.

It will be hard. There’s no point in sugar-coating that. The progress may be slow. But if you find the will and the support you need in order to stick with it, you will find a place in which your reality is grounded, and you can genuinely truly begin to build the life you really want.

Anything less than that is the house of cards that we’ve convinced ourselves will never collapse.

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About Zoë Clews

Zoë Clews is the founder of Zoë Clews & Associates and is one of the most successful and sought-after hypnotherapists working in the UK today. She has spent the last 17 years providing exclusive, highly-effective hypnotherapy treatment to a clientele that includes figures in the public eye, high net worth individuals and professionals at the top of their careers. An expert in all forms of hypnotherapy treatment, Zoë is a specialist in issues relating to anxiety, trauma, self-esteem and confidence. She works with nine Associates who are experts in their own fields and handpicked for their experience and track records of success, providing treatment for an extensive range of conditions that include addiction, weight loss, eating disorders, relationships, love and sex, children’s issues, fertility problems, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and sleep issues.  She takes inspiration from her own emotional journey and works with both individuals and blue-chip corporates who want to provide mindfulness support for their people either on a regular or occasional basis, or as part of an employee benefit scheme.