John Bradshaw on magical thinking

“Children are magical. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Magic is the belief that certain words, gestures, or behaviours can change reality. Dysfunctional parents often reinforce their children’s magical thinking. For example, if you tell children that their behaviour is directly responsible for someone else’s feelings, you are teaching them magical thinking. Some common statements are: “You’re killing your mother”; “See what you’ve done – your mother is upset”; “Are you satisfied – you’ve made your father angry. ” Another form of magical reinforcement is the statement, “I know what you’re thinking.”

I remember one client who had been married five times by the age of 32. She thought marriage would solve all her problems. If she could just find the “right” man, everything would be fine. Such a belief is magical. It implies that some event or person could change her reality without her doing anything to change her behaviour.

It’s natural for a child to think magically. But if a child is wounded through unmet dependency needs, he does not really grow up. The adult he becomes is still contaminated by the magical thinking of a child.

Other contaminating magical beliefs are:

  • If I have money, I’ll be okay.
  • If my lover leaves me, I’ll die or I’ll never make it.
  • A piece of paper (a degree) will make me smart.
  • If I “try hard,” the world will reward me.
  • “Waiting” will bring about wonderful results.

Little girls are taught fairy tales that are filled with magic. Cinderella is taught to wait in the kitchen for a guy with the right shoe! Snow White is given the message that if she waits long enough, her prince will come. On a literal level, that story tells women that their destiny depends on waiting for a necrophile (someone who likes to kiss dead people) to stumble through the woods at the right time. Not a pretty picture!

Boys too are taught magical expectations by fairy tales. Many stories contain the message that there is one right woman, whom they must search for and find. In his search the man must travel far, traversing dark woods and conquering dangerous and frightening dragons. Finally, he will know, without a doubt, when he finds her. (this is why so many men are anxious standing at the altar.) 

Often the male’s destiny is shaped by arcane things like magical beings or miraculous swords. He may even have to hang around with a frog. If he can muster the courage to kiss it, the frog may turn into a princess. (Women have their own version of the frog story.)

For women, the magic consists of waiting for the right man; for men, it is searching endlessly for the right woman.

I am aware that fairytales operate on a symbolic and mythical level. They are non-logical, and, like dreams, they speak through imagery. Many fairytales are symbolic statements about finding our male or female identity. When the developmental process is running smoothly, we eventually outgrow our child’s literal understanding of these stories and come to grasp their symbolic significance.

But when our inner child is wounded, he continues to take these stories literally. As adults children, we magically wait and/or search for that perfect ending where we will live happily ever after.”

Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child – John Bradshaw

The writer finds a lot that is useful in this, although she also feels its edges…. He is, of course, accurate about the unhelpfulness of literalism and binary thinking, carried into adulthood. The examples he gives will resonate with most therapists. Therapy has a significant role in holding the mirror of loving relationship up to these ways of seeing, supporting the person in holding, loving and healing their inner wounded child, and moving over time to a more nuanced and flexible perspective.

However, the issue here is literalism, and black and white thinking, not ‘magical thinking’ per se. Bruno Bettelheim and others have written about the purpose of fairytales, myth and magic in childhood. John touches on this in the passage above – ‘fairytales operate on a symbolic and mythical level. They are non-logical, and, like dreams, they speak through imagery’.  ‘magical thinking’ has little to do with cognitive understanding. Metaphor, myth and symbol neither live nor act at a head level. The analogy with dreams is an apt one. Sand tray work is another useful analogy. In both cases, a ‘head’ understanding of what is happening may arise, but the real work lives elsewhere, deeper within.

So for the writer, it is not that children think ‘magically’ and need to outgrow it. Indeed, her experience suggests the actualising process for us as adults ultimately leads us back full circle to the sense of wonder and intimate connection with the universe we once had (and lost), growing up in a culture that overwhelmingly values the material.  Literalism, binary thinking is a blind alley, arising out of a fracturing of wholeness – silted channels in the child’s (or adult’s) inner being, resulting from trauma of one kind or another and limiting how they can connect within themselves, within relationship, and beyond.

It is through a reclaiming or recovering of inward wholeness – as John discusses various facets of this in this book – that the child, or adult, will move out of literal, binary applications of metaphor, symbol and myth. That by no means necessarily equates to the kind of materialism that sees the visible world as all that there is, or reduces human experience to functional psychology.

There is a big difference between the black-and-white child thinking that John is engaging with, and spiritual experience from a place of wholeness. It is the difference between ‘.. the belief that certain words, gestures, or behaviours can change reality’ in the child-logic way he describes, and finding the ground within ourselves to move into a larger conception/experience of what ‘reality’ means – away from binary conceptions of ourselves/everything else, and into the vast, subtle, complex dimensions of the numinous that underlie our daily round and received certainties.

Here’s the book link:-

Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter

Counselling in Exeter since 1994

This entry was posted in child development, cognitive, conditions of worth, Disconnection, empowerment, family systems, generational trauma, growing up, human condition, identity, John Bradshaw, meaning, metaphor & dream, perception, power and powerlessness, self, self concept, spirituality, transformation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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