“Magical Thinking” is Toxic

We’ve all seen people react badly or rudely when they’re told something they’d rather not hear. And it’s just as bad when you don’t say what they want to hear. The perfect example is an email I received from a faithful reader of this column:

“Dear Dr. Hurd: My mother just doesn’t get it. My new husband and I have a great relationship. No matter how hard I try, I can’t convince her. She’s nice to him and doesn’t talk badly about him. But I know my mother, and I can tell she doesn’t really approve. We’ve done everything she’s asked, including having the wedding she always dreamed of me having. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I hoped it would appease her. Nothing works.”

The woman who wrote this isn’t hearing what she wants to hear from her mother. Her mother is not necessarily being critical of her new husband. But the daughter is still seeking approval that, for whatever reason, is not forthcoming. My reaction? So what!

I can’t give advice on how to appease her mother. That would assume that the daughter should have her mother’s approval. She loves her mother and her husband, and she’d like them to like each other. But not everybody’s the same, and this isn’t always possible. So her marital happiness is being held hostage – unnecessarily – to somebody else’s whims.

The problem comes down to “magical thinking.” Magical thinking is the pursuit of things that are not possible. Having the approval of others is not always possible, and it’s not always necessary either. Life goes on.

Here’s another email: “Dear Dr. Hurd: I’m gay and my family is evangelical Christian. Needless to say, there are problems. Is there anything I can do to convince my parents to be more reasonable on the subject? I don’t yet have a partner, but I’d like to someday. I don’t want them to know all my personal business, but I do want them to know who I am, and to accept it.”

Again, this person is not hearing what he wants to hear from his parents. And I’m sure he’s hearing a lot that he doesn’t want to hear. But his happiness cannot be held hostage to their opinions. Parents either love you or they don’t. If they do, then at first they might be worried you’re doing something they mistakenly believe will make you unhappy. It’s worth trying to educate, but all of this assumes they are open to reason. We read of young people who commit suicide when they don’t get the approval they want. How unspeakably tragic to sacrifice your life because you didn’t get the approval you mistakenly believed you needed. So many people lack serenity because they don’t hear what they want to hear from significant others.

Growing up occurs at the moment you stop caring about what others think. How do you stop? You just stop! To care – or not – is a choice. Of course, sometimes you do have to please others; a boss, perhaps, or your customers. But you’re never going to please everyone, and you don’t have to. You only have to please yourself, using rational standards. If your standards are indeed rational, others will acknowledge and appreciate them. But not everybody is rational, and not everybody cares about the same thing, and that’s OK!

Don’t look for others’ validation. Don’t make yourself dependent on others for your happiness and stability. You can achieve this with common sense and your observation of facts. If help is offered, evaluate it. Don’t accept anything blindly; from parents, teachers, politicians – from anybody.

It’s amazing that we’ve come as far as we have, given how so few people grasp that they don’t need the approval of others to be happy. Imagine how much we could accomplish if people could get past this psychological hurdle. Your own mind and your own reasoning will always take precedence over somebody else’s.



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