You’re walking down the sidewalk and you’re looking down at your feet and suddenly, like a lightning strike, the phrase hits you: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” There’s lots of cracks in this sidewalk. It’s almost impossible not to step on one. And you know, logically, that stepping on a crack in the sidewalk would have no real connection to your mother’s back breaking . But, what if they were connected? What if your mother’s back breaks and it’s all your fault? What if all it would take to stop your mother’s back from breaking was to just avoid the cracks? Wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?
This line of thinking is a characteristic of a disorder known as magical thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in which people “feel like they have an expanded sense of responsibility to themselves and others” (Gateway Institute. 2019.). This sense of responsibility is often compounded by the intense doubt felt by those who suffer from OCD. After all, OCD is often called the ‘doubting disease’; “Doubt is what fuels the fire for OCD, as sufferers feel the need to have total control over everything in their lives. There is no room for doubt or uncertainty” (Singer, J. 2018).
OCD preys on that little voice in the back of your head saying, “What if I did leave the stove on and the house burns down and it’s all my fault?” Magical thinking OCD may seem completely irrational and mind-boggling to those who don’t suffer from it. At its core, however, it stems from that insignificant doubt and heightened sense of responsibility to others. Because of this, individuals with this disorder tend to make “strange and magical connections between things which logically don’t seem to connect in the real world” (Penzel, F. n,d.). Fulfilling actions that stem from the anxiety created by magical thinking makes those with OCD feel as if they have some semblance of control over a frightening—and often very uncontrollable—world.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” is a commonly used phrase, but those with magical thinking OCD may suffer from specific superstitions, such as the belief that the “clothing you wore to a funeral can lead to more unhappiness if you wear it again,” or the idea that “thinking of the name of a disease will cause you or someone else to get that disease” (Penzel, F. n,d.). A certain amount of superstition in life is common, but the superstition faced by those with this specific kind of OCD provides a remarkable hindrance to their ability to function in everyday life.
Have you ever seen one of those Facebook posts saying, “Repost in 20 seconds or your mom will die”? Or been forwarded a message saying, “Send to 10 people or you’ll die tonight”? You probably scroll past these posts or ignore these messages, without giving them a second thought, but someone with magical thinking OCD might see one of those posts and become riddled with anxiety, utterly disturbed and unable to convince themselves that they won’t suffer a terrible fate if they don’t follow the post’s instructions. Though this line of thinking may seem irrational or unexplainable, it stems from emotions and thought processes faced by everyone at one point or another.
Bolling, R. (2015, March 5). My Week of Magical Thinking
Retrieved from https://thenib.com/my-week-of-magical-thinking-87f59765995a.
Gateway Institute. (2019, April 16). Magical Thinking OCD – Symptoms and Treatment.
Singer, J. (2018, October 8). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Uncertainty.
Penzel, F. Excessive Superstition In Cases Of OCD. (n.d.).