Moving With Magical Thinking

In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion eloquently describes how grief distorts thinking and creates thoughts that defy logic. She describes this process as “magical thinking.” I think some people approach moving with magical thinking as well.

In psychology, magical thinking refers to the belief that one’s thoughts can make things happen, or that thinking something is the same as doing it.

In moving, magical thinking is the conviction that I want these things to fit in my new home — so they will, or I will hand carry everything to my new home, or downsizing will be fast and easy. I can see why people prefer to think magically. Moving creates stress and feelings of loss of control. This is especially true for older adults who may be leaving the family home, starting a new lifestyle, experiencing health issues or the loss of loved ones. Magical thinking relieves anxiety and restores a sense of control. Is it any wonder clients are reluctant to let go of magical thinking?

In comes the Senior Move Manager, with floor plans and reality checks to demonstrate why our thinking is correct, and our client’s is not. Do we really “win” by telling someone their furniture won’t fit, their move plan won’t work or that unpacking 100 cartons by themselves will be overwhelming? Surely, we don’t build trust or reduce anxiety — two of our goals — by telling clients they are wrong. I’ve been thinking about this, and perhaps the solution to magical thinking lies in storytelling.

Storytelling is an ancient art, but in recent years it has been recognized for its unique value in assisting discovery and enhancing learning. Stories help us connect factual information to feelings, and make sense of abstract concepts by providing tangible, concrete examples. If stories bypass linear thinking to assist with whole brain learning, perhaps they can bypass magical thinking, also.

Instead of “Your things won’t fit,” perhaps we should say “Let me tell you about a client who moved recently…”. The protagonist of our stories should not be ourselves, but our clients — competent people who create an image of how things will work because they want and need it to be that way. These magical thoughts serve our clients well by reducing their anxiety and making them feel in control. Our stories need to show real people who faced challenges and overcame them. Clients don’t demand that moves be perfect. They demand that they emerge from the move experience feeling intact and whole. Stories can be the bridge that helps this happen.

Am I certain this approach will work? There is no guarantee that storytelling will successfully combat magical thinking, but there is plenty of evidence that telling people they’re wrong does not work. Instead, let’s provide a platform where clients can relate to the emotions of moving and through the experience of others, arrive at better decisions for themselves. If we learn how to help clients better plan and prepare for their move, or better accept the consequences when moves that are less than perfect, that would indeed be magical.

By Margit Novack

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