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Narcissists & Magical Thinking

I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.

Narcissism and Magical Thinking

Narcissism and Magical Thinking

Narcissists often do things that make no sense or take risks that most people would not take. They don't seem to understand consequences or logic, and many times, their loved ones are at a loss to understand why this is. Part of the reason for this is something called magical thinking. For those that don't know, magical thinking is the idea that you can influence the world around you with your thoughts—that just your thinking makes it so. This is something we see in little children who believe wholeheartedly that if they wish for something, they will get it. We can also see a variation of magical thinking in another disorder: obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which people often engage in ritual mantras or behaviors like counting things or repeating phrases to ward off anxiety and panic.

As most of us grow up, we stop engaging in the childish type of magical thinking, because we realize that things don't happen just because we wish them to. We must earn them, or buy them, or find them, or create them. Narcissists never grow out of this belief. They don't seem to understand that simply wanting something or hoping for it is not enough, and they often become frustrated, angry, and upset if this doesn't work and more is required of them.

Oddly enough, it does work for them a lot of the time—in a manner of speaking. Many times, the narcissist takes a risk or causes a problem with their magical thinking and then enablers or well-meaning people step in to rescue them and resolve the problem. For example, the narcissist spends all their money and cannot pay their electric bill, so a relative or friend loans them money to pay it. This inadvertently makes the problem worse because it reinforces the narcissist's idea that everything will just work itself out. It reinforces and entrenches the magical thinking, instead of letting the narcissist fail so that they can see that that isn't how things are. That is how children learn. When people step in and rescue narcissists from the consequences of their own bad decisions, this is simply proof to the narcissist that their magical thinking is correct.

In many ways, their magical thinking is identical to children's magical thinking. Narcissists don't believe a pony will drop out of the sky because they wished for one, of course, but when asked why they are taking such stupid risks, they often say things like "Everything will work out" or "something will come up." Regardless of how many times it has not worked out, they still believe this. It's another example of how narcissists believe feelings are facts. The facts of reality, such as how many times they've already been evicted or had their electricity cut off for not paying don't matter because they feel it will all be OK. There is no reasoning for this because it isn't reasonable. It's silly and illogical. You wouldn't argue with a child that told you they wished for a pony and now they are going to get one. You might try to explain that it wasn't true so that the child would not be disappointed but you wouldn't try to argue with a toddler. Why argue with a narcissist? It's the same thing. You're dealing with an immature, childish mind that does not understand why these things aren't true. Every person is different, of course, even if they are narcissistic, but this is why it's generally better for narcissists not to be in positions where they are responsible for other people or finances.

It can be extremely frustrating for loved ones to see such risks being taken, especially with the family's money or with the narcissist's health. Many hours are spent arguing, explaining, and trying to convince the narcissist that the way they are behaving is dangerous, unfair, irresponsible, etc.—but to no avail, because the narcissist simply doesn't believe that. Some examples of magical thinking can be:

  • "I can drive as fast as I want. Other cars will get out of the way."
  • "I'll never get sick. My body can fight off illness better than other people's."
  • "It doesn't matter if I spend all the money. It'll work out somehow."
  • "The rental office/electric company/car loan people will work with us. It'll be fine."
  • "It doesn't matter how much I drink. My body can handle it."
  • "It doesn't matter if I'm overweight. I'm not like other people."

Narcissists generally see no need for a plan B, or a plan for when things go wrong because things aren't going to go wrong. They often become angry at challenges to this magical thinking and may accuse you of "being negative" or of "hoping" things go wrong. For example, the narcissist has spent the water bill money and has insisted it'll be OK because the water company will work with you on the bill. They haven't spoken to the water company and have no reason to think this, but they still insist it is true. You say, "What if they don't?" The narcissist then accuses you of "hoping" the water company refuses to work with you. It doesn't make any sense, of course. Why would you hope that? No one wants their water to be turned off. This really just gives us an insight into the narcissist's mindset. It is really the narcissist who is working off of hope here, whether they realize it or not. But they don't recognize the difference between hope and belief. It is one thing to hope something will happen, and another to realistically believe it will.

"I hope I win a million dollars in the Publisher's Clearinghouse, but I don't believe that's going to happen."

"I hope world peace is attained in my lifetime but I don't believe it will be."

What is magical thinking?

What is magical thinking?

The facts do not demonstrate that either of these things is likely to happen. However, to the narcissist, hoping for something and believing something will happen are one and the same. Statements that confuse these two things are red flags for magical thinking.

At the heart of all narcissistic magical thinking is the same idea: I'm special. I can do whatever I want and it will all be OK for me. This is the result of the narcissist's belief that feelings are facts and their belief that everything in the world is an extension of themselves. It's as if they are living in a movie where they are the star. Nothing that bad ever happens to the star, right? This is sometimes called "narcissistic immunity," and it means that the narcissist believes they are immune to things that happen to "regular" people. This again is a very childish belief, and that makes sense because all of these things are very childish, immature states of being.

Children also see feelings as facts. Children see everything in the world as an extension of themselves. And only children truly believe in their own immortality because they have not experienced anything that will make them believe otherwise. They have always been and they will always be. Concepts such as mortality, death and finite existence are unknown to them. It is the same with narcissists. So the next time this situation comes up, remember who you are dealing with: a toddler who believes they are getting a pony.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Enslaved on September 27, 2018:

Considering that magical thinking no consequences and impulsive behavior are childish behavior can we conclude that development of the narcissistic tendencies began in disrupted childhood development?

Is what we call a narcissist a child interrupted, an adult child?

BMadeleineJ on August 21, 2018:

This was my x-husband, and his mom, to a T. Magical thinking to its finest. When my x-h's grandparents were in their late 80s, the grandpa had dementia. He would turn the gas hob on, to make himsef some food, would forget about it, and go next door. A few times my x-mil would call my x-h laughing, because she caught him on time, and opened all the windows. The house could have exploded, but it was okay because she had arrived at the "right time" a few times. Nothing was done to prevent it happening again. A few years later, my x-h had an affair with a subordinate. He flaunted it to people at work, with favoritism and hanging with the woman constantly. He thought everybody would assume they were great "friends" because nobody had asked him if he was having an affair. Once I found out, his mom told him not to get worried, because his company wouldn't fire him, and everything would be okay in the end. He thought the same. That he was a great employee, that he was the only one who could do the job, so the company would never get rid of him. In the end he got demoted at work, I divorced him and he lost custody of the kids. That's how okay it went for him. Though if you asked my x mil, she would tell you that her son got a divorce because his x-wife was not the "forgiving kind". Not because he cheated.