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Can You Overthink Positive Thinking? The Hidden Dangers of the Law of Attraction and OCD

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People have been turning to positive thinking advice for ages to feel empowered.  But is it possible to overdo it?  Can the idea that we attract good things with our positive thoughts go wrong?  All wrong?

Absolutely.

When we struggle with mental health, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in particular, positive thinking advice and the belief in the law of attraction can lead to unhealthy levels of anxiety.

Here’s what you need to know about positive thinking advice and the law of attraction to determine if it’s healthy for you.

What is Positive Thinking and the Law of Attraction?

Positive thinking is the idea that positive thoughts create positive outcomes via the law of attraction (LOA).  The LOA is the belief that we attract things into our lives, either good or bad, depending on our thoughts and our energy or vibration. The LOA involves a variety of practices such as reciting affirmations, visualizing, setting intentions, and making vision boards.  Historically, the LOA has been linked to the New Thought spiritual movement in the nineteenth century.  Around 2006, it entered the mainstream lexicon due to the success of the movie and bestselling book The Secret.

While both positive thinking and the LOA are meant to be empowering, there are some potential downsides.  One downside is that it can result in a rigid adherence to positive thinking at the expense of our mental health.  This is especially the case when we try to control our thoughts because we’re afraid of what will happen if we have negative thoughts.

Can We Really Control Our Thoughts?

Research shows that when we try to suppress an unwanted thought, we end up thinking about it more frequently.  This is called the rebound effect.

For example, one study showed that people who were instructed not to think about chocolate thought about it more frequently than the other subjects.  Moreover, the subjects who were trying to suppress thoughts about chocolate ended up eating more of it.

In other words, keeping tabs on how successful we are at suppressing a thought requires thinking about the unwanted thought.  When we do that, it is more likely to result in a preoccupation with the thought and counter-productive behaviors.

Trying to suppress unwanted thoughts is an example of experiential avoidance.  Experiential avoidance is when we try to suppress or control unwanted thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations.  While this is an attempt to feel better, it’s not a very effective or sustainable strategy.  In fact, it has been linked to self-harm, substance abuse, maintaining PTSD symptoms, OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, depression and anxiety.

Let’s look at how experiential avoidance shows up when we try too hard to avoid negative thoughts because of our spiritual beliefs.

Spiritual OCD

OCD is one of the most misunderstood disorders.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is tidy or that they wash their hands compulsively.  There are a variety of obsessions and compulsions that people experience.

When the focus of obsessions or compulsions in OCD is spiritual in nature, it is called Spiritual OCD, Religious OCD, or scrupulosity.

According to Dr. Belinda Seiger, Director of the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center of Princeton, trying to have purely positive or 100% good thoughts is usually a compulsion seen in scrupulosity.  She states, “Underlying the rituals is a core fear such as going to hell, causing harm to others, attracting evil, or attracting bad karma.”

Dr. Seiger explains how this differs from a normal spiritual or religious belief system: “People with OCD attempt to do the ritual much more often, or try to get it perfectly; and they repeat it over and over until it feels just right or seems perfect.  Furthermore, unlike other people with similar beliefs, they do the ritual to ward off or manage anxiety about the feared consequences of not doing it.”

Do Thoughts Become Things?

For someone with Spiritual OCD, the popular manifestation idea that our thoughts are powerful and magnetic – that our thoughts become things – can lead to significant anxiety.

This idea is actually an example of a cognitive distortion – a pattern of thinking that leads us to have irrational beliefs about the world – called thought-action fusion.

Thought-action fusion is the assumption that thinking about a negative event increases its likelihood of actually happening, and/or that thoughts are equivalent to actions.  Cognitive distortions such as thought-action fusion can turn intrusive, negative thoughts into obsessions.

If your spiritual belief is that your thoughts affect outcomes, don’t worry.  This can be a healthy belief as long as it doesn’t lead to distress, obsessions, or mental compulsions such as trying to “cancel” or “delete” negative thoughts in your mind all day long.

The reality is that we all have intrusive, negative thoughts.  The problem isn’t negative thoughts, but that we give an inflated meaning to thoughts and are then terrified of the consequences of them.  In other words, we need to be careful about overestimating the importance and threat of our thoughts.

Spiritual OCD Treatment

The most widely used treatments for OCD are Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

1. Exposure and Response Prevention

In ERP, you engage in an obsessive thought without performing the compulsive behavior or ritual.  Simply put, you expose yourself to the thought and prevent your usual compulsive response.

For example, in scrupulosity, you might allow negative thoughts to be there without trying to cancel them out or change them to positive thoughts.  Research confirms that the emotional discomfort associated with obsessions goes away on its own and that the compulsion is not necessary.

2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT is an empirically-validated mindfulness-based therapy that focuses on the process of thinking rather than the product of it.  It encourages an accepting attitude toward thoughts in order to improve psychological flexibility and reduce experiential avoidance.

In ACT, you would work on changing your relationship to thoughts so that you can unhook from them.  This is called defusion.  One example of a thought defusion practice involves imagining that your thoughts are like leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky.  You can see them go by one by one without judging them or trying to engage them.

Will I Lose My Faith if I Treat Spiritual OCD?

According to a study, getting treatment for scrupulosity doesn’t mean that you have to lose your faith.  In my clinical experience, addressing spiritual problems in therapy can actually lead to a deeper faith.

For example, my psychotherapy clients who struggle with scrupulosity and believe in the law of attraction typically retain their spirituality.  During the course of treatment, however, their spirituality starts to look less like mental discipline and internal vigilance and more like peace, self-compassion, and trust in the Divine.

Spiritual OCD and Spiritual Abuse

If you struggle with overthinking positive thinking or worrying about the consequences of your negative thoughts, therapy can help.  If you know someone who is struggling, sensitivity is important.

Unfortunately, many of my clients who struggle with Spiritual OCD and other anxiety disorders have been told by spiritual leaders and communities that the LOA can’t be escaped and that negative thoughts inevitably lead to negative things manifesting in your life.  Not only is this an oversimplified understanding of spiritual teachings, but pushing it on others can also be a form of spiritual abuse.

If you’re a spiritual leader or community member, remember to empower others and give them a sense of agency.  The LOA is a spiritual belief, just like the belief in karma, sin, and hell.  We are free to choose our beliefs and we need to respect other people’s choices.

For those of us who have been harmed by the belief in the LOA, we also need to be careful not to shame people for their beliefs.  Some people feel supported by their belief in the LOA.  If they are trying to spiritually gaslight you or force the belief on you, however, boundaries and maybe even outside help would be in order.

Spiritual Wellness and Mental Health

Here are some simple questions to consider when evaluating the impact that a spiritual belief or practice has on your mental health:

  • Is this belief or practice helpful?
  • Am I worried that if I don’t do this practice just right, something bad will happen?
  • Is this belief or practice making me feel more anxious?
  • Does this belief or practice contribute to my wellbeing, healing, or inner peace?
  • Have I seen positive changes in my life as a result of this belief or practice?

After asking these types of questions, you might discover that a belief in the LOA isn’t for you or that you simply need to take a break from it.  You might even find that it doesn’t impact you in a negative way.  That’s entirely possible, too.  We can interpret the belief in a balanced way (for example, we can believe that the Divine knows our true intentions despite our thoughts and that we attract our heart’s desire) and have a variety of additional spiritual beliefs that invite feelings of peace, trust, support, and safety.

After all, we can’t build an entire spiritual life on one belief alone.  If modern spirituality truly is a buffet, make sure that you fill up on plenty of colorful veggies and, by all means, please don’t skimp on the desert.  Your spirituality can absolutely reflect your complexity.  Your richness.  Your beauty.

Above all, make sure that it isn’t just the sum of your fears.

I’d love to hear from you: Do you think that believing in the law of attraction can be helpful, hurtful, or both?

*Recommended Reading: Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with Uncertainty (Updated Edition) by Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D.

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Thank you so much for sharing this. I am going through these exact issues. I know the law of attraction is supposed to be inspiring but it has only caused my life hell so far, constantly living in fear that I will manifest an extremely terrifying unwanted thought that keeps haunting me no matter how much I try not to think about it. It’s been a struggle. After reading this I think it’s time to put down the law of attraction book I’ve been reading and take a much needed break.

Hi Ana. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so happy that you found the post and that it was helpful. Many people are suffering in silence after reading law of attraction books that don’t address this issue. A break from reading the material is often a start to reducing the anxiety. I wish you all the best.