The pleasures and pain of wishful thinking

Wishful thinking can be a pleasure and a great tonic to reality during hard times.

At its best, wishful thinking can help us realise what it is that our souls long for in a confusing and distracting world.  Also, in the midst of situations that are out of our control, focusing on what might be possible can be a healthy distraction, supporting us to bear the pain and discomfort of current reality.

At its worst, wishful thinking can be soul destroying.

If used passively,  wishful thinking is as destructive as any other form of distraction we can use.  We can spend our time dreaming about how things could be without actively engaging in steps to make it so.  We can focus on the destination rather than the journey and feel frustrated that we are not reaching it.  And it can be so automatic that we don’t even notice we are doing it.

The two forms of wishful thinking that I look out for early in therapy are:

  1. when people come wanting me to change them
  2. when they aim to recover without working at it.

In both of these there is an interest in the outcome, a desire to recover.  However, the SEEKING system isn’t online in a way that allows the person to be sniffing around looking for clues and curious about the process of recovery, energised to do the work that needs to be done.  In the former, there is an awareness that something needs to happen, but the wishful thinking is that another person can do it for me.   In therapy, this can take the form of ‘the therapist will magically change me’ but it is also common in our culture – fairy tales of princes battling through thorns to get to a helpless princess or in romantic comedies with one partner in a couple rescuing another.

In the second form, the wish is that change will occur without any hard work at all, it will just happen one day, I will wake up from the nightmare of these difficulties.  Perhaps the fairy stories of princesses who just kiss the frog are an example of these – no effort, just a kiss.   Ah, the pleasure of wishful thinking! See how it helps us escape from reality where endeavour leads to outcomes.

A wonderful Jungian analysis of folk and fairy tales is “The Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a psychotherapist and storyteller, who has published inspiring audio books as well as written material.  This describes the characters in stories such as Sleeping Beauty to be all parts of the self, with a sleeping part being helped by an active part, a gullible part being helped by a savy part.  It is when we project parts out onto other people with our wishful thinking about being rescued, that we can find ourselves in trouble.  Our ability to be active is lost in the process, and we can find ourselves waiting for things to happen at best, experienceing debilitating anxiety and helplessness at worst.


Having our eyes wide open about the wishes and desires contained in the dreams and fantasies of our wishful thinking enables us to:

  • separate what is possible from what is not
  • bring the SEEKING system online
  • connect with our ability and positive volition
  • take effective action towards our needs, dreams and goals.


Given this is so positive why do we sometimes constantly project the active part of ourselves onto others, wait to be rescued rather than rescue ourselves?  It can be for a variety of reasons. We may have been taught that taking a victim position was the only or most effective way to get our needs met in our families or important relationships.  We may have experienced trauma and the fear response might have led us to shutdown as a result, perhaps finding that we can still be active in crises but inactive in other circumstances.  Whatever the reason, strong mixed feelings can be underneath the wishful thinking way of coping we have adopted.  Anxiety about experiencing these strong feelings underneath can be a barrier to us taking back the active, healthy or savy parts of ourselves.

Are you facing how to bring your wishful thinking to life or to put it to one side?  Courage, openness, being and sharing with compassionate others as well as patience and perseverance will be key in this process.