Let’s face it, these days I’m a cynic. I have made an art of raising one eyebrow (took years of practice) while simultaneously peering over the top of my glasses. This look is delivered whenever I hit sceptic overload and can’t maintain my poker face.
I blame my psychology training.
The psychology profession makes a big noise about being a science. We are taught to conduct our therapy from within a “scientist-practitioner model”. This means using evidence-based treatments, and gathering evidence from our clients to assess whether what we are doing is actually working. We need to keep one eye on the research and the other on the effectiveness of what we do. This has become ingrained when it comes to my methods for treating my clients.
However I haven’t always been this way.
My Skeleton in the New Age Closet
When I was 18 I lived alone in a little apartment near the sea. I worked in a gift shop and I was studying acting and photography. I was a completely different beast to the scientist-practitioner I later became. The gift shop I worked in sold crystals, among many other incredible things. Startling clusters of clear and milky white quartz, beautiful slices of multi-coloured agate, “caves” of stunning amethysts, and hunks of pink rose quartz. I came to know some of the regulars who would buy these beautiful pieces. Some of those lovely people talked to me of the properties and energies associated with these stones. I became fascinated and my collection rapidly grew. I still have many of them to this day. They are beautiful.
I was 18 in the late 80s. Life revolved around cheesy pop music on one hand and the esoteric on the other. I was fascinated by past lives, astral projection, and alternative healing. I was a regular visitor to the Theosophical Society Bookshop. It was all very New Age and “out there” as far as most people were concerned, only one step removed from witchcraft! And then I found psychology.
Self-Help Vs Science
These days the alternative self-help therapies have become a bit more palatable to the masses and the New Age tag has faded into 80s obscurity, along with Enya and Bucks Fizz. Rather than crystals some might turn to Journaling (something I have always enjoyed and encouraged), instead of astral projection some might turn to Manifesting. (I confess to having to look up what this meant. Until recently I thought “manifestation” was a term reserved for pestilence, or those who believe in ghosts.)
My 18 year old self would be glad that I have become a ‘healer’ of sorts as a psychologist, but would frown at me for having deserted my previous interests. “Don’t blame me”, I would scowl at my younger self, “the scientific evidence just doesn’t stack up!” Most New Age therapies do little harm, but are no better than placebo upon scientific study. (There’s an amusing blog article here on this topic.)
What Does Frances Farmer Have To Do With It?
The seeds for my inner sceptic were planted by my teen fascination with the 1930s actress Frances Farmer (she is also responsible for triggering my interest in mental health). When she was a teenager, Frances Farmer wrote an essay called “God is Dead“. In her essay she asks why God would bother about helping her find her favourite hat, but let other children “lose their fathers and mothers for always”. The unfairness of this struck both the teenage Frances Farmer and me. And now I find myself asking the same of the recent popularity of manifesting.
If you Google the term ‘Manifesting’ you will find articles with titles like “7 Steps to Manifest Anything You Want“. But if that’s too many steps for you, there’s also “5 Steps to Manifesting Anything You Want“. And here’s the problem: “Anything you want” is rather broad and a pretty strong promise. Few other self-help techniques make such claims. And it is rather entitled. (#firstworldproblems)
So Is There A Place For Manifesting Exercises?
There is nothing wrong with manifesting exercises per se. Manifesting involves strategies which aim to help you open your mind, find clarity, set clear goals, put aside unhelpful thoughts, and find focus. We talk about similar concepts in cognitive behavioural and other psychological therapies, we call it cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring. (Although we don’t promise that you can have “anything you want” … otherwise surely I’d have everything I want by now.)
Cognitive reframing (however you get there) can result in a mindset shift that in turn results in a more positive and open approach to life. Not a bad thing at all. And not exclusive to manifesting. For an excellent resource on mindset, go to the source: “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. Some manifestation advocates take their claims a bit further than this though.
The Law of Attraction
Manifestation is based on the Law of Attraction, which suggests that like-attracts-like (whether that be positive or negative). This philosophical concept has been around since the late 1800s and was made famous in the early 2000s by the pop psychology film and subsequent book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, which became something of a phenomenon.
Unlike the Law of Gravity, the Law of Attraction is not grounded in science, but we won’t burn it at the stake for that. Its core intentions are honourable. But like anything in life, there is good and bad in the Manifestation movement.
Where the philosophy most obviously falls down is the inference that, if like-attracts-like, bad things shouldn’t happen to good people if they are working on manifesting positive outcomes in life. Can my clients struggling with infertility manifest a baby? Should the buddhists of Tibet change their thinking if they really want to be free of China? And whose fault is my son’s dyspraxia? His? Or Mine?
Recognise The Limits of Manifesting
The promises made by some manifestation advocates that you can achieve “anything you want” sound too good to be true. And you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true! And to be honest, it is when promises of financial gain are made that I become truly worried. These claims have a faint whiff of snake oil about them.
If your goal is to find clarity, form some achievable goals, and reframe negative thinking habits, then manifestation might be for you. However, if your goal is to manifest something with a price tag attached, I’d encourage you to be wise. Ask yourself this: will this strategy manifest the same financial outcome for refugees, indigenous populations, or those living in third world countries. As my Nanna says, ‘if wishes were horses, beggars would ride’.
Use It As A Creative Tool, Not a Fix-All
So, approach manifesting as a creative exercise, just like you might use journaling activities. Both can help you to unlock your creativity, unshackle you from negativity, and open you up to optimism. Both can help you shape achievable goals. Both can be a creative way to shake up cognitive habits that have found you stuck. Both might trigger a mindset shift. These techniques might open the way for you to more confidently and optimistically find a path towards success, however you choose to define it. But please, if you want a magic way to financial riches, try buying a lottery ticket.
And whatever you do, please don’t confuse manifesting, journaling, or any of these strategies as a substitute for formal psychological treatment. They are not.