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Illustration by Brittany England

Just before Christmas Day in 2004, I had a nightmare about a flood that came out of nowhere, and everyone I knew drowned. Then, on December 26 of the same year, I watched the news, horrified that my nightmare had come true: a tsunami in the Indian Ocean had killed more than 200,000 people.

Perhaps someone else would’ve chalked this up to coincidence or not even thought about the connection. But at 10 years old, I became convinced that I had conjured the tsunami and that hundreds of thousands of people were dead because of my dream.

The law of attraction is the idea that we attract what we focus on. By visualizing our desires and aligning our energy with those desires, we attract our goals like magnets. Similarly, it’s the idea that negative thoughts attract negative experiences.

This is the idea of manifestation: that our thoughts become our reality.

I read “The Secret” at the age of 12, a few months after I was sexually assaulted. I sincerely believed that I had attracted the rape into my life.

Part of the reason I never spoke about it is that I blamed myself. I believed I’d manifested the experience because I watched news reports and read magazines covering sexual violence.

I didn’t realize that my newfound obsession with the law of attraction and manifestation was something that would fuel my mental illness.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s that a therapist suggested a term for my persistent intrusive thoughts: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

People who have certain cognitive distortions — in other words, a tendency to think in certain irrational ways — are more likely to develop OCD.

One of those cognitive distortions is called likelihood thought-action fusion.

“Likelihood thought-action fusion is a cognitive distortion that leads people to believe that the mere thought of a negative event increases the likelihood of it happening,” explains Anna Kress, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Princeton, New Jersey. “Manifestation teachings such as the law of attraction are very similar to [this] cognitive distortion, which is a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders and OCD.”

Like many other people with OCD, I tend to think that we’ll manifest the worst just by thinking about it.

I often fear that I’ll murder people around me, even though I have no reason to think it’ll actually happen. At times, I constantly visualize this murder in detail, and I’ll be unable to stop those thoughts.

This persistent, distressing, intrusive thought is the “O” in my OCD: the obsession. Because I can’t stop thinking about it, I fear that I’ll manifest it.

Perhaps in another world we’d recognize this cognitive distortion for what it is, but in a society where manifestation “advice” is constantly doled out by celebrities, influencers, and authors, it’s hard not to feel like those irrational thoughts are actually founded in truth.

“Most therapy and coaching works by helping the individual to realize that these kinds of thoughts are not rational,” explains Robert James Pizey, an OCD coach and teacher. “Unfortunately, though, the [concept of the law of attraction] tells people the opposite, that not only can they manifest good things into their lives through positive thinking, but also undesirable things through negative thinking.”

When I Google “will I manifest my negative thoughts?” I get dozens of results telling me that it is, indeed, possible.

“Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything,” author Rhonda Byrne writes in “The Secret,” confirming exactly what my OCD tells me.

This has worsened both my obsessions and compulsions, and for a long time, it made me feel like an awful person because I couldn’t control my thoughts.

It looks like I’m not the only person who struggled with OCD and the law of attraction, though.

“I’m extremely anxious over the idea that OCD + intrusive thoughts could be unintentionally manifesting negative things and this is making daily life difficult,” one Reddit user shared. Many comments in that thread echo the sentiment.

Likewise, questions on Quora and social media sites suggest that many other people with OCD and anxiety disorders are struggling with the same concern.

In an article about OCD and the law of attraction, Pizey shared how learning about manifestation made him struggle with his own OCD symptoms.

After reading a book about the law of attraction, he became obsessed with it and felt that it undid his progress with therapy. “I became increasingly worried that if I thought about harming someone, then the law of attraction could actually make it happen,” he wrote.

No, learning about manifestation will not cause OCD. But it did stop me from seeking help and recognizing my mental illness for what it is.

And thinking about manifestation and the law of attraction does trigger my OCD symptoms.

In his article, Pizey explained that he felt attracted to the law of attraction because of his OCD.

Those of us living with the disorder often feel the need to be certain about the future — which can form a part of another cognitive distortion called intolerance of uncertainty.

The idea of being able to control and predict the future is irresistible to us. Teachings on the law of attraction are appealing because they suggest we can actually control everything.

For me, reading “The Secretfelt good because it validated my suspicion that I was, in fact, manifesting everything in my life. The law of attraction was so exciting to me because it made me feel like if I could manifest bad things, I could also manifest good things. I could be in control.

“Some people who already have OCD may also naturally gravitate toward manifestation teachings and try to follow them perfectly in an attempt to seek certainty,” Kress says. “They might engage in practices such as trying to have only positive thoughts or deleting negative thoughts repeatedly in order to ward off anxiety.”

She adds, “If they have harm OCD, they might believe that behaviors such as repeating positive affirmations can prevent their loved ones from being harmed.”

But as Kress explains, suppressing your thoughts isn’t a great way to deal with them.

“Thought suppression has a rebound effect that causes an increase in negative thoughts and is linked to mental health disorders,” she explains.

As you can imagine, this experience can be terrifying for those with OCD.

Much has been written about the limits of positive thinking.

Toxic positivity is the idea that we should always be positive, to the point where we’re actually harming our mental health because we’re afraid to acknowledge negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

In a blog post about overthinking positive thinking, Kress asserts that you can overthink positive thinking and that it can worsen anxiety in people with OCD.

But “think positive” has become a pervasive mantra. While well intended, the pressure to think positively — lest we harm ourselves through negative thoughts — can be harmful for people who have mental health conditions.

Ironically, something that’s helped me with my OCD symptoms is allowing myself to have negative thoughts.

I allow myself to think and feel my negative thoughts, all while resisting the urge to engage in my compulsions.

Guided by my therapist, I notice that those negative thoughts actually don’t come to fruition. This is “proof” that my intrusive thoughts do not actually manifest.

So, if you have OCD and believe in the law of attraction, what should you do?

This is a difficult question because it might feel impossible to abandon your spiritual beliefs, even if it’s a trigger for you.

“If someone has OCD, I would generally encourage them to avoid the law of attraction. This isn’t because I think it is bad per se, but because there is so much potential to get confused with it,” Pizey explains. “If the law of attraction is tied up with your spirituality and you feel the call to apply it to your life, then just try to hold on to it lightly.”

Kress adds that it’s possible for people with OCD to have a healthy relationship with spirituality.

“When it comes to the law of attraction, it can be helpful to reinterpret the belief in a more balanced way,” she says. “For example, we can choose to believe that the Universe knows our true intentions despite our negative thoughts and that we attract our heart’s desire.”

Anyone who struggles with intrusive thoughts, whether they’ve received an OCD diagnosis or not, might benefit from therapy. With OCD, exposure and response therapy, as well as acceptance and commitment therapy, can be helpful.

Personally, I’ve found that many aspects of the law of attraction do work for me. For example, I enjoy visualizing positive things, and I’m able to engage in this without it becoming an obsession. However, I generally find that discussing manifestation or the law of attraction can be a trigger for me.

Beyond that, I’m now more focused on accepting my OCD than trying to control the world around me through manifestation.

I’d much rather direct my energy to therapy, self-care, and enjoying life instead of trying to “attract” anything into it.

As Pizey says, “In my experience, learning to overcome OCD is about gaining greater clarity and peace of mind by being in the moment, accepting life’s challenges, and living according to our values. These are things we should put our energies into.”