I’ve always been the sort of person who looks forward to a new year. I love the feeling of cracking open a new planner, the excitement of setting new year intentions, and the idea of everything I could achieve in 365 days.
Recently, though — since about 2016 — I’ve felt increasingly anxious near the end of each December.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the past few years have been difficult.
But besides this, there’s a growing, meme-worthy sentiment that we shouldn’t declare a new year “our year.”
When a terrible event happens within the first few weeks, we joke about it being proof that the year ahead will only get worse.
These memes are just that — jokes, expressions of annoyance. But if you’re prone to magical thinking, it can be very difficult not to believe these sentiments on some level.
Magical thinking is the idea that you can influence the outcome of an event by doing something that has no rational connection to that outcome. An example of magical thinking is knocking on wood for luck.
Most of us engage in magical thinking from time to time. Many of us are superstitious, for example.
Magical thinking isn’t always an issue, but some of us struggle with it more than others.
People living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), like me, are especially prone to magical thinking.
With us, magical thinking often factors into our obsessions and compulsions. This can be a huge source of distress.
Here’s an example of how magical thinking factors into my OCD symptoms: I often have upsetting intrusive thoughts (obsessions) where I hurt people I love, accidentally or on purpose.
For some reason, when that happens, I feel the need to twist my hands a certain number of times (compulsion).
In my head, twisting my hands will somehow reduce the chance my thoughts become true.
Of course, I know that twisting my hands doesn’t actually have any influence on whether my thoughts become reality. It also doesn’t do anything to soothe the distress or stop the thoughts.
Not all rituals are problematic. Rituals can mark special occasions, facilitate connection to your community and culture, and help you process difficult emotions (especially those associated with change or loss).
Many of us have our own rituals associated with marking a new year. We might kiss someone at midnight, sing “Auld Lang Syne,” or drink champagne.
When it came to this last end of the year, though. I felt extremely anxious for two reasons.
First, I was afraid that I’d jinx the beginning of 2022 by being too optimistic about it.
Second, I was worried that I’d engage in a New Year’s Eve ritual that would develop into a compulsion.
When OCD compulsions develop, you might not notice until it becomes extremely distressing.
I didn’t want to make the mistake of lighting a candle on New Year’s Eve, for example, only for it to become something I feel compelled to do whenever my obsessions come up.
How do we embrace the beauty of a new year and a fresh start without engaging in unhealthy thought patterns?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know what worked for me: I decided to allow myself to be optimistic, but not irrational.
I allowed myself to imagine all the positive things 2022 could have in store for me, but I didn’t entertain the idea that I was jinxing it by being optimistic — that’s an irrational thought.
I allowed myself to set positive goals for the year ahead, but when I caught myself imagining rituals that I could do to make it all happen, I stopped.
I allowed myself to mark the end of the year with journaling, setting resolutions, and staying up until midnight, but I didn’t pin all my hopes for 2022 on doing New Year’s Eve “correctly.”
In other words, I focused on the rational reasons why a new year can be great without entertaining irrational thoughts.
This wasn’t intuitive or easy for me, but therapy has helped me learn to “reality check.”
In other words, I ask myself whether my fears or perceptions are rooted in reality. If my beliefs are irrational, I sit with those feelings and try to understand where they come from.
Simply being aware of the irrationality of your thoughts is a great first step in addressing them.
Here’s a common form of magical thinking that many people with OCD engage in: The idea that we could have “already” ruined the year ahead.
Whether it’s because of Betty White’s passing, upsetting political events, or personal experiences, many of us have already declared 2022 a write-off because it hasn’t gone perfectly.
If you have anxiety around this, you’re not alone. But remember that this, too, is an irrational thought.
The way 2022 has gone so far isn’t proof that it’ll always be this way.
To stop myself from engaging in this rational thought, I try to remember the highlights of my most difficult years.
Even during the most terrible years of my life, I’ve had some incredible, joyful moments. This doesn’t erase or balance out the pain, but it does remind me that good things can happen in bad years.
As I write this, we’re not even 8% into 2022. Even if the year has been totally terrible up until now, you still have 92% of the year ahead. And, inevitably, there will be at least some good, despite a difficult start.
When you’re prone to anxiety and magical thinking, optimism can be an act of bravery. It can be scary to imagine the possibility of good things happening in the year ahead, especially after enduring many difficult years in succession.
If you have OCD, or if you suspect you do, it’s important to remember that healing is possible. There are many effective treatment options for OCD, including talk therapy and self-care strategies.