From avoiding sidewalk cracks to wearing lucky socks, most people have a superstition or two. Superstitions can be quirky and even weird but often harmless. They provide something for people to believe in when they feel fearful or out of control. Many have been passed down from generation to generation and can give us a sense of belonging and connect us to each other.
But sometimes superstitions can veer into dangerous territory if you abdicate your role in determining your destiny to a lucky charm.
Any behavior or object can be a superstition if you associate it with a positive or negative outcome. If the desired outcome happens, the belief is reinforced, hence a whole bunch of baseball players have some fascinating prebatting rituals.
Comforting…but Holding you Back
Life can feel like a great unknown. Believing in superstitions helps some people feel more positive about the future and in some ways gives them a feeling of control. You carry your grandfather’s lucky silver dollar, for example, hoping that it will decrease the chance of something bad happening or increase the chance of something good happening. Or you have a ritual before you start your day, as tennis great Rafael Nadal does when he takes a cold shower before a match and jumps during the coin toss.
The irony is that you think you’re restoring some control with the rituals, when you’re actually becoming a slave to them, putting your faith in something that has no power to help you.
Superstitions move from being fun to detrimental when they replace constructive behavior that will really get you to your goals, affect your behavior in a negative way or disempower you. Example: You wear your lucky yellow shirt as an excuse to not prepare for an important meeting. Compounding the problem is the panic it can cause should you suddenly realize that the yellow shirt is in the laundry.
Some people keep information private for fear that they will “jinx” the outcome. For example, you don’t tell family members or friends about an important development in your life, such as being up for a new job or dating a new person, because you think talking about it will jinx it. What you might really be doing is trying to protect yourself from feeling embarrassed if your plans don’t work out. But this actually can keep you from increasing your likelihood of success. If you shared your news, loved ones might be able to offer guidance on the interview process should you need it or motivate you to make even more efforts in your relationship.
Breaking the Hold
Yes, superstitious behavior can occasionally have a positive aspect—maybe it helps you to get psyched for a big race or it helps you feel like you’ve done everything you possibly could to succeed (you not only studied hard for a big test, but also sat in your favorite chair). But you’ve gone too far if you start to believe that a superstition can have a true influence on the outcome of things.
To extinguish your overreliance on it, you need to change your mind-set and show yourself that there’s no connection between the superstition and the outcome.
Build confidence in yourself. Recognize that you have the ability to control your own destiny. You can develop a belief in yourself, an internal locus of control, as easily as a belief in that silver dollar, an external locus of control. You have the power to make your own luck by taking action and doing everything you can to not fail. Much of the time, you will get a good outcome from good efforts. Of course, there are no guarantees—sometimes you’ll prepare vigorously, and the situation won’t go your way, but your chance of success will be higher than if you didn’t prepare at all.
Aim to be more decisive in general. People who are more proactive have less need for superstitions. To improve your decision-making and help you feel more in control, write down what you want to achieve or have go your way, research the options for getting there, evaluate the pros and cons and take action steps.
Use self-reflection to understand why you rely on superstitions. If it’s because you’re afraid of an outcome, ask yourself what’s making you afraid and what would help you conquer that fear. If it’s because you don’t want to put in the time needed to prepare, uncover why you’re reluctant—maybe it’s not a goal you really care about or you’re afraid you will fail. If it’s because you don’t know how to get to the goal, reach out to others for help.
Change the back story. You don’t have to stop wearing your yellow shirt, but wear it because it brightens your mood. If you listen to a certain song before a challenging game of tennis, do so because it’s motivating. See these things as ways to boost your confidence or comfort level, not as magic-makers.
Wean yourself slowly. If your super-stitions have a deep hold on you, you may need to wean off them gradually. If your superstition is to not share good things happening in your life in advance, try sharing them one day in advance and maybe with just one or two people. As you start to see that there’s no relationship between the superstition and the outcome, lengthen the time frame.