Someone leaning near trees.

How to Make Someone Less Superstitious, According to Psychology

When knocking on wood is driving you crazy.

For a while there, I was a handful to be around. Drop salt on the table, I needed to throw some over my shoulder. Say something ominous, I needed to knock on wood. I never got into the whole step on a crack, break your mother’s back thing, but it was only a matter of time.

I once accidentally shattered a mirror. For the next hour, I panic-searched remedies for ridding any bad luck I had thrust upon myself.

Superstitions can be fun when treated lightly. However, at some point they cross a line. They start to intrude into your life and cause annoyance for yourself and others. But you can rid yourself of your superstitious tendencies once and for all. All you need is a little help understanding your mind.


Trying to control the uncontrollable

Several years ago, I spoke to my psychologist about some of the anxieties I was facing. Together we had worked out that I like to have control. Over situations, people, events, etc. It helps me feel secure. I then brought up superstitions. The various ones I adhere to and why.

She suggested that, perhaps, my following a specific ritual to ward off bad luck was nothing more than me trying to control a situation I had no control over.

My eyebrows raised at that one. Not bad, Doc, not bad. She was onto something.

View it from that lens, she instructed me. See it as you simply trying to control a situation much larger than you can grasp. You will realize the rituals you follow aren’t necessary. And in doing so, you will become free from them.

She was right. The spell had been broken. I stopped knocking on wood.



I recently added a new layer to my understanding of superstition though. It’s come to my attention (thanks to my psychiatrist) that I don’t only have anxiety, but also OCD.

When you think of OCD you likely imagine a few different characters. The perfectionist who must have all of her pencils lined up neatly. The clean-freak who tidies his apartment every morning. Or the party host who insists everyone put their glass down on a coaster.

But in reality, OCD is two things. An obsession (O) that won’t go away. And a compulsion (C) that must be done.

The obsession could be anything. For instance, the perfectionist student may have an incessant thought that her teacher and classmates hate her. That is the obsession. However, by placing all of her pencils in a row, everyone will find her wonderful. That is the compulsion. And yes, I know it doesn’t make much sense. Obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions rarely do.

Unfortunately, the more you ruminate on the obsessions, the more you have. The more you do the compulsions, the more intense they become.

Perhaps my superstitious tendencies went further than simply wanting control.


It’s no longer cute

At some point, knocking on wood was no longer optional for me. It was a mandatory behavior. If I didn’t have any wood nearby, I would look around and find some. I would pretend certain objects were composed of wood, even if they weren’t.

I would walk into planters so that I could tap on a tree.

My mind was filled with obsessive thoughts – something bad is going to happen. It would then solve it with a compulsion – unless I knock on wood this instant. I knocked on wood a solid handful of times each day. It was getting ridiculous.

The words from my psychologist helped me in the moment. And, I’d say, cured me of the habit. But if I didn’t have her guidance, I’d probably still be knocking away. That said, there are other manners of working through it.


A brain misfiring

In Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, four steps are given for overcoming OCD.

First, recognize the thought coming into your mind as an obsession or compulsion. Second, remind yourself that your thought isn’t arising intentionally. Rather, your brain is literally misfiring because you have the disease OCD.

Third, refocus your attention on something productive. If you still feel the need to ruminate on the obsession or compulsion after 15 minutes, indulge in it. But each time you repeat this process, add more and more time to the clock.

Lastly, revalue your thoughts. Start to recognize OCD-related ones even faster and more effectively.

I’ve applied this methodology to my OCD and it’s been incredibly helpful. You may find it helpful for you as well. In dealing with superstitions or any other intrusions.


Final thoughts

Superstitions are fun little things. They surely relate back to the days of old wives’ tales. And they likely are based on real situations of the past. But when the rituals of yesterday start to negatively impact you today, something more direct must be done.

If you can’t make a meal because you get caught up in throwing salt over your shoulder, or you call your mom in a panic because you accidentally stepped on a crack, superstitions can easily turn into annoyances and inconveniences for everyone involved.

There are ways to work through it.

If you’re like me, it might just be realizing that you are trying to control something that is uncontrollable. That understanding may make you see the actions for how silly they are. And just like that, the spell may be broken.

For more persistent thoughts, consider the teachings of Brain Lock. OCD may not be something you struggle with, but you can still apply a version of the four steps. See your thoughts as either obsessions or compulsions. Realize that part of your brain is misfiring. That you aren’t those thoughts. Put your attention onto something else for at least 15 minutes. And begin to better spot those thoughts each time around.

Superstitions can be fun… Until they aren’t. Practice the techniques listed above. And forever say goodbye to standing up mid-meal to find some wood to knock on.

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