“Trust your intuition” is a phrase we commonly see thrown around in witchy spaces, and in many cases it’s good advice. Part of practicing witchcraft (especially if your craft has a focus on divination or psychic abilities) is learning to trust in your intuitive promptings. In a lot of cases, going with your gut feeling is the right call. But not always.
Our intuition can be wrong, or can give us an incomplete picture of a situation. It can also sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between intuition and subconscious programming. The human brain is designed to find patterns. Because of this, it can sometimes be hard to tell if we are genuinely receiving a psychic prompting or just connecting dots that are actually unrelated.
There are a few common thought patterns that often get mistaken for intuitive messages by new and experienced witches alike. It’s a good idea to read up on these and to keep them in mind when determining the validity of intuitive messages.
According to Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA, writing for Healthline, cognitive distortions are “thought patterns that cause people to view reality in inaccurate — usually negative — ways. In short, they’re habitual errors in thinking.”
Like a computer error, cognitive distortions cause us to misinterpret information and draw incorrect conclusions. Cognitive distortions are common symptoms of mental illnesses [see below], but all of us experience them at some point, even if we’re 100% neurotypical. Research suggests that cognitive distortions may have evolved as a survival mechanism, and that they’re usually tied to trauma or negative experiences.
This is way too big of a topic to cover in a single post, but here are a few common cognitive distortions to look out for:
- Black and White Thinking (also called “All or Nothing Thinking”): only thinking in extremes, framing every situation as either/or. (Example: “I have to do this ritual right or I’m a failure as a witch.”)
- Overgeneralization: applying a conclusion based on a single experience to a whole group of people or things. (Example: “People who cast curses and hexes are all evil.”)
- Catastrophizing: assuming the worst in every situation; turning everyday worries into major catastrophes. (Example: “I didn’t feel the gods during my ritual — the gods must have cut me off because they’re angry with me.”)
- Personalization: taking things personally when they have nothing to do with you. (Example: “My friend cancelled our lunch plans for today — they must have decided they don’t like me anymore.”)
- Mind Reading: making assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling, usually projecting your own feelings onto them. (Example: “My partner is being quiet tonight — they must be angry with me.”) This cognitive distortion is especially important for witches to look out for, as it can be mistaken for empathy or claircognizance.
- Mental Filtering: excluding positives and focusing only on negatives OR excluding negatives and focusing only on positives. (Example: You draw the Tower, the Sun, and Death in your tarot spread. You become fixated on the negative messages in the Tower and Death cards, ignoring the positivity and blessings heralded by the Sun.)
- Labeling: reducing yourself, another person, a group of people, or a thing/activity to a single, one-word label. (Example: “I’m lazy.”)
I strongly encourage all witches to do research into cognitive distortions and learn to recognize them, especially if the nature of your magical practice has you leaning heavily on your intuition. A cognitive distortion is not an intuitive message — your intuition should be logical, and can often be fact-checked.
The prejudice I’m talking about here isn’t just the obvious kind, like blatant racism or homophobia. We all have prejudices, whether we realize it or not. Merriam-Webster defines prejudice as a “preconceived judgment or opinion” or “an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.” Prejudice simply means thinking we know what to expect from something, even if we’ve never experienced it before.
You may have an image in your head of what “real” witchcraft looks like. You might feel like emoji spells, for example, aren’t “real magic” because they seem silly, they don’t take a lot of time and effort, there’s no historical precedent for them, etc. etc. In short, you feel like they aren’t “real magic” because they don’t fit your idea of what magic looks like. This is an example of prejudice, and buying into that prejudice prevents you from having access to an easy, fun form of techno magic.
If you find yourself receiving an “intuitive message” that someone else is faking it, is lying about their spiritual experiences, or is only imagining those experiences, take a step back and seriously examine that thought and where it might be coming from. It’s possible that the thought came not from your intuition, but instead from your own prejudices. It doesn’t matter if the way someone practices magic or experiences spirituality is different from your path — it’s the right way for them, and that’s what matters.
When you bring your prejudice into a tarot reading or other form of divination, you bring a set expectation for what the cards are going to tell you. The cards are going to pick up on that, and they may very well tell you what you want to hear — or you may twist the meaning of the cards to fit your expectations. This prevents you from getting clear, accurate readings.
I know it’s hard, but witchcraft requires us to leave our prejudice at the door. There is no “right way” to be a witch or to practice magic. There is no “right way” to communicate with the gods or the universe. Prejudice, biases, and expectations will only keep you from fully exploring your spirituality. Work on letting them go and opening up to the full spectrum of possibilities.
This one goes hand-in-hand with prejudice and is closely related to overgeneralization (a cognitive distortion). Stereotyping is a necessary coping mechanism that we use to simplify our social interactions — but it is also the root of serious social issues like racism and misogyny. We all use stereotypes without consciously thinking about it.
While it’s important to be aware of stereotyping in order to avoid contributing to social issues, it’s also important for witches to learn the difference between an intuitive hit and a stereotype. This is especially important for witches who use claircognizance, where information often comes in the form of “downloads” that can sometimes be difficult to tell apart from our own thoughts.
For example, you might “just know” or “have a gut feeling” that a man you know is gay. But if that man talks in a higher pitch, acts effeminately, and puts a lot of time and effort into his appearance, then your gut feeling may have less to do with intuition and more to do with applying stereotypes to your friend.
Many common mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety, can cause you to feel like you know that something bad is about to happen. “Anticipating disaster” or feeling like something is going to go wrong, is one of the most common symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and other anxiety disorders. Hyperfixating on details and worrying over small things are also common symptoms of these and other mental disorders.
As a witch with two anxiety disorders, I’ve had to learn to tell the difference between my intuition and my anxiety. Here’s a very recent, real life example: Last week, the entire staff at my workplace was tested for COVID-19. The results were expected to come back on my day off, and I found myself constantly watching my phone. Now, I do have some claircognizance, and when my phone goes off I usually know who the message is from before I even look at it. But on this day, every time my phone dinged I was just sure that it was my boss texting me to let me know that I’d tested positive. After the first couple of “false alarms,” I realized that this was an anxiety thing, not an intuitive thing. I was anxious about the test results, so that was the first thing my mind went to every time. (For the record, when my results did come back, they were negative.)
If you have or suspect that you have a mental illness that affects your thoughts and emotions, I highly recommend seeking out a good therapist or counselor. A trained mental health professional can help you sort out your symptoms and learn to recognize them, so you can differentiate them from genuine psychic experiences. (I’ve personally had really good results with CBT and DBT.)
Journaling has also been really helpful for me, as it helps me keep things straight and allows me to go back and read over my experiences when I’m having a better mental health day. (In my experience, it’s much easier to tell the difference between anxiety and intuition when you’re not in the moment.)
- “What Are Cognitive Distortions and How Can You Change These Thinking Patterns?” by Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA, medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP, published through Healthline
- “50 Common Cognitive Distortions” by Alice Boyes Ph.D., published through Psychology Today
- “Stereotypes” by Saul McLeod, published through Simply Psychology
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Facts page on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website
- New World Witchery Podcast, “Episode 65 — The Slender Man Discussion”
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