What Is Manifestation? What Therapists Say About Using It to Get What You Want

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Manifestation is not wishful thinking and it requires inspired action to work.

Manifestation 101

Two of the most popular self-help books about manifestation are The Law of Attraction and The Secret. Although they both came out in 2006, the books and the concept of manifestation are seeing a burst of popularity now, especially on social media.

Some social media accounts, for example, share images and posts urging people to like them and leave a comment in the comments section. Doing so is to “affirm” or “claim” anything from love to money. Some of these posts have sayings similar to self-motivational quotes.

Most rational people realize that commenting on a random Instagram post doesn’t mean you’ll receive love, money, or whatever you’re hoping to attain or achieve. Yet, these posts continue.

However, this doesn’t represent all manifestation practices. Some people manifest by creating vision boards or dream boxes representing their desires and making plans to achieve their goals. Others use positive words of affirmation. (These practices could be a good addition to your self-care plan.)

Although this might all seem like a bit of “woo-woo wellness,” it’s not entirely baseless. Some people who use the power of manifestation swear by it. But are these practices worth your time? Or could they do more harm than good? Here’s what therapists think about using manifestation to get something you want or achieve your goals.

Hand Outstretched Towards Scenic View Of MountainsAicha Hajoui/EyeEm/Getty Images

What is manifestation?

First, manifestation has many definitions. Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York, and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, defines it as the attainment of intentions. He thinks it’s possible if you know how to manifest the right way and understand what manifestation is not (more on that later).

Caroline Hexdall, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Center For Mindful Development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says that manifestation is the practice of focusing intently on the desire. “Through purposeful thoughts, feelings, and actions, what is desired is manifested,” she says.

The most crucial component is action, she says. “It brings to mind Thomas Jefferson’s quote: ‘The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.’ In my opinion, it encompasses manifestation.”

Denise Fournier, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor and an adjunct psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has a similar definition.

“Manifestation refers to the notion that we can attract things into our lives through our intentions, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions,” Fournier says. “By focusing on the things we desire—and shifting our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions accordingly—we can enter an energetic frequency that aligns us with those things we’re seeking.”

As a result, she says, we make those things “manifest in our lives.”

People may tap into it in different ways. But the basics remain the same: Manifestation is bringing something into your life through intentional action and belief.

What manifestation is not

Hope

One common misconception about manifestation is that it’s the same as hope. Although Hokemeyer says it’s critically important for people to find hope, manifestation consists of the additional dimension of work. “To manifest something in our lives, we have to be out in the world taking calculated risks, stumbling and recalibrating, remaining disciplined and consistent in our efforts,” he says.

Magical thinking

Likewise, a lot of people assume manifestation is “a form of pure magic,” according to Fournier.

“That’s because many conversations about manifestation focus exclusively on the part about thinking and believing—they completely leave out anything about doing,” she says. “This makes it seem as though you merely have to want something bad enough and make your thoughts positive enough to manifest it in reality.” (What is toxic positivity?)

Unfortunately, it almost never happens that way, adds Fournier. “While some things manifest this way, most of the things people put on their vision boards can only materialize through committed action and discipline.”

The idea of manifestation is attractive to many because of an implied “hands-off” element. That is, some people believe manifestation is simply about thinking good thoughts.

“They may be disappointed when they realize that it is not that simple,” Hexdall says. “And it can be difficult to grasp just how hard it can be to change our thoughts until we dedicate ourselves to the practice.”

Optimism

Similarly, manifestation is not blind optimism. Like hope, optimism is critically important, according to Hokemeyer. “Studies that analyze traits of entrepreneurship consistently find optimism as one of the most important personality traits of successful entrepreneurs,” he says. “But optimism alone does not lead to success.”

Success manifests when optimism, hard work, discipline, and singleness of purpose come together, Hokemeyer explains.

(Here are easy ways to be more optimistic in life.)

There’s a big misconception about the role that privilege and access play in being able to manifest what you want, too.

“We need to be highly aware of the fact that many, many people and populations in the world face legitimate and considerable barriers in the way of their ability to manifest their deepest desires,” Fournier says.

Manifestation has limits

There are real limitations to the concept of manifestation, which is a point Fournier always emphasizes when discussing the topic.

“We need to be very careful about how we think and talk about manifestation because we run the risk of assuming that people who live in conditions less fortunate or privileged than our own are manifesting their circumstances because they aren’t thinking positively or have simply failed to tune into the right energetic frequency,” Fournier says.

This is where manifestation really reaches its limits.

“While we can say—and see evidence to support—that our focus, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs can create our experience, we can’t say that everything we experience in life is subject to this formula,” she adds.

Manifestation and mental health

Manifestation highlights the importance of thought patterns

The concept of manifesting could be good for mental health since it may help people realize that thoughts matter. What you think may shape how you feel, what you do, and what you experience, Fournier says. “This is really foundational to any conversation about mental health.”

Manifestation points to what we can influence, which helps us feel motivated to reach our goals. “Generally speaking, our mental health improves when we feel capable of reaching goals and when we experience the satisfaction of actually reaching our goals,” Hexdall says.

So, in this way, approaching manifestation in a grounded and balanced way can positively affect our mental health. “Secondly, intention, purposeful attention, and anticipation of favorable future events—all elements of manifestation—are also known to have a positive impact on mental health,” Fournier says. (Here are the benefits of reframing your thoughts.)

Although there may be benefits to manifestation, they don’t come without practice. Thoughts, sometimes false beliefs about ourselves, have roots in the mind, and become well-worn paths. In a short period of time, that path is the only one our minds take, according to Hexdall.

“Carving a new path takes awareness, resistance to habit, as well as effort and dedication to rebuilding the new path,” Hexdall says. “The ‘thinking good thoughts’ component of manifestation is very hands-on, which may be surprising to some.”

Manifestation plays a role in therapy

The foundational elements of manifestation are already part of therapy, according to Fournier and Hokemeyer.

“Most therapists are helping their clients examine their thoughts and understand the connection between their thoughts, their emotions, and their experience,” Fournier says. “Therefore, I don’t see much value in focusing therapeutic conversations on manifestation specifically, unless it’s of particular interest to a client.”

Hokemeyer adds that successful therapy needs to have clearly articulated goals. “These can be as vast as getting clarity as to stay in or leave a relationship, to stop drinking alcohol, or to switch careers,” he says. The role of manifestation in this process is to work with the client to become the highest, best version of themselves. (This is how to suggest someone go to therapy.)

In fact, Hokemeyer uses a type of manifestation practice with his clients at the end of each year. “I have my patients do a strategic plan for the upcoming year in which they articulate three goals in the personal, professional, and spiritual realms of their life,” he says. “Through this exercise, they are forced to focus on being intentional with their lives and set goals they can integrate into their consciousness.”

This is very much an exercise in manifestation. Through these simple and clear goals, people have a sense of personal agency and feel like they have control over their future, according to Hokemeyer.

Manifestation might not be appropriate for everyone

People with underlying mental health issues

Some people might not be the best candidates for using manifestation in their lives, including those who are overly self-critical or those living with anxiety disorders like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), according to Hokemeyer.

Those struggling with depression or anxiety, who may have negative thoughts about themselves or the world, need reminders that not everything they think is a fact. One of the potential pitfalls of manifestation is the logic that if good thoughts bring about good things, then bad thoughts bring about bad things.

This is why we need to be very careful not to discuss or teach manifestation in a reductive way, according to Fournier. “We need to ground the conversation and think about it in balanced terms; otherwise, the logic of it is pretty toxic.”

To help create that balance, Hokemeyer recommends using manifestation with the help of a “healthy other.” This can be a therapist, a person from a religious community, a good friend, or family member.

“Manifestations are most effective when shared with healthy others,” Hokemeyer says. “Through this sharing, the risks for harm are diminished, and the potential for success is maximized.” (Here’s how to find a therapist.)

People who misunderstand how manifestation works

People who don’t have a full understanding of manifestation should probably avoid it, according to Fournier.

“So long as the concept is understood to mean more than just believing in the magic of the universe, thinking positive thoughts, and expecting everything on your vision board to materialize for you without effort, then it doesn’t need to be avoided by anyone.”

Suppose someone has the wrong idea about manifestation? That can lead people who don’t get what they want or find themselves in unfavorable circumstances to blame themselves for it, Fournier explains.

Hexdall agrees and doesn’t think anyone should avoid manifestation. But those who engage in its practices should be aware of the limitations. (Here’s when overly positive thinking can backfire.)

“Believing that manifestation is the only way to reach your goals and fulfill your desires would be limiting, to say the least,” Hexdall says. It could do more harm than good if people find themselves overly relying on manifestation principles, rather than evidence-based, action-oriented strategies, according to Hexdall.

People may become quite discouraged or even depressed about limited productivity, for example.

“Relying on manifestation as a hands-off approach can also interfere with knowledge of how we are in control of many aspects of our lives,” Hexdall says. “That is, not taking action to get out of an abusive relationship because we are waiting for something else to manifest, would be very painful, harmful, and unnecessary.”

It is important to remember that good thoughts alone do not necessarily bring about good things or events in our lives, Hexdall says. “There will always be circumstances that are out of our control—with or without the practice of manifestation.”

People focusing on inauthentic goals

Manifesting your future can be bad for your mental health if the goals articulated are inauthentic and unrealistic, according to Hokemeyer.

“Inauthentic goals are those based on someone else’s standards.” For example, he says, it’s unrealistic to want to manifest a future in which you fit into a smaller size dress when your healthy self fits perfectly into a larger size. (Here’s what you need to know about goal setting from mental health experts.)

Bottom line

Manifestation is bringing something into your life through intentional action and belief. Therapists note that getting the most out of manifestation requires understanding how it works, that action is a key component, and that there are limits to manifesting.

Good or bad thoughts alone don’t automatically bring about good or bad things in life. And it’s not possible to control every part of life with or without manifestation. But applying this practice could be a good way to work towards your goals.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on March 15, 2021

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.