I wasn’t exactly afraid of the dark as a child, but I wasn’t exactly a fan either. Each night in my childhood home, my mom would whisper goodnight, flip off the light, and close the door behind her. Or more torturously, she would leave the door ever so slightly ajar, depriving me of the satisfying click. If that happened, I had no choice but to crawl out of the warmth of my bed, turn the lights on and off a series of three times and then shut the door twice.
Satisfied, I’d crawl back into bed and eventually drift into sleep, my little high-strung brain finally able to rest. If my mom had to come in again for any reason, though, the whole process would have to be repeated.
I never said I was a normal kid.
As a semi-recovered perfectionist with a history of high anxiety who was raised in the Catholic church, I’ve never been a stranger to ritual.
I looked forward to the pomp and circumstance of holiday mass, and the consistency of practices and rules felt safe to me. For someone with a temperament that craved knowing what to expect, the predictability of this world fit like a glove.
I couldn’t exactly understand why my personal rituals, like organizing my pencils each morning before going to school, seemed to be met with wariness, but then I was expected to recite the same prayers and Pledge of Allegiance each morning when I got there. But so it was.
I learned to keep my own rituals to myself and to perform the community rituals expected of me. While I knew they both felt crucial, I couldn’t have told you back then why that was.
As a psychologist, I was trained to be on the lookout for rituals. We listen closely for behaviors that don’t seem to serve an actual purpose, but that people feel reliant on for emotional reasons. When some people talk about their ritualized behaviors, they get shy, quick to explain that they know there’s no real reason to do things they’re doing. But there are others who don’t seem to know or care whether their behavior has a purpose. It’s just a thing they do.
I’ve heard from people about elaborate morning routines that have to be completed in order to start their day off well. I’ve heard of needing to say certain words or phrases before walking into a situation. I’ve heard of wearing particular clothes, stirring coffee a particular way, or calling someone special on the way home from work each night. There are prayers people say, numbers of seconds they wash their hands, and special pens people use when doing specific tasks.
What’s interesting to me is that I was trained to see most ritualized behaviors as problematic. The theory there is that many of our rituals are infused with magical thinking, meaning that we start to associate needing the behavior in order to ensure a certain outcome. Or that the ritual becomes the only way that we can feel in control. Just like my seven year old brain couldn’t quiet until the lights had been adjusted and the door closed with just the right tension, highly anxious people will look to practices outside of themselves to find a sense of solitude.
A lot of these behaviors get labeled as “OCD,” with the critical quality being that the behaviors themselves are causing problems. Take the person who can’t stop washing their hands or the one who feels compelled to keep every gift they’ve ever been given. Soon their hands are raw and they can’t move through their home, and we’re encouraging them to take medication and do exposure therapy.
But in our focus on what we might call “maladaptive” rituals as signs of poor mental health, we’ve not given nearly as much attention to the ones that actually improve our mental health.
While I no longer practice any formal religion myself, it’s specifically the rituals of Catholicism that I find myself longing for when I reminisce. Even if only played through a relatively boring organ, I loved knowing all the words to every song. I adored walking up to receive communion, doing the sign of the cross as I walked back to my seat. I love doing the same thing as hundreds of other people in the same place.
I’m not alone in this wistfulness. Religious ritual does in fact confer a number of mental health benefits. For one, it offers an organizing way to approach what can otherwise be overwhelming and frustrating daily life. It brings a sense of presence to our wandering minds and centers us to what we are doing. And perhaps most importantly when it comes to religious ritual, it offers a feeling of being connected to others who are doing the same ritual. Our brain’s social wiring loves this.
What you might notice is that it’s not the religiosity of the practices that make them so beneficial, but the other aspects of what make them ritualistic. What defines a ritual, after all, are three things. First, a ritual is a set of actions or behaviors that occur in a similar pattern each time. Second, the behaviors take on some metaphorical or symbolic meaning – something beyond what they are literally. And last, the behaviors don’t serve some other clear useful purpose.
While organized religion loves ritual, it has no ownership of the concept. Indeed, ritualized behavior dates back at least as much as 70,000 years ago, when people in Southern Africa were burning spearheads in a cave ritual. It’s likely that rituals have existed for as long as humans have existed.
One part of human life where rituals abound is at the end, with rituals around death ranging from days of sitting in silence to particular toasts libations to weekly visits to a gravesite. Not only do these practices help us move through the complicated process of grief, but research shows that they make us feel better even when we just think about doing the ritual. There seems to be something really powerful about using ritual to process hard emotions.
In a particularly interesting study, Mike Norton, a professor in the business school at Harvard, brought a group of people together in a room and rewarded one of the people with a $200 prize. The rest of the group were asked to stay after the winner left and complete some surveys. They “losers” were understandably disappointed and bummed about having lost. Dr. Norton’s team was interested in how people would process the loss, and so they invented a ritual for half of the group to do. The ritual group drew their feelings, then sprinkled salt on it and ripped up the paper. The other group did nothing. What they found was that the people who had done the ritual reported feeling better than the do-nothing group, despite the fact that the ritual was totally invented.
Now, the loss of $200 to a stranger isn’t the same as the death of an important person in your life, but what the study showed was that doing something helps us move through the feelings.
And other studies show that rituals can help address the tough day to day emotions we experience as well. Sports psychologists, for example, encourage athletes to engage in rituals ahead of important events to help calm their nerves, focus their attention, and feeling more empowered.
What a combination of anthropology, social psychology, and biology seem to tell us is that rituals, when not embedded in magical thinking, can be both protective and healing.
There’s a social media creator I follow who talks about the concept of secular spirituality and how building ritual into her life deepens not her connection to a higher power, per se, but to herself and her intentions. One of her own rituals involves spending a few moments outside each morning looking at her favorite tree, taking a few deep breaths, and reminding herself of her core values. For her, this sets her day on a trajectory in which she is focused and intentional.
Long healed now from a reliance on ritual to manage anxiety, I love now being able to think about how building intentional rituals into my day enhances my connection to myself and what’s important to me. One of my own is that I light a candle on my desk when I start my work day. While this does come with a risk of my scattered brain forgetting to put it out, it also helps me be intentional and boundaried about the time I’m spending on work.
I have lots of ideas about other rituals I’d love to build into my life – everything from morning yoga to a gratitude practice to more luxurious nighttime routine. In this season of my life, some of those more time-intensive rituals might have to wait. My days vary quite a bit and I have the unpredictability of small humans to contend with. But this is also why ritual feels more important than ever.
At the of the day, ritual is about a practice that we hold sacred. Whether it involves one deep breath or an extensive process of actions, practicing ritual says to ourselves that what we choose to do matters, that our presence and awareness matters. It says that even in the midst of uncertainty and newness and loss and inconsistency, we can find security in the familiar. We can be safe, even in the dark.