Why Manifestation Doesn’t Always Work: A Process Perspective

Photo © 2018 Robert Herhsinow

If you’re involved in personal growth or healing work, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter techniques for how to “manifest your dreams” or “manifest your intentions.” You’ve probably tried some of them, and if you’re like most people you’ve had mixed results.

If you’re fully steeped in the rhetoric of The Secret and other positive-thinking methods of manifestation, you probably thought it was your own damn fault when you focused really super duper hard on something you wanted and it just didn’t turn out the way your vision board said it would. I’d like to invite you into another way of seeing it: manifestation is complicated.

But let’s back up for a second. What is manifestation in the first place? Essentially, it’s the idea that you can direct your thoughts and focus in such a way that what you wish for is “manifested,” or literally brought into physical form. It’s a sort of alchemical process.

If you’ve explored the realm of intentional manifestation, you’ve probably had experiences where some intentions became real beyond your wildest dreams, some became real in a sort of halfway-but-not-quite-what-you-expected sort of way, and some never happened no matter how much you tried and focused and acted on them. So why is this? Why does this process sometimes work and sometimes not?

Here are four ideas about why it might NOT work, and followed by a set of questions which may help you find deeper ways to align yourself with how you really want it to work:


The first reason why manifestation might not work is encapsulated in the Processwork idea ofHigh Dreams and Low Dreams. Processwork says that, with almost any endeavor, we have a sort of “high dream,” or ideal about it, and a “low dream” which is what we don’t really want to happen.

For example, a common thing that people try to “manifest” is a house or piece of land. The high dream is what you’re often told to place on a vision board: the exact layout, the color, shape, style, features, landscape of this house or land. Your high dream is your wish for how your perfect house or landscape would be.

Your low dream might be where you’re living now, or it might be investing in the wrong house and finding out it’s a lemon. It’s really important to know what your worst fear about something is and to acknowledge it rather than push it to the background, otherwise it will always be tapping your on your shoulder asking, “are you sure?” about your high dream.

The high dream is the vision of perfect. The low dream is the vision of disaster. The truth is usually something in between. Remember that reality is far more interesting than perfect, and keep some room available for a more interesting reality to show itself to you.


The second reason why manifestation might not work is described by another Processwork term, your social rank. Rank is your access to power, privilege, or ability. It’s not inherently bad, and it’s also completely inescapable. You can’t make rank disappear, all you can do is learn how to use it well when you’re in a high rank position, and how to use it effectively when you’re in a low rank position.

We are all in high and low rank positions in multiple parts of our lives at all times, but most manifestation techniques seem to wash over rank as if it didn’t exist, or at least didn’t affect someone’s ability to manifest what they want in their lives. There’s been a meme crossing my screen recently, and I’m sorry I don’t know who the original author is, but it says, “Maybe you manifested it; maybe it’s white privilege.” This meme makes an essential point about rank: it’s easier to “manifest” what you want when there’s an entire society structured around bringing you benefits.

When there is so much poverty in the world, when we have a living memory of racial segretion in the U.S. and the generation before had a living memory of slavery, when women are still paid substantially less than men and are also faced with greater workloads, less career security, and less safety in our everyday lives, it is fundamentally abusive to tell someone that they can manifest something without taking the structural reality of their societal rank into account.

Paradoxically, considering social rank does NOT mean that anyone can’t manifest anything from any position. We LOVE high dream stories about people like Oprah, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, Malala Yousafzai and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, all of whom have manifested incredible lives in the face of incredible odds. These are people to whom we attach our high dreams, onto whom we project our biggest fantasies. We say, “See, if a young black woman who was sexually assaulted can be a great talk show host, poet, or leader, if a young Jewish man who survived genocide can become a philanthropist, writer, and teacher, if a young Muslim woman can be shot point blank and still become a world leader, if a Latina girl from the Bronx can become a leading politician, than any of us can have ANYTHING!” and it’s great to have these dreams and projections. They give us a vision to latch onto. They show us what’s possible, the way no one believed the 5 minute mile was possible until someone achieved it, and then suddenly many people could achieve it.

However, to say to someone who experiences large amounts of adversity that they need to simply focus on their dream to have what they want is a fundamental denial of their reality. An unfortunate illustration of this is the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Predatory lenders gave unfair deals to hopeful homeowners. Many of those hopeful homeowners were women of color who had previously been unable to afford homes, often due to pre-existing structural inequalities such as redlining (when lenders wouldn’t allow people of color to take out mortgages in certain areas of town), segregation, lack of slavery reparations on the part of the U.S. government, and unfair pay or “the wage gap” for women and people of color. So there’s this pre-existing disparity, and yet the high dream, the “American Dream” is to own a home, and the myth that’s sold to us all is that if you just work hard enough you can be a homeowner. So these predatory lenders cashed in on the high dream of many people who had been forced to live in the low dream for a long, long time.

Many people who bought homes with subprime mortgages in the 2000's must have felt like they had finally manifested their dream. The dream did move from an intention to a reality. But the structural inequalities continued to exist, and so many of those people were again victims of that structural reality when they lost their homes. You can’t vision-board that away.

So, do we look at that picture and say, “if the system’s against you, you can’t manifest what you want?” Not at all. But what we do have to do is take a look at the big picture and say, “Manifestation is not a solo activity. If we’re serious about freeing up the energy of the universe, we need to create large-scale systems that give greater freedom, safety, and resource access to all people.” This is where social justice comes in. There cannot be truly effective inner work if we’re not always working on the outer big picture.


That previous example brings me to the third reason why manifestation doesn’t always work: you can never manifest an intention that overrides a fundamental need. If you have a fundamental need which has been denied or covered over by trauma, intergenerational trauma, addiction, relationship patterns, financial patterns, health patterns, family systems, or some other way, you will tend to create “self-fulfilling prophecies” which sabotage your own dreams and intentions before they become realities because those dreams don’t actually meet your need.

An unmet need for love, touch, safety, recognition, etc, will ALWAYS be more powerful than your intention. An incredible example of this shows up in Roxanne Gay’s book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, which I highly recommend. In it, she talks about a severe childhood trauma and the subsequent eating patterns which developed in response to that trauma, and which caused her to gain hundreds of pounds. She offers clear reflections on how she has intentions of losing weight and often does lose weight, but as soon as the weight is off she feels unsafe in her body again and gains it back. She’s totally aware that the need for feeling safe in her body is greater than her need for the social rank of thinness, or even than the health benefits of losing that weight. The need outweighs the intention. This is true in every case.

If you find yourself cycling around something that you have the best of intentions around, but you never get there, start to ask yourself what the underlying need is, and focus on finding healthy ways of fulfilling that need before you focus on an intention that overrides that need. Doing your innerwork and healing work on meeting your unmet needs helps to clear the path towards things you truly want, however…


…you have your own destiny. The fourth, and in my opinion most interesting, glitch in manifestation that I’m going to talk about today is Destiny and Life Path. This is a somewhat controversial topic because everyone has their own take on it, but I’ll tell you mine, which is heavily influenced by my understanding of Processwork.

My belief is that we each have our own unique nature and way of being in the world. If we fight out own nature, it will fight back. If we integrate who we are and align with our own nature, we can freely manifest in the world, but the catch is that we can only do that in alignment with who we are.

Clues about our own natures show up in our childhood nighttime dreams and early memories, in patterns in our lives which repeat, and in interests and experiences which recur throughout our lives. For examaple, my earliest childhood dream involves trying very hard to be well-behaved, but then toppling the existing power structure and being frightened by my own power to do so. I can see this show up in my life when I try really, really hard to manifest scenarios where I have to be conventional and well-behaved; that always blows up in my face because my true nature, which is much more interested in the truth than in the power structure, always asserts itself. The more I try to manifest mainstream experiences in my life, the harder my inner nature has to fight to get my attention. So I CAN manifest things at odds with my nature, but they will likely always be sabotaged by me.

What Now?

We’ve looked at high dreams and low dreams, at social rank, at fundamental needs, and at the idea of destiny or true nature. All of these things and more are at play when we are talking about “manifesting” something, and yet there’s clear evidence that manifestation sometimes works. Sometimes, you say to the universe that you want something, and that something quickly and easily shows up. Sometimes, you paste something to a vision board and that exact thing comes into your life.

So how can you be aware of the whole picture and better align yourself with your intentions, as well as better align your intentions with your true nature?

When I work with clients one-on-one or in groups, I go into great depth around someone’s life myth or destiny, their dreaming process, and the cycles which tend to repeat in their lives, but since that’s not something we can do here in this article, I’m going to invite you to look at any intention you wish to manifest and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What’s my high dream (this should ideally be the thing you want to manifest if it were unabashedly perfect)?
  2. What’s my low dream? This is such an essential question! It’s often avoided, pushed aside, and ignored because we’re afraid that if we think about it, it will be the thing that manifests instead, but you know what happens to anything that gets pushed aside — it just gets louder and asserts itself more. Better to look directly at it! Ask it what it wants, what its fears are, and how it needs those fears to be addressed. The low dream may be where you’re living right now, your current experience. Acknowledge the pain and grief of that rather than being against it.
  3. Is there a way in which your social rank is working against your high dream or intention? If so, are there ways in which you have internalized that voice, for example, “I’ll never make it to CEO because I’m a woman.” If you’ve internalized that voice, talk back to that bully! Tell it, “There are women CEO’s, and someone’s got to do it to continue to break through that glass ceiling!” Also, ask yourself where there might be hidden resources to help you with the very real structural impediments you face. Are there free legal services available? Are there advocacy or support groups, in person or online? Are there things you can do to mitigate the effects of the structural issues? Be kind and gentle with yourself. Ask for help.
  4. Is the thing you’re trying to manifest a thing you really want, or is it a thing which overrides a fundamental need? What’s your fundamental need?
  5. What’s your destiny? If you’re cycling around something again and again with no success, it’s time to work on this question. It’s not a small, obvious, or instantly answered question, but it’s a highly rewarding one!

If you’d like to see me explore this in more detail, you can watch this youtube video:

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