You believe that you’ll never have a healthy relationship, so you pick partners who are unavailable. You believe you’ll bomb the presentation, so you don’t practice. You believe you’re going to have a frustrating day, so you’re snippy with your spouse, which triggers a fight, which makes you miss your train, which makes you late for work. You believe you’ll have a bad time at a party, so you don’t talk to anyone. Others perceive you as cold and aloof, and don’t approach you either.
These are different examples of the same thing: self-fulfilling prophecies.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is when you think something will happen, and then you make it happen. “We imagine one of many outcomes, and then we consciously or unconsciously make the outcome a reality,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
He worked with a woman who worried her boyfriend was going to leave her. Every day she’d ask him if he was going to break up with her. She’d pen letters about her fear. She’d worry that he didn’t care about her whenever his attention was on someone else in a social interaction.
And she was right. He ended up breaking up with her — because of her behavior.
“He really did love her, but this constant paranoia and insecurity made the relationship unbearable to him,” Howes said. He ended the relationship, “in the most honest, kind way he could. But for her this was a fulfilled prophecy.”
Often self-fulfilling prophecies are an attempt to guard against grief, failure, disappointment, rejection or any other upsetting outcome. It’s an attempt to “pre-grieve something,” Howes said. “We have a belief that if we see something failing now and start grieving that loss before it happens, it won’t hurt so much.”
But that’s rarely the case. “A loss is a loss.” Trying to grieve before a supposedly painful outcome doesn’t reduce our pain. It only creates more of it. And we grieve just the same as if we’d expected success, Howes said.
“Life becomes a series of negative expectations or experiences, and who benefits from that?” Plus, Howes said, a negative mindset deprives us of a vital human experience: hope.
Becoming Aware and Looking for Themes
The first step in stopping self-fulfilling prophecies from shaping your life is to become aware of them. This sounds easy enough, but often our own patterns are obscure to us. This is why seeing a therapist can help.
“That’s a lot of my job as a therapist, identifying and exploring themes in my clients’ lives,” said Howes, who pens the blog In Therapy. “They become incredibly obvious to me, but when I point it out to the client, many times they’ve never even considered it before.”
For instance, one client was surprised to hear Howes say that he seemed to be looking for a bully to defeat. The client believed he always avoided conflict.
To sharpen your awareness, Howes suggested looking at themes in your life. There might be a common thread that weaves through your work history or your relationships. “These patterns might highlight both your areas of difficulty and the situations you gravitate toward.”
For instance, do high-pressure situations overwhelm you? Is it hard to have someone depend on you? Is it hard to reach out for help?
Self-fulfilling prophecies have deep roots. “I’ve found that we tend to gravitate toward unfinished business in our life,” Howes said. For instance, if you felt neglected as a child, you might seek out similar relationships today because you know what it feels like, and you know what to do, he said.
Self-fulfilling prophecies stem from a desire to rewrite our history and get it right today, he said. “We seek out an unavailable partner because it feels familiar and try to have a different outcome, where we are finally known and appreciated.” However, what typically happens instead is that we’re back in the same situation, experiencing the same wounds.
In almost every couple Howes has worked with, the feelings they have toward their spouse are the same feelings they felt growing up in their family. They might feel ignored or unappreciated. They might feel deceived or disrespected.
However, because self-fulfilling prophecies run deep, there’s an opportunity to heal these wounds, he said.
To become more self-aware, Howes also suggested thinking about three main issues in your life right now. Can you remember a time you didn’t have these concerns? “If you can’t remember a time you weren’t stressed about money, you have a theme.”
Another option is to talk to your loved ones about the kind of person you were at a particular time in your life. Ask them what you were passionate about or motivated by, he said. You also can look at old journals or photo albums. “[A]sk yourself if there are any similarities between the problems you dealt with then and now.”
The Freedom to Choose
Thankfully, you can break your patterns at any time. As Howes said, “we have the power to make different choices.”
He’s worked with many clients who realized they were seeking approval from a highly critical boss because of similar past experiences. Some left those jobs for companies that appreciate their work. Others developed different reactions to their boss. They found their voice and changed the outcome, he said.
In another example, once you know you’re seeking relationships with critical and distant people to rewrite an old script, you can have a different response toward a critical partner, Howes said. Or you can “be more open to receiving love from people who are willing and capable.”
Again, your “prophecy can change from an inevitability to a choice.” You have the power to stop rewriting old, unhealthy scripts and pen new stories.
Pessimist photo available from Shutterstock