How Self-Fulfilling Prophecies Can Influence Our Behavior & Relationships
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If you’re all about using the law of attraction for manifesting, you probably already have a baseline understanding of self-fulfilling prophecies. This psychological principle states that our thoughts can govern our reality to some degree—for better or worse.
Here, experts weigh in on what self-fulfilling prophecies are, when they happen, and how to overcome negative ones.
What a self-fulfilling prophecy really means.
A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an expectation or belief results in that expectation being met. As neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., explains to mbg, it’s a strong and/or repetitive thought, based on a conscious or more likely subconscious belief, that drives a certain view of the world and how it works.
That perspective, she says, then “drives certain behaviors that make the outcome become more likely.” For example, if you convince yourself you’re going to have an awful time at a party, you will behave as such, and might end up having an awful time indeed.
The psychology behind self-fulfilling prophecies.
The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined by American sociologist Robert Merton, Ph.D. in 1948. He described it as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior, which makes the originally false conception come true.”
According to psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., when we have certain things we believe or fear, we manifest them through putting our attention on them—and often in negative or undesirable ways.” Even if you insist you don’t want something, “in the unconscious mind, ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ aren’t really recognized and so the unconscious mind recognizes ‘I really want this to happen.’ The ‘don’t’ is excluded,” she explains.
But of course, self-fulfilling prophecies can sometimes be positive, as demonstrated by the Pygmalion effect.
The Pygmalion effect is all about higher expectations leading to improved outcomes. It gets its name from the mythical Greek character Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he had carved himself.
Science is starting to uncover how this effect works in the body: In one 1960s study, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson found that when teachers expected better performance from their students, the students did, in fact, perform better.
They theorized that because the teachers thought their students were smart or would perform well, this likely lead them to show more concern for the students’ learning, be more attentive, or even have a more positive mood around the students (all of which could help facilitate learning).
The point is, when we hold a bias or expectation about something, we will often act as such, which can bring about the outcome—whether we wanted it or not.
Self-fulfilling prophecies in relationships.
Our biases can influence every area of our lives, and relationships are no exception. As Swart notes, some common relationship “prophecies” are I’ll never meet someone to marry, or I’ll never have a family. But “the more we ruminate on these thoughts, the more we embed brain pathways that hold these as true,” she says.
The self-fulfilling prophecy comes in when we believe “I’ll never find anyone” so much that we stop putting ourselves out there, which makes the initial thoughts more likely to be true, for example.
Similarly, Yusim adds, if you have a fear of abandonment or a fear of being alone, you can wind up unintentionally manifesting it. If you feel like your friends always abandon you, as another example, you may push them away or take on negative behaviors because you think they’re just going to abandon you anyway.
Self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace.
If you tell yourself you’re stuck in a job for life, as Swart offers as an example, you may act as such (by not applying to jobs or pushing for a promotion, etc.). Or, if you feel you’re terrible at your job, you may subconsciously start to underperform.
Yusim notes that these self-fulfilling prophecies often come from our fears, and “by virtue of that fear, you can create or can act in such a way that it comes true” she says. If you were worried your boss was upset with you, for instance, you can actually create tension within that relationship with your boss, and they may very well pick up on it.
But of course, it goes both ways: You could also believe you’re the most hardworking person on your team, and as such, go to great lengths to put your best foot forward every day.
Self-fulfilling prophecies & mental health.
It’s important to understand the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies, especially if you’re working to improve your outlook on life. It’s often these ingrained and internalized negative beliefs and expectations that drive poor mental health—as well as self-fulfilling prophecies themselves.
“A lot of obsessive behavior—whether in depression, anxiety, or actual OCD—has to do with the things we fear,” Yusim notes, “and the more you obsess over things in general, whether good or bad, the more you create self-fulfilling prophecies.”
But neuroplasticity, or “the way the brain grows and changes depending on what it experiences,” Swart explains, “can be for good or bad.” While rumination or addictive behaviors can persist and damage our mental health, she notes, the brain can also change for the better, with a bit of effort.
How to defeat negative self-fulfilling prophecy mindsets.
When you begin to realize how negative beliefs and mindsets are influencing your life, overcoming them can feel like a hefty feat, but Yusim says awareness is the first step. Simply “being aware of the thoughts and beliefs that underlie some of the things that manifest in our life,” she says, is a good place to start.
She and Swart also recommend using tools like positive affirmations and mantras to reframe your perspective. “There’s an ancient Buddhist philosophy to replace all negative thoughts with positive affirmations or mantras,” Swart explains. “Over time, this can work well. In the short term when we create a prophecy, we can test it by asking ourselves if it is definitely a fact or just our narrative.”
They both recommend seeing a mental health professional if you’re having a really hard time working through limiting beliefs. Therapy can help you uncover “where those beliefs came from and how you can change behaviors derived from those beliefs,” Yusim says.
The law of attraction states that “like attracts like,” and such is the case for self-fulfilling prophecies. When we pour all our energy and focus into something, we subconsciously bring it into reality, through our perspective and behavior.
Identifying when our prophecies are sabotaging us, unlearning limiting beliefs, and reframing to a positive mindset can go a long way toward mitigating negative self-fulfilling prophecies from happening.
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