I used to be a pretty superstitious person. I would jump over cracks in the sidewalk, hold my breath as I passed by a cemetery, and I never, ever opened an umbrella indoors. Did these silly rituals really offer protection from bad things? Unlikely.
It’s taken a long time to accept that suffering and hardships are an inevitable part of life, no matter how many sidewalk cracks I jump over. In fact, I’ve learned the hard way that compulsively trying to shield myself from pain can sometimes create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the idea that if you believe something will happen to you, it will. For example, a stock market downturn can be caused by investors worrying that the market is headed for a downturn — fulfill the prophecy of the investors’ worry. I’ve honestly fallen ill, botched important meetings, and pushed friends away all in the name of doing the opposite.
Here are five ways to defeat the self-fulfilling prophecy:
1. Leverage the Power of Trust
Have you ever convinced yourself that your partner is cheating on you? Or that a friend is secretly mad at you? It’s such an awful feeling. When it comes to matters of the heart, it’s natural to want to protect yourself from getting hurt. However, it’s important to keep things in perspective and not obsess. You don’t want to end up creating problems where there were none to begin with.
According to Talkspace therapists Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, and Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT, self-fulfilling prophecies are common in relationships. “Sometimes the interactions become so toxic and draining when one person is accusing the other repeatedly,” shared Hinkle, “that the other person thinks ‘I may as well be cheating since he always thinks I am.’”
In other words, one partner’s jealousy can inadvertently become a distorted form of “permission” to act out and not be faithful.
2. Release the Need for Control
I love trying to control situations as much as the next person. If I’m not careful, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy worrying about the future, thinking if I just say or do the “right” thing, I can avoid the pain of things not always going the way I want them to.
Hinkle finds that self-fulfilling prophecies are often related to fears and anxieties. “It’s anxiety-producing for us to let go of that control and be just in this moment, today,” said Hinkle. Some people fear failures such as a presentation not going well, a relationship ending, or staying depressed, which Hinkle says can be strong motivators to not take risks. Others have a fear of success such as getting promoted or feeling better, which Hinkle says can be anxiety-provoking in its own way.
3. Don’t Dismiss Your Emotions
Sometimes I feel embarrassed about jumping to worst-case scenario conclusions. While a part of me knows my reasoning may not always be the most rational, there is another part of me that is consumed with fear and the inability to think clearly. What if my plane crashes? What if my husband gets in a car accident? What if the apartment burns down?
Instead of dismissing your emotions, Hinkle feels it’s important to validate them. “Emotions are not right or wrong,” she said. “They are not good or bad either. They just are.” Hinkle finds mindfulness practices such as staying in the moment, not anticipating too far in the future, and avoiding predicting an outcome to be very effective when someone is afraid of what’s going to happen next.
4. Keep Your Expectations In Check
Catchings explains that self-fulfilling prophecies are, in essence, predisposing ourselves to experience something that has not happened. “We create an expectation about a person, event or action,” she said, “and it can affect our behavior towards that subject. This then causes the expectation to happen or materialize.” Think: jealousy causing a break up, suspicion of infidelity causing a divorce, and fear of losing a job causing a person to be let go.
At this point, I am fairly familiar with my tendency to “catastrophize” or irrationally believe that something is far worse than it is. However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I continuously have to check myself and my thought patterns to make sure I’m not spending precious energy blowing a situation out of proportion.
5. Strengthen Your Mindset
Having a strong mindset can be tremendously helpful in overcoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Here are a few resources that the Talkspace therapist community recommends:
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Ph.D.
- The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) by Don Miguel Ruiz
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- The Power of Vulnerability Ted Talk by Brené Brown
It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that our very human need to feel in control can backfire if left unsupervised. I have had to learn time and time again that control is an illusion and there is no such thing as perfect. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, and sometimes things unfold in ways we never expect. As painful as some of those lessons are, I try to remind myself that everything is happening in my favor.
Falling down is inevitable. Getting back up is a choice.
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