How to Stop Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Failure

Turn your vicious circles into virtuous ones.

Posted Mar 29, 2018

Mike dreaded an impending sales report he was scheduled to present to the department. Although the report was glowing with profit and efficiency, Mike was convinced that he couldn't "step up" and would make a fool of himself when delivering it. He was so nervous on the day of his presentation that he claimed to be feeling ill and went home from work. “This proves it!” he thought to himself, “I really am a loser.”

A “self-fulfilling prophecy” is when one predicts an outcome and then inadvertently acts in a way that brings about the very result predicted.  Usually, the term denotes the creation of negative or unfortunate events, such as failure or disappointment, or unpleasant emotional reactions, such as anxiety, anger or depression. And, because many of these undesirable outcomes tend to build on themselves and gather momentum, they often become cycles - what most of us think of as “vicious circles.”

Of course, not all self-fulfilling prophecies are negative or undesirable because some produce “virtuous circles” wherein positive predictions lead one to act in ways that achieve desired outcomes.  Nevertheless, this post focuses on self-fulfilling prophecies that result in undesirable or self-defeating cycles.

In most cases, these negative cycles start with deep-seated negative and irrational beliefs, ideas, or expectations about oneself, other people, or the world. Such firmly entrenched negative beliefs are usually the product of upbringing and previous experiences and are often implanted by significant people and events.

For example, if someone grows up hearing from his or her parents that he or she is “stupid, ” “incapable,” “bad,” or “unworthy,” after a while, the negative indoctrination will probably take hold and the unfortunate person will start to believe these uncomplimentary and basically inaccurate notions.

Once in place, these core negative beliefs start to give rise to a variety of equally uncharitable, irrational thoughts and expectations that take the form of negative self-talk and unpleasant mental pictures. In short, if you believe you’re bad, you’ll probably go around thinking and imagining bad things about yourself.

These negative thoughts and images, in turn, create a host of negative emotional states such as anger, depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame. Naturally, if you’re bogged down in bad feelings, it’s difficult to do things well or engage in adaptive behavior. And as a result, your actions may include social withdrawal, avoidance, dishonesty, aggression, and even drug and alcohol abuse.

The cycle continues: If you’re behaving negatively, actual undesirable outcomes are likely to happen. Poor performance, interpersonal problems, and even failure, divorce, and drug dependence can result. And the occurrence of these actual, negative outcomes serves to drive the entire cycle full circle by reinforcing the very core negative beliefs that started it off in the first place!

So, what can be done to break the cycle of these negative self-fulfilling prophecies? The solution is based on corrective thinking and corrective action.

  • Corrective thinking aims to uncover the core irrational beliefs and replace negative self-talk and upsetting mental pictures with more rational and accurate thoughts, images and expectations.    
  • Corrective action encourages people to master challenges by confronting problems instead of avoiding or denying them.
  • In essence, if you learn coping strategies today, you will be better off tomorrow no matter how upset you were yesterday.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Dear Reader: The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me. — Clifford

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.