Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Self-Sabotage

by | Better You Tips, Claire Savage, Individual Therapy

Do you believe in prophecies? Well, let’s start by asking ourselves what a prophecy is. A prophecy is a foretelling or prediction of what is to come. We normally hear and think about prophecies in different religions or through movies and books. Did you know that there is a psychological phenomenon called the self-fulfilling prophecy? In the world of psychology, a self-fulfilling prophecy is frequently related to self-sabotage. Both self-fulfilling prophecies and self-sabotaging happen unconsciously. This article will help you become aware of how you might be sabotaging yourself through self-fulfilling prophecies and how to bring these patterns to the conscious to take control of your life and break out of these behaviors.

What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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.” A self-fulfilling prophecy is when someone predicts or expects something. This prediction or expectation can come true simply because the person believes or anticipates it will. The person’s resulting behaviors unconsciously align to match the belief. Essentially, the person will’s the prediction into fruition by aligning their behaviors to their thoughts (or prophecies) to get the very outcome they predicted. 

The self-fulfilling prophecy can be either a positive or negative expectation about something. The way we view a situation can impact our feelings and thoughts. As human beings, we can hold on to our negative thoughts and ideas about ourselves. In psychology, the self-fulfilling prophecy usually occurs when we hold negative predictions about ourselves. The self-fulfilling prophecy causes us to self-sabotage.

Self-fulfilling prophecy in action

  • Positive Expectation:
    • You have been enrolled in biology for the past school year. The end of the school year is approaching and you have the final exam in a couple of weeks. You believed you could pass the exam, which motivated you to study. You and your friends work together to make flashcards and practice exams leading up to the final. Your hard work paid off and you received an A on the exam.
  • Negative Expectation:
    • You don’t think you are good at math, therefore you believe you will do poorly in your math class. You are currently balancing school, sports, and extracurricular activities in school. You have been spread so thin that subconsciously you deprioritize Algebra class. This class has been adding stress to your life all year. You have been receiving bad grades for most of the school year and you don’t believe you will pass the final exam. You wait until the last minute to study and you don’t join a study group to help you prepare for the final. You receive a C- on the final and you are disappointed with your results.

It seems easy, right? If you want something positive, just think positive thoughts. However, our brains don’t always cooperate in that way. Our thoughts about a situation heavily influence our behavior whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Moreover, our emotions also play a large role in driving our behaviors. 

Negative predictions and thoughts about ourselves

It can become a slippery slope when we hold negative thoughts about ourselves. Negative predictions limit our capabilities and have the potential of sabotaging the things we have in life. These negative predictions stand in our way of having fulfilling lives. It is difficult to say which comes first, the negative prediction or the negative emotions about oneself. It’s common to think poorly of ourselves when we are in a depressed state. At the same time, if we predict something negative and it comes true, that can ignite feeling depressed. Below are common issues that negative self-fulfilling prophecies are related to.

  • Low self-esteem
  • Sense of loss
  • Feeling directionless
  • Lacking passion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Limitations
  • Fear
  • Lacking a sense of self
  • Low motivation
  • Emotional distress
  • Negative emotions
  • Cognitive distortions
    • Some common examples of cognitive distortions:
      • Fortune-telling: This occurs when you predict that things will turn out bad.
      • Catastrophizing: This occurs when you imagine the worst thing possible is about to happen.
      • Over-generalization: You conclude that one negative event is actually part of a series of unending negative events.
      • Black-and-white thinking: When you only look at situations in terms of one extreme or the other. A situation is either a failure or a success, bad or good. There is no middle ground.

 

Viewing ourselves through a negative lens leads to maladaptive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Holding negative predictions about ourselves holds us back in so many ways. These predictions can introduce self-sabotaging behaviors.

Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage occurs when people consciously or unconsciously hinder their own success. Some people stand in their own way and undermine their good intentions and long-term goals and core values. It seems like an unusual concept, right? You might ask yourself why someone would hinder their own success, especially if they worked hard to earn their success. Unfortunately, self-sabotaging behaviors are more prevalent than we realize. These destructive behaviors can have a negative impact on relationships, careers, self-image, or mental and physical health. People tend to underestimate their capabilities and suppress their feelings when they hold distorted and dysfunctional beliefs about themselves.  

Why People Self-Sabotage 

Self-sabotage isn’t exactly what it sounds like. Self-sabotage is a protective mechanism that your brain sets in place to protect you from harm or discomfort. What your brain perceives as a danger might not actually harm you. However, your brain struggles sometimes to delineate what is dangerous in the current day versus what it once perceived as danger back before we had the technology and other capabilities we have in today’s world. As such, the “dangerous” thing that is present sends your brain a message.

Self-sabotaging behavior isn’t something you do on purpose. There are a multitude of reasons why people engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. You might have heard the saying that people stand in their own way, and that is true to an extent. Self-sabotage can occur both consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes we aren’t aware that we are participating in these harmful behaviors. Some reasons why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors include:

  • Childhood Trauma
  • Intergenerational trauma
  • Fear and Insecurities resulting from past traumas
  • Childhood Difficulty
  • Difficulty in Relationships
  • Shielding yourself 
  • Wanting to be in control
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Feeling undeserving
  • Low-self esteem
  • Self-doubt
  • Escape uncomfortable feelings
  • Fear success
  • Fear Failure
  • Past failures
  • Lack self-worth
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Not knowing what is next if you reach your goals

Signs that you’re self-sabotaging

  • Searching for control
  • Avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable
  • Procrastination
  • Avoiding learning opportunities
  • Attempting to be perfect
  • Risky behavior (substance abuse, gambling)
  • Poor self-care
  • Negative self-talk
  • Creating conflict in your relationships (romantic, loved ones, coworkers, friends)
  • Making excuses
  • Engaging in things that don’t align with your goals or values
  • Poor self-care
  • Resisting change
  • Participating in something you intellectually know is bad for you but you feel emotionally drawn to it OR avoiding something you know is good for you because you don’t feel connected to it emotionally

 

Conscious vs. Unconscious Self-Sabotage

There is a difference between the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind is where we are aware of our feelings, memories, thoughts, and behaviors. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of thoughts, feelings, memories, and urges that are outside of our awareness at the time of their presence. The biggest difference between the two different states of the mind is awareness. 

An example of the conscious vs. the unconscious is if you’ve ever lost a loved one and have grief from that loss. On a daily basis, you can still function, you go to work, you meet up with friends, and you find yourself laughing and listening to your friend’s stories. However, your friend mentions you don’t seem like yourself. You stop and think about it and realize the restaurant you are in was the last place you saw your loved one before they passed. In this example, you unconsciously were carrying the weight of the loss of your loved one to work and to the restaurant where you were able to focus on what was in front of you. However, you carried yourself differently based on the unconscious grief you have. When your friend pointed it out to you, you brought your unconscious grief to the conscious. You became aware of the feelings and the thoughts surrounding the restaurant and the person you lost.   

How does unconscious vs. conscious relate to self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling prophecies?

People engage in self-sabotaging behaviors in both the conscious and unconscious minds. Wait, how is this possible? Well, it is! According to Sigmund Freud, the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Most of our decisions, motives, and feelings are stored in the unconscious mind. 

Examples of Self-Sabotage:

  • Conscious:
    • You have the goal of losing weight. You make lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your goals. You are at your friend’s birthday party and you decide to eat pizza, cake, and soda. You are aware of your decisions and you choose to enjoy the party with your friends. You wake up the next morning and you regret the decision to eat the junk food, and you decide to continue making healthy choices moving forward. This is a form of conscious self-sabotaging behavior because you were aware of your actions. 
  • Unconscious:
    • You have the goal of losing weight. You have to adjust to new challenges and learning curves. You have the core belief that you are not good enough to accomplish your goal. You decide to not complete your workout and you are not successful in your weight loss journey. This core belief about yourself stands in the way of your lifestyle change goals and it unconsciously overrides any desires for success you may have. Subconsciously you have already decided that you are going to fail and this consciously makes you choose to not follow through. 

 

What Self-Sabotage Looks Like

Self-sabotaging behaviors can look different to different people. If you are wondering if you partake in self-sabotaging behaviors, there are three common ways people engage in these behaviors that are easy to identify. Some of the most common ways include procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication. 

  • Procrastination
    • If you find yourself procrastinating, then you could potentially be engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. Procrastination can result from deeper feelings related to the task at hand. Fear, insecurity, self-doubt, or anxiety could be potential feelings that might cause a person to procrastinate, leading a person to self-sabotage. Think about how these thoughts and emotions might drive your behaviors in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you doubt yourself in something, you’re probably less likely to put in the effort to get you the outcome you’re looking for. People tend to procrastinate on certain tasks that evoke distress or anxiety. When people put off these stressful tasks it allows them to avoid these uncomfortable emotions, even if this means they will not accomplish a long-term goal that would bring happiness or fulfillment. 
      • Example: You have been wanting to have a meeting with your boss for a while now? You have been putting in a lot of extra work, and you want to receive a promotion. For most of your life, you have been struggling with self-confidence and you have the tendency to engage in negative thinking. The thought of talking to your boss evokes anxiety and you start to feel uncomfortable. You tend to distract yourself by going on social media to take your mind off of the stressful situation. You then start to set a vague deadline like “I’ll talk to my boss next week.” Your self-doubt and low self-esteem cause you to engage in the self-sabotaging behavior of procrastination. As you move forward, you start to reinforce these negative beliefs about yourself because you don’t get the promotion you’ve wanted (because you haven’t asked), which may feed a self-fulfilling prophecy that “I’ll never move up in my career.”
  • Perfectionism
    • This all-or-nothing thinking occurs when you hold yourself to an impossibly high standard. When people don’t reach their standards they often are flooded with emotions. These emotions include sadness, anger, confusion, and feeling ashamed. The fear of failure or the fear of success stands in the way of achieving their goals. Interestingly, if these feelings stem from not doing the task at all it feels better to them than if they tried and experienced them. Therefore, perfectionism is a form of protection. 
      • Example: You are finishing writing your book that you put so much work into. You want everything to be perfect in the book. You then start to experience writer’s block and you can’t finish the book. You start feeling sad and confused. This would be a form of self-sabotaging behavior in the form of perfectionism. You might fear success or fear failure and this causes you to not complete your work. 
  • Self-medication
    • People can turn to alcohol, drugs, comfort eating, and self-injury as a way to self-sabotage. These forms of self-medication offer a way for people to soothe themselves or numb out and escape. However, this is an unhealthy behavior that is a form of self-sabotage. 
      • Example: You have been working on self-care to help reduce depression. You choose to exercise as a form of self-care because it helps you feel endorphins. Growing up you have struggled with your weight and you used to use emotional eating as a coping mechanism. Through exercise you notice yourself eating better and feeling better. You are in the best shape of your life and you feel amazing. Different emotions start to flood in and you begin to doubt yourself. You turn to food to help with these intense feelings and you engage in binge eating. By engaging in this healthy behavior, you are self-sabotaging all of your progress.

Questions to ask yourself

If you are curious about whether or not you engage in self-sabotaging behavior ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is my current behavior aligning with my goals?
    • If not, then what is stopping me from taking action to help achieve my goals?
  • Is my current behavior aligning with my values?
    • If not, then what stands in the way of me taking action to live out my core values?
  • Do I feel deserving of success?
    • If not, have you created self-fulfilling prophecies that would impact your behaviors and prevent you from achieving success?
  • Do I fear failure/success? 
    • If yes, do you limit yourself and your capabilities?
  • Do I feel discomfort when I reach my goals or if I fail/succeed?
    • If yes, where do you think this comes from?
    • What is the story I am creating about what success would look or feel like that is eliciting discomfort?
  • Am I afraid to look stupid? 
    • If yes, does this fear stop you from taking action?

 

As you can see our self-sabotaging behaviors and negative self-fulfilling prophecies hinder our success. We are often the common denominator of what stands in our own way. Do you find yourself relating to these negative thoughts or behaviors? That’s okay, you’re not alone! Below you will find different strategies to help you overcome negative self-fulfilling prophecies and self-sabotaging behaviors.

How to break free from negative self-fulfilling prophecies and self-sabotage

There are different tools and strategies that you can use to help break the cycle of self-sabotage. If you are finding life difficult due to these behaviors, know that you are capable of making a change. Below you will find different strategies to help you break free from self-sabotage behaviors.

  • Awareness
    • This is key! Awareness is the first step you need to take in the process of overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors. 
    • If you find yourself feeling disappointed or unfulfilled try to bring to your consciousness what ‘rules’ you’ve created for yourself in the experience you just had that left you feeling disappointed, do these rules align with your ultimate goals or values? 
    • Stop to assess what happened. Make connections for yourself. 
  • Knowledge of the past
    • Understanding the roots of self-sabotaging behavior will help you bring awareness to the way you view the world. By understanding the root of the issue you will be able to identify how to shift into a worldview that fits you better for how you are today and help you to break out of your patterns and cycles. 
  • Understanding your patterns
    • Along with the first two helpful tips, you want to gain knowledge about your patterns. When observing your patterns you will want to pay close attention to your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
    • Can you label each stage in your process or cycle? 
  • Form new habits
    • Find creative ways to counteract your patterns by forming new habits. When creating new habits remember that it is okay to not be “perfect.” See what it feels like for you to experience something different and try to lean into the discomfort when trying something new.
    • Go through the cycle you’ve identified above and identify new thoughts, actions, or emotions that you can replace the old with that will get you what you want.
  • Self-kindness
    • Allowing yourself space to explore these behaviors is crucial. Try to shift any feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment to curiosity, compassion, or empathy. Be kind to yourself during this process and give yourself grace as it will take time and you will have setbacks.
  • Practice mindfulness
    • Mindfulness will help you stay grounded in the present moment. A lot of issues from the past and the fear of the future tend to push people away from being in the present moment. Mindfulness can help you make sense of reality by having grounded thoughts. Mindfulness presents space for you to slow down and practice grateful thinking.
  • Talk to a mental health provider
    • Talking to a professional can help you make sense of your self-fulfilling prophecies and self-sabotaging behaviors. A therapist can help you gently dive into the root of the issue and guide you toward a deeper understanding of yourself. 

Conclusion

If you find yourself getting stuck in a sabotage cycle, know that you’re not alone. A lot of people engage in self-sabotaging behaviors unconsciously. These behaviors create a box for people that they lock themselves into. So if you’re feeling stuck you’re not alone and there are strategies to help with these behaviors.

Becoming aware of these behaviors is the first step in the process of change. If you want to explore your self-sabotaging behaviors or have questions about starting the process, feel free to schedule an appointment at The Better You institute with one of our Philadelphia therapists. Call us today, at 267-495-4951 to set up your appointment. 

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