Are You Living From a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Sometimes, any of us can unwittingly and innocently set up a challenging scenario, then live it out. Both my grandmothers were like this.

My paternal grandmother was a woman of deep faith. She believed Jesus was her saviour and no matter what went wrong in her life, and plenty did I can assure you, “Grammy,” as we called her, believed Jesus had her back. Outwardly at least, her faith never seemed to be in doubt.

“Nan,” my maternal grandmother, was different. She had a meek-shall-inherit-the-Earth feel to her. A sense that life was essentially a struggle, full of suffering, and if we just take it, reward will be found in the afterlife. Her son wrote on her funeral bouquet “To mum who gave so much and expected so little in return.” To this day that message still moistens both my eyes.

Turning to you, have you ever heard yourself starting a sentence with…

  • This won’t be easy,
  • This conversation will be a difficult one,
  • I dislike doing x

…and low and behold, it turns out to be the case?

In a “difficult” conversation, for instance, what we listen out for and observe in others, fits with our pre-conceived idea of difficulty. So, before we know it, we’re saying to ourselves – “There, I was right all along.”

All of us are prone to setting up an expectation, based on past experiences, about what will happen in the future.

Yet even though the future hasn’t happened yet, and our expectations may or may not turn out to be true, in all innocence, in short spaces of time, the difficult scenario we set up in our minds gets confirmed.

Doing this has a name – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And a definition…

..the process through which an originally false expectation leads to its own confirmation.

There are two hidden costs of a self-fulfilling prophecy (S-FP) in my book.

The first is, we simply remain unaware of the prophecy and carry on as normal.

We automatically think along the lines of this is how it’s always been and always will be. We suffer from the what-you-see-is-all-there-is bias and forego the opportunity to surface the assumptions behind our expectations, scrutinise them, and wonder if they’re helpful or even true. Much like “Nan,” the idea that she might transcend suffering, if only on a respite basis from time to time, never entered her consciousness.

The second cost is we forget to dream!

Put another way, we don’t give ourselves permission to imagine what would be ideal in a situation. Constrained again by what-you-is-all-there-is, we take thinking habits and assumptions that are either grounded in our own past experiences or have been handed down from previous generations, as read.

Here are some s-fps I’ve found to be unhelpful and based on false expectations…

…I’m here to suffer (thanks Nan.)

…Life is a like card game that’s dealt me a weak hand.

…Money means happiness.

…You can only be spiritual if you follow a Religion (Grammy’s faith helped me see spirituality can exist independently of a Religion.)

Here are two I find more helpful because to me they seem based on true expectations…

…Life is what you make it.

…Aim to be a good person by paying close attention to self-talk and whatever contents appear in my consciousness.

If you’re living from a s-fp that feels uneasy, see if you can surface the assumptions, teachings, doctrines, beliefs, etc. on which it’s based. Then, ask…

..are they true in every or just some circumstances? they contain any falsehoods?

..what if you were to dream about an ideal alternative?

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Roger Martin
Roger Martin
Hi. Ever since I found myself working in a toxic culture, led by someone who was known behind their back as “The Tyrant,” I’ve felt a need to do what I can to help people’s experience of workplaces be more fulfilling than demoralising. I started by changing career: from management accountant to being a leadership coach, mentor, critical friend, sounding board, speech writer, or any other role that would help my clients. Over the last 37 years I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of leaders and see myself as a student of what works and what doesn’t for them. Nowadays I write about this. I focus especially on the role self-talk plays in determining the actions we take and what follows. I look at team talk too, because, quite simply, I’ve seen how progress is made, and sustained when its positive impacts are felt in the conversation we have with ourselves and others. You can keep abreast of what I’m learning and sharing at

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