I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It’s when you think/imagine that something will happen (this is usually associated with something negative, for some reason) and through the power of focus, that is exactly what happens. Basically you think or imagine yourself into the dreaded situation.
Does the self fulfilling prophecy actually exist?
Yes, it does, and in this short article I’ll explain the brain mechanisms and the Rules of the Mind involved in creating a self fulfilling prophecy.
First, the brain mechanism. What part of your brain tells you what’s important, what to notice, what to focus on? How do you know what to pay attention to during the day? Why is your focus drawn to some aspects of your environment, other people’s behavior, and your own outcomes, and not others? That part of the brain is the Reticular Activating System (RAS).
Reticular Activating System (noun) – the network in the reticular formation that serves an alerting or arousal function
The alerting or arousal function is the part that draws your attention. It says, “see this; not that.” OK, so it makes sense that we have a part of our brain, a network, in charge of alerting us when something that is important to us is around to be noticed. But how does it get programmed?
The classic example of how the Reticular Activating System works is the experience of buying a new car. Take the shopper who test drives several models and makes of cars before narrowing her choice down to a couple of makes and models. Then there’s even more test driving; maybe working out the pros and cons. Asking others for their opinions. Researching reliability online and in review magazines. Finally the choice is narrowed down to just one make and model and then a choice is made about color and options. At last! The vehicle that is uniquely satisfying to this particular buyer! The purchase is made and the happy new owner drives her car off the lot and what begins to happen? Immediately, and for weeks, months, maybe even years after that purchase is made, she starts noticing “her car” everywhere. What happened here? Did everyone decide to buy the same car the day after she bought hers? Of course not. Those same cars were on the road, sharing lanes with her the day, the week, the month before she made that purchase. But until she when through all that effort to determine that this particular car meant something to her, that it was important, she wasn’t noticing. She programmed her Reticular Activating System through the process of choosing the vehicle. All the time, the activities, the thought, the time spent dreaming about being in the car, how it would feel, what priorities of hers this car was uniquely qualified to satisfy. Once primed, the Reticular Activating System works like a robot, or a search engine, sifting through the millions, even billions of bits of information available to us at any given time, to say, “notice this/not that.”
This reflects the First Rule of the Mind: We move in the direction of our dominant thought. And this is the mechanism behind that Rule. What you focus on the majority of the time will be what you notice opportunities for, what you notice occurrences of in your life, and what you “see” in and about yourself and others.
The other Rule of the Mind that is often in play in a (negative) self-fulfilling prophecy is That Which We Resist, Persists. We focus on what we don’t want/don’t like–our bad habits, our shortcomings, or the things that people “do” to make us unhappy. We notice for instance, the lack of fairness at the office, or the bad drivers on the road. We focus on these, engaging the First Rule of the Mind, and we program our RAS because of that focus. We devote strong emotions to these things–anger, sadness, jealousy, frustration. And we begin to notice these things out of proportion to what is really happening. You can confirm this by asking others. You’ll find that those aggravating instances that seem to take up such a great portion of your day aren’t even noticed by many others, or they may be aware of them if you remind them, but they have no focus on them. So it all slides into the background for them, unnoticed, unimportant, not coloring their world.
When we have a negative area of focus most of us go through a phase of trying to “will” our way out of having that negative focus. After all, it’s uncomfortable, and we often receive feedback from others that it’s not doing us, or them, any good. Stop being a Type A, it’s bad for your heart, or the like. So we resist the thoughts and feelings associated with the things that our RAS keeps bringing to our attention. But the very act of resistance fuels the fire, adding even more meaning and emotional energy to those things, so our RAS promotes them to an even more elevated position of importance, and instead of seeing less of our irritant, we see even more. Finally it becomes too much of an effort to keep trying to resist and with the elevated importance and heightened emotion we’ve created, we become even more enthralled by the feedback loop and more and more engage in behaviors that generate even more of the same (outcomes) in our life. This is the anatomy of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, what’s the way out?
The good news is, you can intentionally program your RAS to create the positive and beneficial self-fulfilling prophecies and outcomes you want to have. And, rather than resist negative thoughts and feelings, reframing the occurrences as something positive–learning experiences, opportunities to grow, to observe your own behaviors, thoughts and feelings rather than resist, criticize or indulge in them. These same brain mechanisms and Rules of how the mind works will work FOR you just as readily as they will work against you. Think of them as programming in a computer, or a robot. There is no judgement (that happens in consciousness; all of this functionality happens in the non-conscious part of your mind/brain); what you program in will generate the result of focus, attention, elevated importance and increased prominence in your awareness.
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