By Ox Drover
My first encounter with a self-fulfilling prophecy (though I didn’t call it that name) was back when I was a band-aid-covered kid learning to ride a bicycle. I kept hitting rocks on the streets on which I rode, and even though I did my best to avoid those rocks and the inevitable spills that hitting them meant, it seemed I could never miss a one. I seemed to hit them all. When I would see a rock ahead I kept my eye on it so I could avoid it, but somehow always seemed to hit the darn thing even though I was trying to be careful to avoid it. I felt like I was doomed to hit every rock on the road.
One day my stepfather mentioned to me that if I would not look at the rock directly I would not hit it. Instead of staring at the rock ahead, I should instead look at where I wanted to go and would avoid the rock. I didn’t think this made much sense because if I didn’t watch the rock, how could I avoid it? So I asked him about this and he said, “You unconsciously steer toward what you are looking at, so by looking at the part of the road that doesn’t have any rocks, you will unconsciously steer a clear path and avoid the rocks.”
Well, being the hardheaded kid that I was, I had to test that out by trying to avoid the rock while looking directly at it, and it was almost impossible to do. Then I tried looking away from the rock, sort of keeping it in my peripheral vision, but not looking directly at it. Sure enough, I easily avoided the rocks.
Though I’ve always been an active, physically pretty fearless outdoors person, I don’t like getting hurt, and though I don’t have the natural grace and rhythm that many successful athletes have (actually, I’m kind of clumsy at some things, like walking and chewing gum at the same time) I try to compensate by using all the intellect I have. I tried to find out what was actually causing my “failures,” and figure out what to do to correct them, so I wouldn’t end up letting my fear of “hitting the rocks” come true with a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
I have learned that many times we sabotage our own success by allowing our fears to make us predict failure in an enterprise in which we have never failed before. Using the bicycle and the rock analogy again, I knew what I was doing wasn’t working, and I kept on doing it, and was about to the point that I had already decided, “There is no way I can keep from hitting the rocks except by looking at them harder and more steadily.” I didn’t realize that my attempt to avoid the rocks was actually causing me to hit the rocks, so I kept on doing it with increasing vigor, to my continued failure.
My stepfather, having had more experience in bike riding, knew what I was doing and showed me how to overcome my fear of hitting the rock, by looking beyond it. By looking at where I wanted to go instead.
Unfortunately, it took me a longer time to realize that I had fallen prey to the self-fulfilling prophecy in other ways, in relationships.
At the community rural health care clinic where I worked for almost a decade, the physician I worked with would had a phrase that I laughed at. It was, “she enjoys poor health.” But after several years of practice in these clinics I realized that he was right; there were people who “enjoyed” their poor health or their plights in life. I saw these people on a regular basis for “physical” complaints of one kind or another, and before long realized that this self-fulfilling prophecy of their “poor health” was generally because they would do nothing to improve it, including following a prescribed diet, exercise or medication, and God Forbid! if you should “accuse” them of not doing everything they could to lose weight or exercise or lower their blood pressure or control their blood glucose. It was never their fault.
I have seen people in relationships who repeatedly had poor outcomes as well, and the primary person who has had generally poor relationship outcomes I can observe by standing in front of my mirror. Yes, about every relative I have had has abused me, and I’ve had poor relationships with them all, and they are the ones that did the bad things, so how can it be my fault at all?
I’m not responsible for their behavior, they are, but I am responsible for my choices, and I didn’t expect to have good relationships with these people. I knew for a fact that in the future I would hit the rocks of the relationship and get thrown for a loop. I knew these people were not healthy for me, yet it never dawned on me to look away from them. To avoid them, to avoid coming near them where they could wreck my life.
What caused me to repeatedly pursue a path that led to pain and disappointment in my family relationships? Was there some hidden psychological reward? Maybe while “enjoying” my poor relationship status with some of my family members and friends, it did allow me to view myself and my own choices as “morally superior” to those others. The same way I viewed the women from the domestic violence shelter who came to my clinic after having returned to their abusers multiple times. I felt superior because I hadn’t let a man break my arm twice and then gone back to him. But I had let my son and other relatives and friends repeatedly abuse me, so what’s the difference?
My days of the feelings of “moral superiority” are long gone, and I realize that it is up to me to avoid the rocks on the path of life, to see what I am doing wrong when I do hit one, and realize that I am responsible for my choices and the resulting consequences.