Things don’t always turn out the way you expect. And when they don’t, I’ll be the first to tell you to look reality in the eye and face the facts. I’ll tell you to accept an uncomfortable truth over a reassuring lie, to act on evidence rather than opinions.
But there are many times when the lines between a truth and a lie become blurry, when knowing and assuming are almost the same. And it’s in these gray areas that your beliefs matter the most.
In 1948, an American sociologist named Robert K. Merton wrote an article called “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy”. In it, he explained how situations change if we think they’ll change. For example, once a rumour started that a particular bank was going bankrupt — which it wasn’t — a few people went there to withdraw their money. As they did, the rumour spread faster, and more and more depositors came to withdraw their savings. Soon the bank could no longer pay its interests or offer any loans and had to close. The bank was doing fine until the rumour began. The prophecy came true only because of the prophecy itself.
You can probably think to a situation where you witnessed this happening, such as when the news frame an event from a particular angle or claim that people are reacting to the event in a certain way. Many viewers who were undecided or ignorant about the situation will then agree and interpret it from the same angle. W. I. Thomas, another American sociologist, expressed the idea in a sentence: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.
Self-fulfilling prophecies influence relations, too. Your beliefs about other people determine your behaviour towards them and consequently also what interaction you end up having with them. Imagine you’re at a bar and a tall, muscular man you’ve just met greets you by putting his arm around your neck and squeezes you a little too hard. You feel he’s trying to demonstrate his dominance. He’s trying to threaten you, to mock you, to try and steal your girl. An asshole. He’s got it coming: you wrestle him off, you get in a fight and he kicks your ass. Conversely, you might conclude that this man is simply not great at expressing his feelings through words, and his rough squeeze is actually an awkward demonstration of affection or an attempt to bond with you. So you hug him back and he buys you a beer.
In either case, your assumptions about his personality dictate how you respond, and your response creates a situation that confirms you assumptions. That’s the real irony: You will feel totally convinced that you beliefs were correct in the first place, and thereby your actions are justified. “You see? I told you he was an idiot looking for a fight / I told you he was just a teddy bear who wanted a hug.”
Whatever attributes you assume other people possess, you will try to confirm. Anytime they do or say something that’s open to interpretation, you will interpret it to be in line with your beliefs. Remember, your view of someone you don’t know is almost entirely a product of stereotyping rather than knowledge about that particular individual. Tattoos on his neck? He’s got to be a drug addict who kills bunnies for fun.
If you’ve ever wondered why some people seem to have incredible relationships while others get into arguments every day, the explanation is self-fulfilling prophecies in their broadest sense. They view strangers as potential friends or potential enemies.
Prophecies can affect any aspect of social life. Racism, stereotypes, pop culture, politics, you name it. If we believe that something will happen or that people will act in a particular way, we increase the likelihood of it becoming true.
But self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t limited to social life. They work on yourself, too. Again, let’s take an example.
Say you’re feeling confident in general, and one day you’re speaking with a group. A proposal you made is met with mockery or rejection. Since you exude confidence and authority, it’s no wonder they react that way: they feel threatened by you. Or if they are silent and listen to your idea, it must be because they are following your lead and let you take up the space as the natural alpha you are. Of course they don’t want to interrupt you. With or without their consent, you know that you are worth listening to. You proceed to argue for your idea, and the group eventually appoints you as the leader of the project.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re insecure and shy. You say something and the group responds negatively. You curl up inside and hardly speak for the rest of the encounter, thinking “Of course, they saw right through me: I don’t really know much about this subject, my opinion is worthless.” Or if they are quiet and let you talk, it must be because they don’t really care enough about you to respond or take your opinion seriously. You retract your idea and say, “It probably won’t work.” The group loses a bit of respect for you and no longer assign any important tasks to you.
I’m not saying the road to confidence is to ignore feedback or force your ideas on others. I’m saying that your beliefs are like your eyes. They can focus on certain elements, but all other elements will be blurred. They let you see the world, but only from one angle at a time.
Or you could say they are like placebos and nocebos. You expect reality to be a certain way, and then your expectancy makes you focus on any indication that reality is as you expected. First, the belief appears as true in your mind because you fail to see what you don’t believe. Then, the belief comes true in the outer world because your behaviour manufactures precisely the circumstances you believed you’d find.
In short: You form a belief, your belief dictates how you interpret events, and you use your interpretations as proof that your belief was true in the first place.
For all three levels of self-fulfilling prophecies — societal, interpersonal and personal — the same conclusion can be made: Your beliefs matter. They completely determine your own reality, and they have consequences for other people too. Your beliefs are the reason why you hate yourself, hate the world, feel depressed, anxious or alienated, or why you feel self-loving, self-confident, grateful, connected and optimistic. They make you soar or crash, blossom or wither, prosper or perish.
So there’s much to be gained from knowing your beliefs. But can you become aware of something you’ve always taken for granted? And where do your beliefs come from in the first place?
Identifying Your Beliefs
We have yet to witness a child who, when hos mom called him stupid, responded, “Dearest mother, I am perfectly intelligent for my age and show no signs of cognitive impairment. I am therefore inclined to conclude that your frustration is not about my mental development but rather a reflection of your own unresolved emotional baggage.”
Instead, when we’re young we almost uncritically adopt whatever our parents tell us. And if no adult tells us what to think, we form our own beliefs to make sense of the world. Because of our young age, our conclusions are based on extremely little experience, limited information and, quite frankly, childish logic.
We can harbour these beliefs for many, many years without ever questioning their validity. If nobody ever tells us our beliefs are wrong and we’ve already begun zooming in on indications that they’re correct, why would we revise them? Over the years, we bury them in our subconscious and assume they’re true. We hold on to them dearly, because questioning a belief we’ve held forever is the same as questioning the foundation on which we have built our personality.
That’s why, even when presented with indications that our belief might be false, we tend to ignore it. The familiar demands less of your brain, so even if the belief is harmful and self-destructive, you’re inclined to maintain it in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
But that’s a pattern you can break. With the following five practices, you can gain deeper self-knowledge and start correcting how you see the world and your place in it.
1. Spend time with yourself
The more our technology has advanced, the worse we’ve become at spending time alone with our thoughts. Think about it. When you get up in the morning, you turn on the radio. When you’re on the train or taking a crap, you look at your phone. When you walk down the street, you listen to music. When you get home, you turn on the TV or call a friend. Anything to not be alone with your thoughts.
If an uncomfortable, painful, or unusual thought pops into your head when you have a distraction nearby, you’ll barely notice the thought was there, or you will ignore it and continue paying attention to your phone. Sometimes, you simply have to remove the distractions so you can have a conversation with yourself. Create an opportunity to become acquainted with your assumptions, thought processes and near-subconscious interpretations of the world.
When you do decide to engage your mind, read books. Anything that goes in depth with the personal, the social, the psychological, the philosophical or the odd bits of life. The more you read, the more you are exposed to other people’s views, and through their perspective and experiences you may come to a realization about yourself or discover a solution to your challenges that would have otherwise taken you three lifetimes to find. No matter if you watch documentaries or youtube videos, read magazines or amazing blog articles like this one, you can always find a book that explores the same topic much more deeply and thoroughly; a book that broadens your horizon, kindles your curiosity or answers your questions.
3. Listen to your mental voice
In my previous article, I explained how you can use meditation to distance yourself from and become aware of your thoughts. It’s an indispensable tool to see what’s going on in your head. If you don’t learn to identify your habitual interpretations, assumptions and judgements, there’s no way you can change them.
Meditation isn’t just for observing your thoughts, but also tensions in your body. Personally, I often find myself holding my breath or tensing my stomach in certain situations. Maybe you lift your shoulders or clench your jaw. These are signs that something is triggering you, which leads us to the next practice.
4. Look for emotional triggers
A trigger is an external thing that causes an internal reaction in you — events, situations, people, images or anything else that change your thoughts or feelings for the worse. Notice how you react to the world around you.
For instance, do you become jealous or disgusted when you see someone driving an expensive car? If you see a blazingly beautiful person, do you try to find something negative about them? Do you feel constricted and aversion when your mom calls you on the phone?
There are positive triggers too, but not all of them occur for positive reasons. It’s worth investigating that relief you feel when your Instagram photo gets lots of likes. Why might that be? That takes us to the final practice.
5. Ask why
Ask yourself why you do the things you do, say what you say, and think what you think. Be especially diligent inquiring into the emotional triggers you’ve identified. Trace your reactions backwards: where do they come from?
Say you find yourself anxious when meeting new people. Why is that scary? Maybe you’re afraid they won’t like you. Why does that make you afraid? Because if they don’t like you, you’ll feel really sad and insecure. Why would their disapproval make you feel insecure? Possibly since you measure your worth by what others think of you. Why do you assess your value based on the opinion of others? Maybe, deep down, you don’t believe you are valuable.1
Down The Rabbit Hole
When you listen closely to your own thoughts, observe your reactions and explore your beliefs, you are occasionally confronted with a side of yourself you didn’t know you had — possibly a sad or a nasty side. It’s uncomfortable and takes courage. You’ll realize that you aren’t the person you thought you were. That you don’t really practice the values you preach. That you’ve been chasing the wrong dream. That you really aren’t that unique (which isn’t a bad thing once you come to terms with it). But as you dig into your core beliefs, that’s when you can finally begin to change them.
You’ve previously formed beliefs by accepting them from others or unknowingly creating them as a child. In other words, your beliefs weren’t formed by conscious effort or planning from your part. You’ve just allowed them to live in your head because you never knew they were there or what they did to you. You’ve been wandering without a light in a dark forest of other people’s stupid ideas, poor values or ignorant interpretations.
It’s both easy and tempting to keep going that way. To keep thinking what you’ve always thought, to agree with the masses, to not question authority, to indulge in a distraction that keeps you from the dirty work of getting to know yourself. But as we saw with self-fulfilling prophecies, just by believing something you are contributing to the creation or maintenance of that thing. You shape the world around you and inside you. As Carl Jung famously said: “Until you make your subconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate.” Turn on the light and start walking your own path.