Feeling a little bit negative today? Worried you’re not going to do a good job on your project? Concerned you will make your teenager mad when you get home? Focusing on negative worries like this actually makes them more likely to happen.
Trying to see things with a positive outlook is essential to a better life. It is not always easy though. Sometimes the things that are worrying us or dragging us down seem to overtake our thoughts. In my office, I often hear about parents feeling completely overwhelmed with a negative choice their teen has made. It seems to pervade every aspect of their lives.
There is an interesting phenomenon shown to be true through research in social psychology. It is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. This means if you to say something is going to happen in a certain way, you will inadvertently behave in a manner that increases the likelihood of this being true. For example, Justin says, “I am going to play terribly in my soccer game. I can just feel it.” To get comfort from the negative feeling he might eat comforting foods such as candy, or warm up poorly for his game because he has less focus on playing well and more focus on how big the other team looks. Then he actually will play worse than normal. This increases his anxiety next time he plays.
Self-fulfilling prophecies work in the opposite direction too. If you think positively, you are more likely to behave in a way that creates a positive outcome, thereby lowering anxiety. Positive thinking in one area also spreads to other parts of your life. Melissa decides to think positively about her upcoming math test. As a result she studies with more confidence. She is also nicer to her parents because she is not distracted by worry. Since she is nicer to her parents, they take a more encouraging tone about her test instead of their usual warnings that she study harder. Melissa’s positive thinking has an impact on her behavior, which causes others to behave better, which reduces her stress, which helps her perform better on her math test.
Do you remember that guy in high school who always said he was going to be the next big thing? You’d look at him and think, ‘Uh huh, sure…’ Then he pulled it off! He lived out a self-fulfilling prophecy. He increased his overall motivation by predicting something about his future. Your prediction about yourself has to be made with conviction to have an impact on how you behave. We often predict the negative with conviction; why not start predicting the positive with conviction?
It is not natural to think positively. It’s important to remember things will very rarely be perfect all at the same time, so stop waiting for that day when all your ducks are in a row. Start living positively (and with less anxiety) today. It’s a choice. If you make positive predictions for yourself, you will get there.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT