How Expectations Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Written by on July 24, 2014 in Accountability, Sense of Purpose



Have you ever noticed that few people are ambivalent about the concept of expectations? We either love um or hate um, but rarely ride the fence on their value.

To make sure we’re on the same page, let’s agree up front that there is a big difference between expecting others to behave the way you expect (or want) them to, and the expectations you hold for your own behavior, abilities, and circumstances.

Today, we’re talking about you.

What I’d like to challenge you to consider is that not only does self-expectancy (Self-belief and expectations for your ability to succeed.) hold great power to affect your efforts to attain your dreams and goals, these same expectations, for better or worse, have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Nature of Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecy is a term coined by the American sociologist Robert Merton to describe when individual acts on the basis of an expectation they may actually influence whether an incident will take place (or not) by creating the very conditions they believe exist.

So, a self-fulfilling prophecy can just as easily work against us as for us.

For example, imagine that you’ve convinced yourself that your romantic partner is considering leaving you. The more you fear this, the harder you try to make things “right” and the tighter you cling. The tighter you hang on and attempt to control the relationship the more likely they are to begin to feel uncomfortable and smothered.

Another scenario might be that you have a knee-jerk reaction and leave them first to avoid the pain of being the one abandoned.

Either way, you’ve created the very situation you feared most.

How We Attempt to Control Expectations

Many people intentionally set their expectations as low as possible (or avoid them all together) to avoid being disappointed.

The idea is that if you experience a good outcome you’ll be pleasantly surprised, but even if things go south and something bad happens you’ve managed to protect yourself against the pain and embarrassment of failure.

This may be prudent when it comes to expectations for other people, but remember now we’re talking about you.

By playing it safe to avoid discomfort and potential failure, aren’t you robbing yourself of the motivation to reach for the things that really matter to you in life?

Furthermore, studies have shown that when you behave as though you believe in and have high expectations for yourself, others tend to believe that as well, even if you really don’t have what it takes – yet.

Then there is the other end of the extreme.

Those who habitually override common sense by choosing huge goals based on little more than wishful thinking. In their minds, if they want something badly enough, and wish hard enough for it, they will attain it.

They like to gamble on BIG payoffs but they don’t assess realistically whether they have the talent, resources, and savvy to realize their dreams, or whether the conditions are favorable.

To make matters worse, they are usually so sure of their prospects that they fail to set up contingency plans or prepare themselves emotionally for detours or defeat.

As a result, they don’t merely have setbacks – they often fall back all the way to square one, and sometimes even further. This is often where people end up disillusioned, swearing off expectations altogether rather than doing the work to find out how to create a better outcome.

Realistic expectations are not about dreaming smaller, they’re about planning better. ~Marquita Herald

What Expectations Do You Hold For Yourself?

Henry Ford summed up how powerful self-belief is when he said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Think of all the stories you’ve ever read about people who have achieved great success, they expected to win – but they also expected there would be challenges and failures along the way.

Realistic optimism helped to keep them grounded while positive self-expectancy kept them motivated and moving upward to create their own self-fulfilling prophecy for better jobs, more money, good health, better family relationships, financial security, warm friendships, and success — no matter what obstacles life threw at them.

Consider Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind since infancy and yet graduated magna cum laude and devoted her entire life to the service of others.

Here’s what she had to say about expectations for herself:

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as they were great and noble. ~Helen Keller

She never lowered expectations for herself but rather chose to be realistically optimistic about how she went about fulfilling them.

What do you expect for yourself? What self-fulfilling prophecy will you create?

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.


Thank you for sharing!

Tags: , , ,


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Pinterest Connect on Google Plus Connect on LinkedIn Connect on YouTube

18 Reader Comments

Trackback URL Comments RSS Feed

  1. Great post Marty! I like to be realistically optimistic in achieving what I want in life. I realize that you may have challenges and obstacles that come your way but if you stay positive and realize these challenges are learning experiences along your path of discovery you can achieve many of your goals in life.
    Shelley Alexander recently posted…Raw Corn ChowderMy Profile

  2. martyherald says:

    Hehe, love the wisdom Kimba. It has been so many years since I’ve seen the Big Chill this reminds me that maybe I should revisit the film. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation.

  3. martyherald says:

    You are so right Nathaniel about the balancing act required to keep expectations in check. Still, speaking only for myself, I find that I achieve more by having expectations that I will achieve a little more than what is ‘realistic.’

  4. martyherald says:

    Oh well there’s nothing I love more than hearing that something I’ve shared nudges someone to really think about the topic! Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation Mark. 🙂

  5. martyherald says:

    Glad you like the article and that quote – you know there’s a book on optimism by Helen Keller that’s free on Amazon. In fact it appears to be a perma free – she was a wonderful writer and some of her quotations are absolutely brilliant.

  6. martyherald says:

    Welcome Sue, and thanks for sharing – I hadn’t heard that saying before but I’ve made a note of it – never know. 🙂

  7. martyherald says:

    Welcome Julie, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and appreciate your taking time to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

  8. martyherald says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the conversation Linda – always appreciated. 🙂

  9. Kimba

    For me, managing my personal expectations falls in line with also managing my rationalizations about my expectations. I often fall back on this wisdom from “The Big Chill”:

    Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

    Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

    Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?
    Kimba recently posted…Steals, Deals, and SplurgesMy Profile

  10. I loved this post. I try to keep some sort of balance between lofty goals and ensuring I do not set my expectations too low. I do know some people in both of those categories though. When I fail in regards to my expectations and goals I do my best to try and brush myself off quickly and move on. We never will find our true paths in life without failure I don’t believe. Thanks for sharing.
    Nathaniel Kidd recently posted…Buying a Car vs Leasing a CarMy Profile

  11. Mark

    An awful lot to chew on here Marquita!

    I really like what you shared, when you point out how some habitually override commonsense and routinely set totally unrealistic goals!

    And they all too often don’t realistically access whether they have the time, knowledge, current skill level or temperament, to accomplish their extremely lofty goals!

    I’ve definitely witnessed that phenomenon up close a few times. You’ve shared an awful lot of truly keen insights! Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this post.
    Mark recently posted…How And Why Things Are Not Always What They Seem During A So Called Economic Recession!My Profile

  12. Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    I love that quote by Helen Keller. What a great way to look at life. To make every little action as important as any other. This tends to lead to bigger great things also. I agree that your expectations are so key for success in life. I’ve tried to hold onto a relationship long past its expiration date and it ended up just driving her away. So I understand that if you expect her to leave then you will act as if she/he has already left by becoming excessively clingy and will make her/him leave.
    Sebastian Aiden Daniels recently posted…10 Things You Need To Know About TherapyMy Profile

  13. Chery Schmidt

    Hello Marty! I have always been one to set high expectations for myself, Oh Yes Of course I have been let down more times then I care to think about LOL But this just makes me push myself even harder.

    I just love visitng your blog, I always leave with a Big Ole Smile On My Face.. Thanks My Friend!! Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Can You Make Money Online Overnight?My Profile

  14. Rachel Lavern

    Hi Marquita,

    It is an unfortunate thing that in letting
    our fears rule us, they often become a
    self-fulfilling prophecy. Spinning off your example above, I have met many women acting out of fear of being alone,
    and this came across as insecurity. They felt
    vulnerable and this may have come across as
    Rachel Lavern recently posted…16 Habits of Highly Unproductive PeopleMy Profile

  15. Sue Kearney says:

    Great post, thank you. Reading your words, and these great quotes, made me think of something a friend once said in an AA meeting: A bottom is when things get worse faster than you can lower your standards.

    Yes, when it’s about my own behavior, I do best when I keep raising that bar as high as I can.

    Sue Kearney recently posted…Weaving together the strands of my heart’s workMy Profile

  16. Julie Gorges

    Enjoyed your blog. It’s all about finding balance, isn’t it? Keep your expectations realistic (like the quote, “expectation is the root of all heartache” which can be true if, like you said, it is based on wishful thinking) but at the same time, do not limit yourself by lowering expectations on what you can achieve with hard work, persistence, and motivation.
    Julie Gorges recently posted…What America’s Unhappiest Cities Reveal about Life SatisfactionMy Profile

  17. Dave

    I have never been one to lower my expectations. If anything, I tend to aim for over-achievement. It is a delicate balance for me, aiming for lofty but attainable goals while still giving myself a reasonable chance at producing those self-fulfilling prophecies.

    I love the quote by Henry Ford, it is so simple, yet so powerful. Sometimes, simple is definitely the way to go. Thanks for sharing another great article 🙂
    Dave recently posted…Perfect gameMy Profile

  18. Great post Marquita! All too often we start out with grandiose plans and expectations. Instead of staying with them, we lower our expectations as folks deride us for our “grandiose plans and expectations”. As I’ve learned, if we’re on the wrong path, at some point PAPA will point that out so we can move to a path that is truly ours.


%d bloggers like this: