When Knowledge Isn’t Power

When Knowledge Isn’t Power

The Curse of Predictive Self-Awareness

My husband has a funny response when I start any sentence with something like, “I knew you would _____________…” or, “You always ____________….” 

In a mock-confrontational tone of voice, he says, “Oh, you think you know me?” 

And it’s true. We’ve been married for almost eight years, and in that time, I’ve become fairly accustomed to his patterns. But the reality is that I overestimate how well I can predict his behavior – he still constantly surprises me, and it’s humbling to realize that you only think you know someone inside and out. 

I see this phenomenon come into play in my clients’ relationships with themselves. They know their own weaknesses like the back of their hand, to the point that they can predict how a situation is going to go even before it happens. 

For example, have you ever said any of these phrases about/to yourself?

  • “Once I get started, I just can’t stop!”
  • “This is what I always do.” 
  • “This is so me. Once I __________, I always ___________.” 
  • “I’m such an all-or-nothing person. Once I’m ‘off,’ I’m really ‘off.'”

I am writing this post today to issue a gentle challenge to you:

Is it possible that you could surprise yourself? 

Studies like this one, run by Florida State University, open up the intriguing idea that people who perceive themselves as overweight often do things that subtly sabotage their own efforts to be thin. 

This is colloquially known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” – a belief that causes you to unconsciously create the results that you expect will happen anyway. 

I have seen so many clients struggle with these self-fulfilling prophecies, which cling to your feet like you’re running in molasses. These unhelpful beliefs are incredibly disempowering.

But it goes beyond thinness. People can be healthy at a variety of weights and body compositions. For me, what it ultimately boils down to is two important factors: 

  • Your typical daily behaviors
  • How you feel / what you think about your habits 

When you have solidified a self-concept of yourself as:

  • Extreme
  • Out of control
  • Neurotic
  • Weakly-willpowered

… It’s easy to “fall into” behaviors that reflect these beliefs about yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you are “out of control” in reality – you create the reality to fit your self-concept. 

We all do it.

For example, as a self-employed person, the responsibility falls to me as an individual to manage my money and my books to keep the government happy. The problem is when I throw my hands in the air and say things like, “I’m just not good with money! I’m too right-brained!” When I play this role, I miss out on the fact that it is not that hard to log into Quickbooks and reconcile some numbers, and that it’s not exactly rocket science to e-mail my accountant. 

Similarly, if you have a strong belief that you have “no willpower,” you may find that situations that test your resolve are very difficult indeed.

My challenge to you is in three parts: 

  1. First, next time you hear a “script” in your head saying some form of “This is what you always do,” try to hit pause. Question yourself. “Is this behavior really ‘me’? Must I do this thing? Could I do something different?” Challenge that voice in your head that tells you that always do something, or that you are a certain way. 
  2. Secondly, flip the script and make self-fulfilling prophecies work for you. What would a person with strong willpower do? What would a person who is good at moderation (or abstinence) do? Keep in mind that attributes are not fixed – you could be this person.
  3. Finally, run life experiments. Intentionally test yourself in small ways by disrupting your typical patterns. If you always eat ice cream when your husband eats ice cream, don’t. If you always eat the whole bag of chips once you open it, don’t. If you always buy a scone when you walk into a particular coffee shop, don’t. Just sit there and see what it feels like to be in control of your behavior. 

While “knowing yourself” is a helpful tool and I don’t recommend stocking your day with constant willpower challenges, it can be helpful to exercise your sense of self-control in easy-to-control situations.

In the process, you may realize things that my clients have realized, like:

  • Drinking at parties is not compulsory
  • Overeating at restaurants is not inevitable
  • Giving up on fitness over the holidays is not required

… And other discoveries that certain “rules” in life can be broken. 

Challenge yourself! You may just surprise yourself with untapped reserves of willpower, self-control, and abilities that were just waiting to be uncovered.

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