One of my favorite classes in college was called “Interpersonal Relationships”. It was taught by a brilliant, albeit slightly odd, professor with frizzy hair and a laugh that sounded like a happy donkey braying. For two hours he’d lay out nuggets of wisdom before us: exploring relationships, behavior, interactions with others, and more. I soaked it up like a sponge. I wish I still had the notebook from that class. (Maybe I do – I just don’t know where it is.) We had a short dinner break, then would come back for the last two hours to practice what we’d been learning by role playing in front of a video camera, then watching our “performance” with Dr. Farmen critiquing and giving feedback. I have used so much of what I learned in that class all throughout my life. I’m thankful to Dr. Farmen for pushing us, challenging us, and really teaching us more about people and why they behave the way they do.
One of the jewels he brought out in lecture one night was the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. This is when something you think about someone affects the way you behave toward that person, which actually makes them more like the label you’ve given them. For example, if a teacher labels a child a “trouble maker” then his/her behavior will (even subconsciously) communicate that label and cause the child to be even more a trouble maker. I’ve seen that happen in the schools where I used to work, even with my own daughter. One teacher she had saw her “spunk” and overly active little self as a real negative and because of that her treatment of my daughter conveyed that message: the tone of her voice, the decisions she made, her choice of words, the privileges or lack thereof she gave my daughter. It all communicated to her, “you’re trouble” and my daughter took on that role in her class. I’m not blaming the teacher, it just didn’t help the situation for her to have that label in mind for my girl, or for any student. This same daughter has had a few other teachers who, although she is spunky and rather outspoken, saw her energy as a positive and encouraged her with their treatment of her. They were fair, they offered her opportunities to help in class, they expected her best…it brought about completely different results in my daughter! They “labeled” her or saw her as someone with potential. She blossomed and worked hard. She fulfilled each teacher’s self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve thought about this a lot as a parent – it definitely happens in families, too.
Yesterday as I took a walk and thought for a while, I realized that this self-fulfilling prophecy can happen within me. The things I tell myself about myself are important. The labels I choose to give myself matter and affect my behavior. If I dwell on one characteristic or flaw and say, “that’s who I am” it will determine the outcome of my life and identity. When I was recovering from breast cancer surgery, I got a card from a special friend who herself was a cancer survivor. Her words are still with me, “Mimi, this cancer does not DEFINE you. It will be a part of you and your journey but it is not who you are.” So true and so freeing! Yes I’m a cancer survivor, but there’s much more to me than that. Yes, I’m a perfectionist at times, I’m emotional, I’m sensitive, I’m creative, I’m musical, I’m smart, I’m dumb, I’m stubborn, I’m impulsive, I’m selfish…it goes on and on! None of those single labels describes who I really am. I have to ask God to help me only let those labels through that He approves of. I’m thinking that would be “forgiven child”, “beloved”, “disciple”…
“What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are.” I John 3:1