What is a Promise?

I just made a promise not to say anything else about something I have already said enough about, for now anyway. 😉 First and foremost, this is a promise I made to myself. I believe all promises are, first and foremost, promises to oneself to keep one’s word about whatever it was.

Of course, when we break promises to others, we run the risk of damaging our reputations and relationships, so we don’t want to do a whole lot of that. Moreover, breaking our promises can deeply damage ourselves. Here, from a Huffington Post article, is how that works:

According to Self-Completion Theory (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), when we are committed to particular identity goals, like being a good parent, a talented artist, or a successful business person, we engage in a variety of activities in order to prove to ourselves (and to others) that we are in fact good parents, talented artists, or successful business people.

Some of these activities are essential to the identity — an artist isn’t really an artist if she doesn’t at least occasionally create some art. Other activities are purely symbolic — like self-praise (“Look at that brushwork. I am so good!”), or dressing the part by walking around in a paint-spattered smock. When we fail at some task that is relevant to our identity (e.g., a rejection from an art gallery, a bad review from an art critic), we feel a sense of incompleteness — saddened and anxious that we aren’t living up to our mental image of who and what we are supposed to be. 

Saddened, anxious, and more. It may not be conscious but deep-down people know that they are not living true to their word, and that if they are as good as their word, then they are not very good at all. They, therefore, think they are not deserving of much, like my client a long time ago who embezzled funds and then wondered out loud why he didn’t have a good woman in his life. Bingo, as he came to realize that deep-down he didn’t feel deserving of one. So, he suffered.

Fitness tutor, Allison Lambert, put it this way:

Think back to a time when you were stood up by someone. You felt sad, hurt, unimportant, and disappointed in the person who canceled on you. Whether or not you sit in these emotions when you break a promise to yourself is up to you, but you can’t deny their existence. You, often unconsciously, start to view yourself as unreliable, flaky, and believe the narrative that you aren’t important and worthy of this time for you. Eventually, you start to view every goal or commitment you make for your improvement as optional.

Studies on cognitive dissonance show that when people’s actions and beliefs don’t line up, they usually change their beliefs to match their actions. You may be slowly but surely telling yourself you don’t matter and don’t deserve the time you’ve tried to set aside.

Surely you have heard, ‘You are only as good as your word’ and ‘Say what you do and do what you say.’ Shakespeare’s Hamlet advised, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” The Bible tells us “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” And, of course there is Aesop’s Fable about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

From Merriam-Webster: A promise is “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified.” And, the idea that we are not supposed to break them goes back far, even to ancient Mesopotamia (~1754 BCE), with the Code of Hammurabi, consisting of 282 laws about everyday life, including one for what happened (hands cut off) if someone got caught breaking their word.

These people were all onto something that is studied to this day. In fact, modern-day science shows a clear distinction between the neural activity of promise keepers and promise breakers. Their idea here is to use such findings to further our ability to detect people who act well-meaning on the surface but turn out to be malevolent in the end.

But not all promise breakers are bad actors. Sometimes good people have their reasons, so what are some of the reasons even good people might, and even should, break promises to themselves and others sometimes?

Why Do We Break Them?

The definition above, “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified,” doesn’t distinguish whether the one making the promise is even aware they have made it. Here is an example of a promise I should have broken if only I had realized that I made it. From an earlier post on promises:

As only one example, I did not realize until long after big damage was done that I had made a promise to myself to maintain emotional composure no matter what.

So, when I was in the ER with not yet diagnosed flesh-eating disease and they kept sending me home, I should have thrown a fiery fit and refused to budge, but kept my promise to myself to be composed and cooperative instead.

Had I broken this promise to myself, I would not have a mark on me today, could have avoided the 7 weeks in the hospital, 10 trips to the OR, the $397,000 the healthcare system spent on my care…you get the idea.  

So here we have a perfect example of the Self-Completion Theory we talked about above. There I was keeping a promise to myself that was completely out of touch with the situation at hand, a promise I should have broken, just like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, when out of control screamed “Give my daughter her shot.”

Now, what are some other reasons to break promises? Personal development coach, Jan Bowen, lists four, paraphrased here:

  1. You honestly do have good intentions but something came up, like a family member got sick and needed your care.
  2. You’re stating the behavior of the person you wish to be (the Self Completion Theory again), even though the commitment may have been unrealistic in the first place.
  3. You don’t feel like ‘enough’ as you are so you overpromise, which seems very much related to #2 above.
  4. You’re uncomfortable saying ‘no’, which seems key for all of the above.

Let’s just boil this down into two things to know.

Two Things to Know

Two things to know that might help a lot: 1) Know why we are saying yes, and 2) Know how to say no.

1) Know why we are saying yes: If possible, before you make a promise to yourself or another, check first to see how much the promise is meant to enhance your sense of self. That’s okay if it is—as long as the fulfillment of the promise is realistic as well. Then, of course, keep the promise, if you possibly can.

2) Know how to say no: For the times when we cannot make or keep a promise, it is helpful to remember that there are layers to promises. Whether it is a promise to oneself and/or another, the deepest and most important layer can be the promise of caring. Even when, especially when, we are unable to fulfill the actual promise, we can always fulfill the promise of caring by affirming that first.

I believe that buried within every NO there is a YES, and that we should lead with the YES. For deadlines, for example, ‘Yes I will definitely get this done (I care), but I’ve already said yes to these 2 other projects, so what is the latest date by which this must be done?’ Or ‘Yes I know how really important this (I care), but I’ve already said yes to these 2 other projects, who else can step in until I can?’

For disappointing a friend or family member, YES to ‘I love you (I care), and am so sorry I could not XXX because of XXX; tell me how else I can help.’ And, for disappointing ourselves, sure why not, same thing, YES to ‘I love you (I care), and am so sorry I could not XXX because or XXX; tell me how else I can help.’

Practice, practice, practice…see what happens and let us know. For help with this or something else, Contact me at [email protected]



Photo by FreePik

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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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