The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We've all done it, right?. You tell a friend, your child, your partner that, yeah, sure, you'll do XYZ for them. But then you don't actually do it.
Making a promise to someone is one of the most powerful forms of communication in existence. Yet, how many times do you make vows that you can’t possibly keep? As a society, we put our faith in promises to help us negotiate peace between nations, solve disasters, commit to love, and create families. And yet, for most of us, when it comes to the promises (big and small) that we make each day, we usually break more than we keep.
Why is that?
We already know breaking promises has a disastrous effect. It not only disappoints the person we’ve promised, but it also erodes bits of our self-esteem, too. Brain research shows that breaking promises actually registers in our brain activity, showing up as emotional conflict for the promise breaker as a result of suppressing their honesty.
Of course, things happen. We can't always keep our word exactly as promised. Businesses frequently say they'll complete a service in a particular way and within a definite time frame, but then change those plans. Or a friend or family member promises to call, visit, or write soon. But then don't in the way they say they would (if at all). This, in itself, isn’t a problem.
Trust erodes when promises aren’t kept — and no communication follows to explain or clarify. There is an implicit responsibility to follow up with the person we broke our word to, no matter how casually, if we want to maintain positive social relationships with that person (and feel good about ourselves, too).
When a promise is broken, details no longer matter as much. As the other person begins to feel unimportant, the relationship between you loses its value, and why no longer matters.
Disappointment sets in. Promises you make no longer hold weight. It's hard to trust or feel excited about anything you say because others don't believe you'll follow through. And so the relationship continues to erode. Broken agreements have a long-lasting impact.
And you struggle in the relationship, too. Your conscious reminds you how badly you feel for not keeping your word, and your self-esteem begins to suffer. You're out of integrity with yourself, as well as with those you love.
So, why — if breaking promises causes so much damage — do you and I continue to do it? Here are the honest reasons (though, they're still not a good excuse):
1. You honestly do have good intentions.
We want to please the people we know and love, plain and simple. We want to fulfill our promise to them, but usually just aren’t able to follow through. If our dog wasn’t sick and needed to go to the vet, we truly would have time to watch our friend’s child at their school play.
2. You're stating the behavior you wish you did regularly for people.
Our "best self" would do this, even though we know our real self this Friday night won’t do a damn thing. We say we can get that business plan done by Friday, even though we know there is little chance we'll get it done before the subsequent Wednesday.
3. You don't feel like "enough" as you are.
We overpromise as a way to curry favor and approval from others. We want them to believe we have certain personal traits, so we make promises around that behavior hoping to boost our esteem in their eyes. But the truth is, when it comes to promises, just deliver what you're actually capable of delivering. That's plenty. Let your insecurities and worry go. Focus on what you truly want to give the person and promise (and deliver) only that.
If you habitually feel that you aren’t enough, consider a separate exploration into that in order to boost your self-esteem.
4. You're uncomfortable saying "no."
It’s difficult to say "no" to the people we care about or who have some sort of influence over us. Rather than risk an immediate negative reaction from them, we tell them something they want to hear in the moment. But, this is a bad idea. It locks you into a scenario that's hard to back down from. Plus, saying "yes" when you mean "no" is a toxic communication pattern. It's time to nip that bad habit in the bud before it controls your life. Learn how to say "no" — nicely, in your own way, but definitely learn how.
Breaking a promise is the quickest way to deteriorate your relationships (including the one with yourself). When you repeatedly break promises to others, you compromise your personal integrity. To restore people's faith in the value of your word, try these tips:
- First, keep promises to yourself. If you tell yourself you're going to do something, follow through. You’ll experience first hand how wonderful it feels being at the receiving end of a kept promise — your own.
- Choose your words carefully when making a promise. Give the ones that you do give, freely and joyfully. If you are deliberate with your choices, you'll be confident of keeping them.
- Change your plans, but don't break your word. If something does come up, talk to the other person and offer an explanation and a plan for following through in a new way. Don’t pull a no-show or ghost them.
Jan L. Bowen is a passionate thought leader who helps clients align their lives so they find more joy and greater connection. Love Jan's writing? Subscribe to her newsletter for exclusive articles, and follow her on her website.