Promises are interesting phenomena. We all make promises — to our children, to our parents, to our significant others, to our friends, even to ourselves — and sometimes (maybe more often for some of us), we break them. We can’t, realistically speaking, keep every single promise we make. The only surefire way to avoid breaking promises is to refrain from making them altogether.
So, why do so many of the promises I make end up broken?
In her Huffington Post article, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. mentions that some people continue to break their promises because “saying you are going to do something feels just as good as actually doing it.”
I consider myself a man of my word. I’d like to think most people know that when I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. This is probably because of the conviction with which I assert things. If I declare with confidence that I’m going to do something and it sounds legitimate, why not believe it’s going to get done?
That being said, I can’t count how many times I’ve told myself I’m going to go for a run today and simply haven’t done it. A lot of times, I even mention to coworkers how I’m going to run later to try to solidify my plans, but I always end up looking like a lazy, Oreo-guzzling piece of shit when they ask me about my “run” the next day.
Now, going for a run is a small-scale example; it doesn’t affect anyone but me if I do or don’t exercise, and it really doesn’t even affect me that much. Come to think of it, most of the promises I break only affect me, small and large-scale.
This is why I want to focus on the promises I make to myself. These are the ones that affect only me by design — the ones that, if broken, disappoint me and only me because others hardly ever know I make them. These are the promises made on a bigger scale, or at least they seem that way. Perhaps I put more weight into them because they are that much more important to me than going for a run.
I’m talking about the promises I make to myself that truly challenge me as a person. I’m talking about the ones that are hard to keep not because they’re impossible but because I know myself too well.
Awhile back, I promised myself I would write more frequently. But, because I’m lazy, uninspired, and afraid of publishing anything less than “perfect” (in my eyes), I have been writing sporadically at best. To shed some light on this point, I started this post about promises over two months ago.
According to Robert Wicklund and Peter Gollwitzer’s Self-Completion Theory (1982), we engage in behaviors that reinforce specific identity goals to which we are committed. So, I want to write more frequently because I consider myself a “writer” and the only way to prove to myself and others that I am a writer is to write.
A few months ago, I made a “25 Before 25” list with some coworkers, detailing twenty-five goals I want to accomplish before I reach the quarter-century mark. I may have completed several of the things on that list already, but I don’t expect to accomplish much more. The worst part is that I knew I wouldn’t do some of these things when I made the list. In fact, I only added certain items to the list to pad my stats, so to speak. I essentially filled a bucket list with things I had already done to make it look like I’d accomplished something in my life. After all, I can’t break a promise I’ve already followed through with.
My best and most recent example of a broken promise is my vow to stay positive. Unlike my “25 Before 25” list, which I only shared with my coworkers, and my personal pledge to write more, I publicized this commitment to positivity to any close friends and family members willing to listen. (So, like three people total.)
It took me a lot longer to break this promise than I thought it would. I’m not sure if it had to do with the scope of the pledge, but for a few good weeks, I was committed to being positive. Or at least I thought I was.
See, what I mistook for positivity turned out to be a neutrality that was uncharacteristic in and of itself, but — when compared to my usual pessimism — seemed groundbreaking. So, rather than displaying true positivity for this span, I was fooling myself with my lack of negativity.
While vowing to stay positive sounds beneficial on the surface, I made the biggest mistake any of us can make when I made that promise. I did it for the wrong reasons.
I can try to explain why I break promises I make to myself and others through psychological terms and thirty-year-old theories, but the real reason is plain and simple. When I make a promise for the wrong reasons, I am extremely unlikely to keep it. And this is probably true for all of us.
I compiled that “25 Before 25” list to give myself something to reach for, and I self-sabotaged my chance for growth. I tried to write more often because I believed it was something I needed to do to maintain my identity, and I found myself with nothing to write about. And I decided to try on my positivity hat for a few weeks because I thought I could trick myself into being happy. Perhaps that was my worst mistake.
I viewed happiness as a goal rather than a state of being. This is dangerous because: 1. I classified my well-being as a temporary goal and 2. How can we measure the success of an objective that is completely intangible? What is the metric for happiness?
Earlier in this article, I mention that the only way not to break a promise is not to make it in the first place. But after analyzing all of the recent broken promises I’ve made to myself, I’ve realized that the best way to avoid breaking promises — and maybe the only way — is to make them for the right reasons.