The Promises You Make, the Promises You Break

It feels horrible – to all but the most stone-cold of villains among us – to make a promise to another person and to break that promise. And I’m not just talking about situations where the “p-word” is explicitly used – I’m talking about any instance where you say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t do it.

That feeling of letting somebody you care about down has a visceral effect on us – it can make you physically sick. A lot of us, in order to avoid such a horrid feeling, take preventative measures – we try to only make promises to other people that we think we can keep. A good idea.

We treat the act of promise-keeping between each others as sacred – and this is a good thing – but for some reason, this doesn’t seem to extend to the promises we make to ourselves. Why not?


I don’t think we realise quite how often we make – let alone break – promises to ourselves.

“I’ll get up at 8 tomorrow,” “I’ll finish those leftovers instead of getting a pizza on my way home,” “I’ll start my essay after one more episode…” All day long, we are telling ourselves – our pants on fire much of the time – that we are going to do certain things.

The problem is not that the things you say you’re going to do don’t get done – most of it is utterly trivial, from a cosmic perspective.

No, the problem is that every time you break the promise you made, you kill your ability to trust yourself in the future.


When you break a promise to a friend, the intangible – but very real – bond of trust between you is broken. It takes time – and effort – to build that back up. But if it’s someone you care about, you put in that time and effort.

It’s no different when you break promises to yourself. But if you don’t see when you’re making promises to yourself, you certainly won’t see when you’re breaking them. Entering a vicious cycle, where your self-trust diminishes with each passing day, is all too easy.

My advice is two-fold.

First, make better promises – make promises you know you can keep. The trap is that most of us carry this attitude that when it comes to ourselves, it’s better to expect a ridiculous amount from ourselves, and then be happy with whatever percentage of that we actually accomplish. Except that we’re not happy with it. Ever.

In this game, you are rewarded for the promises you keep, and punished for the promises you break – no matter the size or scope of the promise. So make it easy for yourself.

Second, keep the promises you make. You’ve made it easier on yourself by making your promises realistic and achievable. Now you just have to commit to keeping them.

And what you will see when you do this is that instead of a vicious cycle, you’ll enter a virtuous cycle – with each passing day, you will trust yourself more and more. The result? You will feel able to make, and keep, bigger promises. Life will expand.

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